Avoiding Climate Derangement Syndrome

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorFeb 27, 2012 8:13 PM


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If you are a member of the climate concerned community, you are likely distressed by the recent turn of events. One of your best known warriors has badly blundered, resulting in an important (if temporary) PR victory for your opponents. The fallout has been worsened by some of your most zealous allies, who have either excused the blunder or, incredibly, twisted it into an act of valor. What should distress you even more is that, before this PR nightmare, the momentum had started to swing your way. Or rather, your opponents were helping you make your case. Let's review. In the last six months, several events have elevated climate change into the headlines in a way that has cast climate skeptics/contrarians in a negative light. Remember, politics at its worst is all about who has the higher negatives and we know that climate change has become politicized--very much for the worst. First, there has been the periodic jostling among Republican Presidential contenders on climate-related issues, with the loudest of them asserting that climate science is a big hoax. How does this fringe view play to moderate Republicans and Independents? We can probably judge by Jon Huntsman's one meaningful contribution to the campaign. So while there may be tepid public support for action on climate change, it doesn't follow that a large percentage of the electorate thinks climate science is bogus. Such extreme rhetoric, which has become the GOP position on climate change, has marginal appeal beyond its Tea Party base. Generally speaking, it probably harms Republicans more than it helps them. Last April, months before Huntsman bowed out of the GOP presidential campaign, he warned his party:

The minute the Republican party becomes the anti-science party, we have a huge problem. When we take a position that isn't willing to embrace evolution, when we take a position that basically runs counter to what 98 out of 100 climate scientists from what the National Academy of Scientists said on what is causing climate change, and man's contribution to it, I think we find ourselves on the wrong side of science and in a losing position.

Well, that minute has long since arrived. Republicans now have a problem on their hands when it comes to science. Another revealing moment, for those paying attention to the larger climate change discourse, came after the release of a widely anticipated analysis of temperature data that, as the Economist wrote, "leaves little room for doubters. The world is warming." Richard Muller, the climate skeptic-friendly physicist who led the study, confirmed the findings in a WSJ op-ed:

Global warming is real. Perhaps our results will help cool this portion of the climate debate.

Or perhaps not. Many climate skeptics, including one who had said he would accept the results even if they proved unfavorable to his position, ran from Muller and his results as fast as they could. Regardless, the story that played out in the media was that a major critic of climate science had overseen a study proving that global warming was real. A widely covered event like this, combined with the GOP's hardening rejection of climate science and dismissal of global warming, reinforced the narrative that U.S. conservatives have willfully put their "heads in the sand." Climate scientists and activists don't appear to have recognized this impression that climate skeptics and Republicans are creating in the public's mind. If the former can be accused of hyperbole in service of their cause, then so can the latter, and it is their brand of hyperbole that has been dominating the national conversation, making them look out of step with the mainstream. By no means is this limited to the Republican stance on climate change. As Maureen Dowd notes in her weekend column, the remaining GOP Presidential candidates

are tripping over one another trying to be the most radical, unreasonable and insane candidate they can be. They pounce on any traces of sanity in the other candidates "” be it humanity toward women, compassion toward immigrants or the willingness to make the rich pay a nickel more in taxes "” and try to destroy them with it.

Surveying the latest damage resulting from all the fiery talk on contraception and religious doctrine, Dowd writes:

Republicans are getting queasy at the gruesome sight of their party eating itself alive, savaging the brand in ways that will long resonate. "Republicans being against sex is not good," the G.O.P. strategist Alex Castellanos told me mournfully. "Sex is popular."

Yeah, I'd say they stand a better chance being against science. But it appears that at least one of the candidates is doubling down on the notion that he can ride a retrograde plank on social issues all the way to the nomination. Good luck with that! Democrats, you can be assured, will not stand in his way. They are also plenty happy to let the remaining GOP candidates continue slugging away at each other. This latest Tom Toles cartoon illustrates a maxim in politics: If your opponent is hurting himself, you stay out of the way.

With respect to the climate change war, it's too late for Peter Gleick to learn that lesson. Perhaps some of the saner heads in the climate community will remember that their vocal opponents are also afflicted with "climate change derangement syndrome." In this war, the side that strikes the general public as least deranged is the one that probably helps its side the most. UPDATE: I just saw this mind-blowing Guardian column, which suggests that "perhaps more climate scientists should play dirty." In the comments, Richard Betts is incredulous:

I am a climate scientist at the Met Office Hadley Centre and also a lead author with the IPCC (NB. the opinions I express here are my own though - I am just telling you that for context). I would ask you to refrain from bringing my profession into disrepute by advocating that we act unethically. We already have enough people accusing us, completely incorrectly, of being frauds, green / left-wing activists or government puppets. A rabble-rousing journalist such as yourself telling us that we should "fight dirty" does not help our reputation at all. "Fighting dirty" will never be justified no matter what tactics have been used to discredit us in the past. Inflammatory remarks such as yours will only serve to further aggravate the so-called "climate wars". People's reputations are already being damaged, and we know that some climate scientists get highly distasteful and upsetting mail through no fault of their own. If people like you continue to stir things up further, it is only a matter of time before somebody actually gets hurt, or worse. Please keep your advice to yourself, we can do without it thank you very much.

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