Denialists stake out new ground in the climate change debate

David Roberts has been raising a subtle but important point about the shifting rhetoric of the climate change debate. I want to dig into this topic, but first a word from an Exxon-funded thinktank:

Right now, the whole debate is polarised. One group says that anyone with any doubts whatsoever are deniers and the other group is saying that anyone who wants to take action is alarmist. We don’t think that approach has a lot of utility for intelligent policy.

If you set aside the quote’s provenance, it sounds fairly reasonable. Extremists exist on either side of just about any issue. Sensible minds need to come together to chart a sound policy course. Roberts and others want us to realize that statements like this are neither sound nor sensible.

Let’s rewind a bit. This latest rhetorical skirmish was kicked off by an article from Andy Revkin in the New York Times. Revkin’s coverage of climate change is rightly held in high regard, so his voice carried a certain weight when he described a new middle stance emerging in the climate change debate.

The new middle stance, held by a cadre of self-described “nonskeptical heretics,” essentially holds that manmade global warming is a real problem deserving of urgent attention. It further holds that sensationalist or alarmist portrayals of the possible consequences of climate change are counterproductive.

The issue highlighted by Roberts and others is that there’s nothing particularly “new” or “middle” — and certainly nothing heretical — about this new middle stance. The scientists at RealClimate examined the claims of the nonskeptical heretics and found them all thoroughly uncontroversial and in keeping with the long-held views of proponents of action on climate change. At most, the nonskeptical heretics are advocating a slight shift in tone.

So what’s the problem? If the so-called middle stance is indistinguishable in practice from the more “extreme” views of those pushing for urgent action, couldn’t this be regarded as a sign of progress? In effect, it seems the center of gravity of the entire debate has shifted in a favorable direction.

Which actually it has. But once you further unpack the new middle stance, you begin to understand that the claim to centrism can be used as a bit of rhetorical jujitsu to provide unwelcome cover to former climate change denialists.

Proponents of the middle stance posit (implicitly or explicitly) that a spectrum of opinion on climate change exists. On one extreme sit the denialists. On the other extreme sit the alarmists. In between, you have the reasonable moderates.

This is a false view of reality. Previously, the denialists were not part of any meaningful, good-faith debate on climate change. The spectrum of opinion consisted of one group of people grappling seriously with complex issues, and another group of people sitting outside and throwing rocks at the first.

The denialists have by now been chased from their perch. As I wrote a few weeks ago, their position has been so thoroughly discredited that they were forced to abandon it or else risk complete isolation.

Having abandoned it, the denialists are now in effect saying, “We gave up our unreasonable position. Now it’s time for the other side to climb down from their ramparts as well and meet us here in the comfy middle.”

Read the quote at the top of the post again. It comes from a thinktank that was recently caught attempting to pay scientists and economists to dispute the new IPCC report’s dire conclusion about global warming. The quote pits one group who says “anyone with any doubts whatsoever are deniers” against another group “saying that anyone who wants to take action is alarmist.”

But the first group doesn’t really exist. Everyone knows there are uncertainties in the science of climate change. The second group, on the other hand, not only exists, but also has lots of cash to spread around. If you’re an academic who wants to sell your soul to Exxon, the going rate is $10,000 (and they’ll also cover your travel expenses!).

You’re going to see a lot more of this in the months to come. If you’re interested in this topic, there’s a lot of fairly juicy back-and-forth from the original participants to the debate. Roberts and Revkin have a detailed written exchange in Grist, and a verbal exchange available as a series of podcasts. Roberts entertainingly details the way that proponents of action on climate change can get burned by aligning themselves with the nonskeptical heretics, and Chris Mooney, one such burnee (and TerraPass owner), responds.

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  1. Anonymous - February 7, 2007

    This is a technique used by all right-wing “anti-reality” causes when they are trying to appear normal.

  2. FD - February 7, 2007

    Or it’s the way all politics, right and left, work. Politics today trys to divide and hold segments of the population hostage for their votes. If you’re trying to get elected it’s sound strategy, if you’re trying to get anything done … well, not so much. A better approach than calling everyone we disagree with right-wing morons is to respect that they are also intellegent people that see the world differently than we do. We won’t change anybodys mind by calling them an idiot, but we might with calm open discussion. And we might learn something in the process. We’re going to get a lot more done if we unite the country to action instead of try to beat them into submission. Let the extremist look goofy on the sidelines while we work together to get things done.

  3. Anonymous - February 7, 2007

    Right-wing, left-wing neither “wing” has cornered the market on truth. The uncertainties exist and those uncertainties are basis for honest debate. To begin calling names and making claims takes the debate from scientific discussion to religious zealotry. We need to examine the evidence, assess the uncertainties and act with prudence. The benefits of CO2 reduction are beyond the greenhouse gas arguments. They speak to energy conservation and a move away from fossil fuels and toward energy independence. These are points that need to be made. If Greenhouse gas emissions were the biggest threat I would expect to see more of a call for modern nuclear power production. Let’s try to keep the science out of the philosophical debates.

  4. Question Consumption - February 7, 2007

    I think we are finally starting to see the light. We are in the midst of a civil war in this country- if you don’t believe me look at the last 2 presidential elections. It doesn’t get anymore evenly divided- except now its not North vs South, its worse. Its a battle of beliefs. There are people that believe change is necessary NOW to insure our future, and there are others who believe the status quo is acceptable. It needs to be shown how bad we have degraded our earth before people will change- that must be done through continuous, respectful discussion. You do not win over hearts and minds by polarizing people. Give people the evidence, show them how they can make changes without suffering, show them the BENEFITS (jobs, economic growth, better quality of life) of making these changes now. Find out what their objections are and work around those objections. Basic sales 101 folks.

  5. Anonymous - February 7, 2007

    Denialism, abnormality, exclusion and ego come in every flavor commentor #1, and are most enjoyed by those who feel on top of current opinion. Commentor #2 gives a nice, intelligent, balanced opinion, but forgets his us/them references. Commentor #3 seems to have his ducks in a row. Politics and science are both tools, but not the same tool. We support politicians for more than one issue, or at least we should. Don’t make simple comparisons and conclusions for the sake of ego-stroking. In his movie, Al Gore could have made a much more evocative case for change had he not spend 2/3 of the time ego-stroking, right-bashing, reinvention-seeking, and legacy-concocting. Learn from his mistake, as his movie will not end up as one of the more important catalysts when we look back on this time, because of the wasted opportunity.

  6. take action now - February 7, 2007

    This type of debate and the one Adam recently got into over in Grist with Gar are not only counter-productive, they are a waste of time. Why bother engaging those that would muddy the waters with ill-begotten rhetoric?
    Just do the right thing, spread the good word, and take action more bold than merely offsetting your emissions and participating in wonky online conversations.
    Take to the streets, initiate carpooling at your work, sell your car and buy a bike, shake hands with a stranger and discuss how combating climate change has changed your lifestyle. Whatever you choose, just walk away from the computer and do some real work that changes something for the better RIGHT NOW.
    All of this chitter chatter, while seemingly smart and thoughtful, serves no one. The crisis is real and the revolution will not be blogged. It occurs one positive action at a time.
    Get with it.

  7. Question work - February 7, 2007

    I find it interesting that people often assume that something that will “create jobs” is a good thing. On the contrary – it is usually, if not always, a bad thing. For example, I could throw a brick through your car window. That would clearly create jobs – for you, your insurance agent, and the repairman. Yet this is obviously not a good situation. Katrina created all sorts of jobs, too. Would you want to repeat it?
    I don’t know if switching to wind power over coal, for example, would create more wind-generator-installer or maker jobs than it would destroy mining and relating jobs. It’s probably about a wash. If it isn’t a wash, it isn’t clear which is better. If I told you we could get all of our energy from the labor of 10,000 coal miners or 100,000 wind installers, which would be the better choice for society (based on this alone)? Honestly, the miners, because that leaves 90,000 people free to do other productive work.
    “Job creation” for it’s own sake is meaningless at best – what we really want is the creation of goods and services with the SMALLESET amount of labor possible.

  8. Aaron A. - February 9, 2007

    Question Consumption, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but the government has always been led by extremists. Our nation’s first Secretary of the Treasury was shot and killed in a duel against the Vice President*. In the years leading up to the Civil War, fistfights were a regular occurrence in the hallowed halls of Congress. As long as John Q. Public keeps killing his attention span with television, we’ll never get motivated enough to start a civil war.

    Similarly, attempting to polarize the public is one of the oldest political tricks in the book. “You’re either with us or against us,” they’ll say, at the same time making their opponents look like complete imbeciles. Or, you make both extremes look silly, and paint yourself as the reasonable moderate.

    If we want to change peoples’ minds, we’d be better off ignoring the cable news chatter, educating ourselves about the causes that matter to us, being fair, logical, well-spoken voices for those causes, and backing up those words with responsible action. As Mohandas Gandhi said, “We must be the change we wish to see in this world.”

    – A.
    * Yes, I’m sure there’s a joke there, but now is not the time.

  9. Juci - February 25, 2007

    “Or it’s the way all politics, right and left, work. Politics today tries to divide and hold segments of the population hostage for their votes. If you’re trying to get elected it’s sound strategy, if you’re trying to get anything done … well, not so much. A better approach than calling everyone we disagree with right-wing morons is to respect that they are also intelligent people that see the world differently than we do. We won’t change anybody mind by calling them an idiot, but we might with calm open discussion. And we might learn something in the process. We’re going to get a lot more done if we unite the country to action instead of try to beat them into submission. Let the extremist look goofy on the sidelines while we work together to get things done.”
    Very well said… I love you *hugs FD*

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