Advocates for a switch away from fossil fuels to help prevent disastrous climate change have had sound science on their side for years. What we haven’t had on our side was rhetoric. Not only have we been divided about what to call our opponents (climate denialists? stasists? contrarians? naysayers?); we haven’t even known what to call ourselves.
“Environmentalists” and “greens” are labels that many of us might wear with pride, but the words also connote positions on so many other subjects—biodiversity, pollution, conservation and more—that they lack any focused punch on climate. Moreover, many of those pushing for energy reforms and CO2 reductions don’t consider themselves environmentalists in the broader sense. “Warmist” is a name some of the head-in-the-sand crowd at Watts Up With That have for us, but it scarcely makes sense: why call us warmists when further warming is what we oppose?
Coming up with an appropriate name might seem completely trivial, but in a highly politicized fight like the one surrounding these issues, the right branding can be crucial. Anyone think the Tea Party would have found the traction it has with both the public and the media if it had called itself the Selectively Roll Back 70 Years of Constitutional Precedents Party?
David Roberts at Grist has decided to fill the strategic void. After asking his readers “What should we call people who care about climate change and clean energy?” and stirring up considerable discussion about the possibilities, he has thrown his weight behind one: Climate hawks.
Read David’s post for his full explanation about what he likes about climate hawks as a label (and what he finds deeply wanting in most of the proffered alternatives). But here are a few of its key virtues:
In foreign policy a hawk is someone who, as Donald Rumsfeld used to put it, “leans forward,” someone who’s not afraid to flex America’s considerable muscle, someone who takes a proactive attitude toward gathering dangers. Whatever you think about foreign policy, is that not the appropriate attitude to take toward the climate threat? Does it not evoke a visceral sense of both peril and resolve, the crucial missing elements in America’s climate response?
This is all embedded in the term, and that’s the other advantage: the meaning is immediately clear. No explanation required. It will strike people as something they already are, not something they have to be persuaded to become. It may not appeal (as much) in other countries, but most everybody gets what it means. It is shallowly descriptive enough to capture the desired referent class, but at the same time normative enough to evoke some of the right values.
I agree with him, and with his reasoning. Let me be vain enough to resurrect this comment I left on his original discussion thread:
So far, “carbon hawk” or “climate hawk” seems closest. Either is specific enough to the core concern to identify the group’s members without sprawling into related ones. The “hawk” part of the name has connotations of strength and aggressiveness, which seems appropriate and even necessary in the current political dialogue. Also, it seem wise to avoid almost any terms that end in “-ist” or “-er” because they make it too easy for those on the other side of this issue to claim that our position is based on personal identification and irrational attachments. (E.g., “environmentalists” are portrayed as people with a cultish devotion to the environment at the expense of humanity.) The rhetorical strategy should reinforce the idea that wanting to mitigate climate change and shift to cleaner energy sources isn’t a knee-jerk, emotional response. We’re defining our rational position on a policy issue, not picking a name for our bowling team.
It would be the height of lunacy to imagine that introducing this new name will blot away the opposition to substantive action. Who knows how widely it will even be taken up by the public or by the media? (I think it’s a safe bet that the climate denialists—or should I now say “climate cowards”?—will avoid using it until they can figure out how to undermine it.) But on the other hand, let’s not underestimate how much the right fresh inspiration in this debate might do to restore momentum for effecting change. David recently wrote another post on “Ignorance, intensity and climate politics” that offered welcome reasons for hope:
Those trying to spread the word on climate change have the advantage in numbers. The majority of Americans accept that climate change is happening and almost three-quarters get a passing grade — C or above — on Yale’s scale of knowledge. Where the denialists have the overwhelming advantage is in intensity. As rejection of climate science and climate solutions has become an ideological litmus test on the right, millions of Republicans have come to believe that climate science is not just incorrect but a hoax meant to further U.N. world government. They are pissed.
Very few of those who correctly believe that climate change is happening are pissed about it. More like “concerned,” the way people are concerned about homelessness or poverty in Africa, like, y’know, somebody (else) should really do something about that. Few write letters to legislators or hassle them about it in town halls. Almost no one will change their vote over it. No legislator stands to be primaried or driven from office over it.
In other words, all the intensity, and thus all the political risk, is on one side. For the political landscape to change in coming years, what’s needed is not a massive education campaign — though it certainly couldn’t hurt! — but a shift in the balance of intensity. The question is how to reduce the intensity of denialists and increase the intensity of climate hawks.
So, climate hawks, sharpen your claws, take to the skies and inspire us all with your righteous ferocity.