Whose Side Are You On?

By Keith Kloor | February 26, 2013 6:27 am

My eight year-old son is not a disinterested sports fan. He knows as much about European soccer as I do (which is zilch), but when we’re in a barbershop for 15 minutes and Manchester is playing Barcelona, he asks me who we should root for. Ditto for the NBA All-Star game, which I let him stay up to watch (just the first half) this year. “Who do we want to win?” he asked me. Part of this stems from natural childhood competitiveness, but I’m sure it mostly owes to that tribal part of our evolutionary heritage. We are a species that defines ourselves by our alliances. Are you a Republican or a Democrat, a Yankee fan or a loyal member of the Red Sox Nation?

Why should science and environmental debates be any different than sports? Look at the different tribes of secular skeptics that have formed in recent years, for example. Team Militant Atheist, led by the hard-charging PZ Myers and Richard Dawkins, play in-your-face ball, especially with anyone who suggests that atheism and science can coexist. Are you with them or are you with Team Spiritual Atheism, who are okay with experiences that have a “sacred” or religious quality to them? If you play in that world, you probably feel compelled to choose sides.

The climate change arena is another us/them venue. There might be one side with a varied roster that shares a common goal: to reduce carbon emissions. But differences over how best to do that and how to communicate the challenge are not tolerated by some of the most passionate players. If the climate problem is viewed narrowly–with the good guys on one side and bad guys on the other–where does that leave those who who favor “multiple discourses” and approaches?

With battle lines hardening and villains chosen, leaders of the climate movement are increasingly asking: Whose side are you on? Some, like Robert Kennedy Jr., are painting the good guys/bad guys showdown in comic book terms:

In the next decade there will be an epic battle for survival for humanity against the forces of ignorance and greed. It’s going to be Armageddon, represented by the oil industry on one side, versus the renewable industry on the other. And people are going to have to choose sides – including politically.

But what happens when even one of the good guys–a designated climate superhero–goes off script? In recent interviews, Al Gore has been challenged to explain the sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera, which as Jon Stewart noted, is “backed by fossil fuel money.” When the former Vice President stopped by the Daily Show several weeks ago to promote his new book, Stewart asked:

Can mogul Al Gore who has Current TV and sells it to Qatar, which is an oil-based economy, can mogul Al Gore coexist with activist Al Gore? If you couldn’t find for your business a more sustainable choice to sell to—

Gore cut him off: “I think it is sustainable. What is not sustainable about it?”

“I mean, a non-fossil fuel based buyer,” Stewart finished.

In other words, whose side is Al Gore on?

UPDATE: A quirk in the commenting software is preventing comments. It should be fixed shortly. (This has been fixed/Ed.)

 

  • https://delicious.com/robertford Robert Ford

    After observing his behavior compared to his rhetoric over the past years I can confidently say that Al Gore is on Al Gore’s side.

  • Joshua

    An interesting read w/r/t sensationalizing the good guy/bad guy paradigm.

    http://grist.org/climate-energy/the-virtues-of-being-unreasonable-on-keystone/

    • Keith Kloor

      Yes, as I wrote in my post on the polluted Keystone discourse: “But for some reason, it is Revkin who is singled out by the two capos of politically correct climate discourse…”

      • Tom Scharf

        The whole meme of enforcing message discipline (especially in the media) has always struck me as strange.

        I think the people who write articles effectively saying certain journalists shouldn’t be “allowed” to take certain viewpoints without blow back from their betters ever envision a world where they would be a victim of this authoritarianism. They always see themselves as being on the side of truth, and not so coincidentally they see themselves as being the judge, not the perp in what is allowed. So of course there is no danger of their opinions ever being censored.

        There is fear that Revkin’s opinion / viewpoint will be embraced. That is the root of the paranoia. It shows an inferiority complex on the writer’s part. It also shows a lack of confidence that Joe Public will be able to sort out the truth from the disinformation, and thus Joe should only be able to hear the proper enlightened viewpoints.

        • Buddy199

          I’m for free speech. As long as I approve the message.

      • http://twitter.com/andrewadams99 Andrew Adams

        Keith,
        Revkin is fortunate to have a prominent platform from which to air his views, he can’t complain (and AFAIK he doesn’t) if his views attract criticisms. I don’t have any beef with him generally (I don’t normally read his blog) but I think Roberts’s criticisms in this case are absolutely fair, and in fact could apply to a wider range of issues.
        There also seems to be an implicit assumption on your part that because a particular viewpoint presents itself as being the “reasonable middle” in any highly charged debate then it must be inherently sensible and any criticism from either “extreme” therefore unjust. But that’s not true, it’s just one possible position on an issue and should be just as open to criticism as any other.

    • Tom Scharf

      Especially the part where he links to a post comparing Republicans to herpes. Nice.

  • http://dystopianpresent.wordpress.com/ Chris Oestereich

    If you don’t split them up into good guys and bad guys, how will Wayne LaPierre know who to shoot?

    • Buddy199

      Keep on subject, you don’t need to channel Keith Olbermann.

      • http://dystopianpresent.wordpress.com/ Chris Oestereich

        I was on subject. My point being that things that matter are rarely (if ever) as simple and tidy as we might like them to be.

  • Tom Scharf

    “If you couldn’t find for your business a more sustainable choice to sell to—”

    Wonder what the end of that sentence was. Probably “…why should anyone else?”.

    Al Gore was a turning point in the political polarization of the climate debate. It’s like trying to get a liberal to support a cause GW was heading. It was just a deal with the devil. The cause got higher visibility at the expense of limiting how much could ever be done. You can spin it either way.

    There aren’t any skeptics upset about Al Gore being a high profile leader in the climate cause. The guy is a walking parody. Fortunately for AGW believers there aren’t many people listening to him any more.

  • Ken G

    Keith – good article. One thing that has always bothered me is the lack of honesty in the climate-change tribal war. The real dichotomy, as you observe, is whether one favors responding to climate change by mandating immediate reductions in GHG emissions, or through other means such as adaptation; air-capture; R&D; geo-engineering; etc. It’s not about whether climate change is “real,” or not – very few people argue that it’s not real, and they have little or no credibility anymore. There is still a reasonable dispute about how severe climate change would be (the sensitivity question), but only a few extreme people play the “hoax” card.

    Yet the carbon-cutter tribe won’t admit that there are these fully rational distinctions that might be made over the magnitude of the threat, or the utility of a given response. Instead, they slam anyone who disagrees with them as being either corrupt, anti-science, “denialists” or all of the above. This unwillingness to admit the real crux of the differences between the climate tribes involve completely rational differences of opinions has made it completely impossible to find common ground.

    - Ken Green

    • Buddy199

      I agree. Listening to Gore, et. al you get the feeling you’re trapped in a real estate “sit” from Glengarry Glenn Ross that you can’t escape from. The all or nothing “crush” sell, it has to be done NOW hyperbole. And not just that they want us to separate the soda bottles from the cans, or buckle your seat belt. Their solution is to completely revamp the entire planet’s industrial economy, along with massive government subsidy / tax manipulation of the energy market, more god-awful regulation, etc. All for our own good, of course, because they know better, they always do.

      Global temperatures are rising, the charts seem to indicate that although we don’t have a clear idea how much of that can be individually attributed to carbon, natural climate variability, solar irradiance, ocean currents, cloud physics or other factors that we haven’t discovered yet. Thus, the models are still very primitive. Meaning, they don’t have anywhere near the predicitve capability of say, Newtonian physics or quantum mechanics. We have no idea really how the effect on the planet will play out in 100 years, severe or minor. That is the state of the science today, an educated guess as vague as multi-decade economics forecasting. Their evangelical sales pitch and the state of the science are not convincing enough for the majority of us to agree to having our lives completely turned upside down just yet. For our own good, of course.

    • http://twitter.com/Norbrookc Norbrook

      Um, no, the dispute isn’t really about how severe it would be anymore. Most of the scientific dispute, such as it is, is between “bad” and “horrific.” Even the bad (the beginning of which we’re seeing) is causing serious economic disruption. The difference between a 2″ rise in sea level versus a 2′ rise is only the difference between your feet getting wet and regular storm flooding versus “underwater” for many coastal areas. Either way, you’re going to have either move or spend a hell of a lot of money.

      Now, as to mitigation, while there is a reasonable debate as to mitigation technologies, but you seem to be denigrating R&D as well. We don’t know what “works best,” because the deniers or those who cling to “don’t know how severe” the problem is also don’t want to do it.

      • Ken G

        Norbrook: Thank you for demonstrating my point. First, you mis-represent “the science” you say you support, when you dismiss the growing raft of studies demonstrating low-end climate sensitivity, and showing high-end warming estimates are exceedingly unlikely. (Good summary of those studies here: http://goo.gl/XQ5zE). And, of course, you ring in the holocaust-denier language to try to delegitimize anyone who might disagree with your extreme view of what science tells us about climate change.

      • Ken G

        By the way, you should read this piece by Andrew Revkin: http://goo.gl/Ppqup

  • bobito

    Long story short, it’s unacceptable how many people still behave like they are 8 years old…

  • jh

    So, Keith, how do we break down this tribalism? What’s the solution? How do you get Republicans to see some (not much, but some) value in the science about AGW? How do you get Democrats to see that it’s better for everyone if private business generates the jobs (keystone, O&G) instead of tax dollars (Wind, Solar)? How do you get the RealScientists to accept that models are projecting too high of temps? How do you get Watts’s to accept that some support for developing new energy technologies is wise?

    How do you get greens to stop living in the planned economy fantasy world? How do you get Free Marketers to admit that a totally free market would be a bad thing?

  • http://twitter.com/mem_somerville mem_somerville

    I was thinking about this tonight because of another international science drama I was in (you know, not climate).

    Just because I am pro-something (let’s say it’s ENCODE, or GMOs, or clinical trial data release, or vaccines, or evolution, or whatever) it doesn’t mean I’m opposed to alternative analysis strategies, conventional breeding, proprietary information of some types, more efficacious vaccines, [I got nothin' on creation], etc.

    But what happens if you come out as pro-Red Sox you are automatically binned as anti-other. (In the case of Yankees this is likely, but not all other teams necessarily). Even if you try to say something such as “I don’t hate the Orioles” the conversation doesn’t go anywhere.

    So even if you don’t want to be in opposition, the “other side” puts you there. How do you move forward then?

    • Keith Kloor

      Wish I knew, but it’s a good question.

  • Marta Fernandes

    I’m on the side of making my own choices, regardless of what everyone else thinks, even if it means not siding with anyone.

  • V Antonelli

    You don’t mean disinterested, you mean uninterested. They’re not the same.

  • V Antonelli

    In short, how do I get people to think exactly like me? … There’s always someone trying to shut down other commenters with “keep on subject!”

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Collide-a-Scape is a wide-ranging blog forum that explores issues at the nexus of science, culture and society.

About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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