Climate Tribes

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorMar 6, 2009 6:35 PM


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Is your stance on global warming shaped by influential pundits or politicians who share your worldview? In light of the recent George Will/Al Gore/Andrew Revkin blogosphere controversy, kudos to John Fleck for revisiting this important 2007 Yale study. Still, I'm not sure what to make of the study's essential finding-- that your position on say, nuclear power or nanotechnolgy, is influenced by credible individuals who share your political beliefs. There are several ways to look at this. To me, one of the more interesting implications is that a credible person who adopts a view at odds with his own politics or worldview will be taken seriously by members of his political tribe. So, for example, I could never prove this, but my gut tells me that Andrew Sullivan's blogging over the last four years has influenced the way many conservatives came to view the war in Iraq and George W. Bush. (Of course, to many others, he has committed blasphemy.) On the other hand, John McCain's staunch anti-abortion record would seem to put him in high standing with religious conservatives, so that when he called out a few of their leaders in 2000 as "agents of intolerance," he should have been viewed credibly. It didn't quite work out that way. Then, related to the policy and political debate over global warming, there is the curious case of Roger Pielke, Jr., who last June said this on his blog:

Let me emphasize that anthropogenic climate change is real, and deserving of significant attention to both adaptation and mitigation.

Yet, there seem to be a number of prominent climate scientists and influential bloggers who view him as an agent of climate change deniers. (More on this perception in a future post. In the meantime, see this reasoned assessment.) Thus, he is unable to make inroads with a significant portion of the environmental community which, nonetheless, shares his view that global warming is a problem in need of a solution. Conversely, despite Pielke's stated belief "that anthropogenic climate change is real," he has what is thought (but I don't know if this is true) to be many admirring blog readers who, to put it charitably, are dubious of global warming as a serious environmental threat. (I'll point out that this general characterization of his blog's readership seems based on an interpretation of the commenters, which, valid or not, is still a skewed metric.) At any rate, even if we take this characterization of Pielke's reader demographic at face value, following the logic of the Yale study, why then isn't Pielke Jr. convincing these skeptics (who evidently view him credibly) to abandon their erroneous stance? Perhaps all this means is that some people are willing to see more than one side of the debate. At the very least, what I like about Pielke Jr and Andrew Sullivan is their willingness to defy tribal categorization. Independent thought should be valued above party politics or ideological purity. I'm not sure if it makes them more or less persuasive to members of other tribes. But to me it sure makes them more edifying, more interesting, and less predictable to read than many others in the blogosphere.

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