Revkin Replies to “False Equivalence” Post

Andy Revkin has been kind enough to respond to my previous post about his “False Equivalence on Climate Message Machines.” He’s gentleman enough to concede that he was overly glib in equating a scholarly paper’s study of how institutions push climate disinformation to a climate blogger’s name-calling parody of it. His mea culpa covers only the least important point in my critique, however. The more important matter was whether Andy truly regarded the climate disinformation apparatus discussed in the paper as equivalent to the scientific bodies, IPCC, environmental groups and other organizations that promote climate activism.

Andy seems to leave little room for doubt that he does: as he describes them, they represent committed points of view and both make statements that aren’t trustworthy, so they are more or less the same. The actual differences in how well or truthfully those sides have historically represented the science involved don’t seem to make much of a difference. Systematic efforts to undermine the science by sowing uncertainty wherever possible are apparently no worse than overstatements and zealous rhetoric. (And put aside questions about the motivations on both sides.)

Andy writes:

Setting aside the word propaganda, I will readily assert that there has been a longstanding and well-financed effort to raise public concern by downplaying substantial, persistent and legitimate uncertainty about the worst-case outcomes from greenhouse-driven warming and over-attributing the link between such warming and climate-related disasters and other events. Much of this is organized.

But it should be pointed out that there is a climate-style amplifying feedback process, in which a funding agency, a university and researchers highlight the most newsworthy aspect of a new study — even if it’s tentative — and that baton is passed to journalists eagerly sifting for “the front-page thought.” Kind of looks like a hype machine, in some ways.

It kind of does, doesn’t it? And heaven knows there’s no difference between hype of new results and outright misrepresentations of consensus science. It’s certainly not a distinction to fret over.

That “amplifying feedback process” of sensationalism is certainly a real problem for science journalism, and one I’ve decried. But it is a problem that afflicts coverage and understanding of all science, not just climate science.

He might be right, but I’m not entirely sure how Andy supports his proposition about the well-organized, well-funded effort to downplay climate science uncertainties. He cites examples of errors and overstatements but those by themselves don’t amount to the same kind of propaganda machine that Dunlap and McCright discussed in their “Organized Climate Change Denial” chapter. Perhaps he would cite Matthew Nisbet’s Climate Shift report, which concluded that the funding promoting climate activism was roughly comparable to that lined up against it, but of course that report and its conclusions have been challenged by Joe Romm at Climate Progress and by Media Matters, among others. Moreover, as far as I recall, Climate Shift made a statement about the magnitude of spending promoting new climate policies but didn’t make a claim that those messages were significantly unscientific or antiscientific, as Dunlap and McCright argued about the climate “skeptics.”

Nevertheless, I do very much agree with Andy that even in the absence of a well-organized, well-funded effort to quash climate policy, climate hawks would have a tough time convincing the public of the need to push for sweeping reforms. Moving away from fossil fuels on a global scale will be a huge and massively expensive undertaking (though not necessarily so much more expensive than inaction might be). Cultural cognition will always make some people resist the logic for those changes.

Moreover, the scientists and activists arguing for a head-on assault on climate problems often find their messaging efforts held to almost impossible standards. If they dwell on the full discussions of caveats and uncertainties in the science, the public has trouble understanding them and critics assail them for being bad communicators. If they try to simplify the messages, emphasize the costs of inaction, or cite extreme weather events as the kind of thing that could be more common in a warmer world, critics like Andy criticize them for distorting the science. (Imagine if an insistence on explicit, quantified uncertainties were pursued so avidly in other areas of policy.) If the climate activists talk about how disruptive the consequences of even moderate warming could be, their pessimism is said to be a defeatist turn-off. If they talk about how practicable some CO2 reductions might be, they are dismissed as unrealistically optimistic.

All the more reason, then, to salute the widespread support for climate policy among even more conservative parts of the public. And yet our political system does not immediately respond. Perhaps one of those two climate misinformation machines that Andy deplores is rather more effective inside the Beltway than the other.

Andy closes his column by arguing for the climate pragmatist approach over that of the climate hawks.

Get started with demonstrable steps on energy efficiency and intensified research, for example, that have wide support even among Republicans. What better way to marginalize true obstructionists at the conservative fringe?

It’s a sensible thought—but born of false equivalence, and of false dilemma. By painting a scenario in which extremists misrepresenting the truth exist on both sides, Andy implies a middle ground that only climate pragmatists can occupy. Yet climate activists are a diverse lot with many nuanced positions, as David Roberts at Grist has described, and most of them would support the kind of “energy quest” that Andy and The Breakthrough Institute want. The difference is that the climate hawks also want real, targeted action on CO2 emissions. They are willing to negotiate what targets are optimal given all the economic, humanitarian, and environmental considerations, but they recognize that until the energy quest starts to significantly reduce CO2 emissions, which will probably take decades, warming and its consequences will continue to worsen into the future according to a business-as-usual projection.

The counterargument seems to be that the world will never really go along with CO2 emission limitations, so if the climate activists would just stop hooting after their lost, impractical cause, then the reasonable people would regain control over the debate and quickly make real progress on our energy system and at least curb CO2 in the long term.

Maybe so; I can certainly relate to the frustrations in getting CO2 regulations passed and enforced. But I also suspect that if CO2 limits were completely off the table, the entrenched fossil fuel interests would find plenty of other arguments to fend off changes that meaningfully threatened their interests for a long time. Climate is simply a good whipping boy.

I gather Andy considers Joe Romm an unreliable extremist, but Joe’s summary of the situation feels more on the mark than off:

But, then, Revkin continues to this day to only endorse his vague R&D-focused “energy quest” and criticize those of us (including the National Academy of Science) who push for strong emissions reductions starting now.  Since Revkin refuses to this day to tell us what level of concentrations he thinks the world should aim for –  even a broad range, say 450 ppm to 550 ppm — Revkin retains the luxury of attacking those who are willing to state what their target is while maintaining a faux high ground that they are being politically unrealistic while he can pretend his essentially do-nothing strategy is scientifically or morally viable, which it ain’t.

I’ll differ from Joe in that I don’t consider Andy’s favored approach to be a do-nothing strategy: a quest for cleaner, more affordable energy would be scientifically and morally desirable for plenty of reasons, and it would almost certainly help to reduce future warming eventually. The problem is, there’s a very good chance it would do too little, too late. The climate pragmatists should properly be accountable for whatever level of warming and climate consequence they would countenance*—because the people who would probably bear the burden of those consequences would most likely not be the pragmatists.

Have the climate pragmatists quantified the uncertainties in their projections of when the energy quest would yield benefits and what the consequences of ongoing warming would be? Or have they just defined away the notion of damage attributable to climate changes?

—But then, that goes off into a different discussion of how to pin down the consequences of climate change to the satisfaction of some skeptics, and that will to have to wait for another time.

*And in anticipation of an all-too-easy rejoinder: yes, I would also hold climate hawks responsible for whatever negative effects their preferred policies caused. That’s why tempering climate goals with development goals is the only sane course. It’s also why keeping CO2 curbs on the table as one more tool for achieving the desired policy ends makes more sense than summarily eliminating them from consideration.

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7 Responses to Revkin Replies to “False Equivalence” Post

  1. Pingback: On False Equivalence and False Inequivalence - NYTimes.com

  2. Hi John,

    On the claims made by Romm and bloggers at Media Matters about the Climate Shift report’s analysis, I authored a series of replies which readers can find at the links below:

    http://climateshiftproject.org/2011/04/22/response-to-joe-romms-statements-on-spending/

    http://climateshiftproject.org/2011/05/07/response-to-statements-made-by-blogger-joe-romm-on-analysis-of-coverage-at-the-washington-post/

    Relative to the chapter on “Organized Climate Change Denial” in the Oxford volume, I find it relatively odd that so far none of the other 46 valuable chapters in the 600 page book have received discussion or attention in the blogosphere.

    In one of the chapters focused on “Public Opinion and Political Behavior,” I bring together the literature that starts to explain what Revkin has aptly referred to in the past as the “waves in a shallow pan” nature of public opinion. Readers can view most of the chapter via Google books.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=JihhbdpO-yoC&pg=PA355&dq=Nisbet

    In the chapter I also suggest that we need to understand the climate denial movement within the larger context of the many movements and actors all attempting to communicate about the problem, which I interpret as Revkin’s main argument in his original post.

    The chapter was completed before I began work on the Climate Shift report which was a first attempt to try to answer some of these questions. From the conclusion to the Oxford chapter:

    In particular, two key questions should be addressed in future research. First, more attention needs to be paid to putting into context the influence of the climate denial movement, comparing the movement to analyses of the resources and impacts of environmental organizations and their allies among think tanks, government agencies, scientific societies, science media organizations, and museums. Are advocates and institutions
    seeking to increase public engagement with climate science and policy solutions outresourced and out-communicated by the climate denial movement? Conventional wisdom aside, what is the true relative impact of the climate denial movement on news coverage, public opinion, and societal decisions? Among the efforts of environmental community and their allies, what assumptions, practices, and strategies appear to be effective and which
    appear to be dead ends?

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