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Climate Symbolism

By Keith Kloor
Feb 4, 2013 5:38 PMNov 20, 2019 4:04 AM


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Do you remember the famous "just say no" public service ads from the 1980s--the commercials that urged kids to say no to drugs? (There was also a spin-off "just say no" to premarital sex.) I think many of us can agree that the basic idea was well meaning. And naive and simplistic. The just say no to the Keystone XL pipeline message that climate activists and enviros are rallying around today has the same feel. The campaign is similarly well-intentioned but--like the vacuous anti-drug messaging from the 1980s--it also distracts from the complexities of the problem, as numerous critics have pointed out. I've always contended (and still do) that these critics miss an important aspect of the Keystone battle. In 2011, I wrote:

If nothing else, the pipeline protesters have succeeded in breathing life into a moribund climate movement. They’ve also helped inject climate change into the political and public discourse.

Today, Keystone is a touchstone for the climate movement. The pipeline, regardless of how truly insignificant it may be to the larger climate change equation, has become symbolically powerful. It represents something deeply important to the climate-concerned community. Symbolism matters. Just ask Al Gore. In recent television interviews, the former Vice President has been forced to explain the symbolism behind the sale of his Current TV network to Al Jazeera, which is owned and operated by an oil-rich emirate. Jon Stewart pressed Gore on the discordant perception:

You had an opportunity to make a statement probably about your principles and some people would feel, and for me as well, I thought it was an odd move. Not because of some of the other things, but because it is backed by fossil fuel money.

That Gore had come on the show to plug his new book about sustainability was an irony not lost on Stewart. Gore received a similar grilling when he visited Matt Lauer on the Today show. Eric Wemple at the Washington Postsummarizes:

So Lauer asks Gore if his sale of Current TV to a network owned by the emir of an oil-earnings-fueled Middle East country (Qatar) doesn’t smack of a contradiction. To which Gore had a lame response. “I certainly understand that criticism. I disagree with it. Because I think Al Jazeera has obviously long since established itself as a really distinguished and effective news gathering organization. And by the way, its climate coverage has been far more extensive and of high quality than any…” Lauer came back at him, citing possible hypocrisy. Gore essentially repeated his first response.

Now Gore has been demonized (unfairly) in the conservative media for quite some time. The guy got a raw deal in 2000. The country got a raw deal, as well. (Who here thinks Gore would would have trumped up a phony war with Iraq?) Since then, he's made climate change his signature issue. There's been that best-selling book and Oscar-winning movie, a Nobel Peace prize, his climate reality project, his other widely publicized essays and comments. So whatever Gore says or does (like a a big moneyed transaction) is not going to occur in a vacuum. That may not be fair, but it is the way it is. There is climate reality and there is political reality. Gore should be an expert in both by now. In other words, when you become known for something in particular and what you do on a grand stage doesn't match up with what you say on that one thing, people are going to notice. And some of these people may not work for Fox News, either. They may even be sympathetic to your cause. All decisions of import have a cost/benefit ratio. The Keystone protest leaders have likely thought through the tradeoffs and decided that the pipeline battle is a galvanizing force for their larger cause. I get that. Al Gore is a very smart person. He undoubtedly thought through the tradeoffs of his latest business transaction with a Persian Gulf oil state. He surely anticipated what it would look like and how it might reflect on his signature cause. And he went ahead and did the deal. I don't get that.

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