Climate Hawks Take Wing

Red-tailed hawk (Credit: Glass_House via Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

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.

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17 Responses to Climate Hawks Take Wing

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  2. klem says:

    The name climate hawk is just more climate shlock. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

  3. It’s been amazing to see how many people respond positively to this phrase. I think it has an inherent appeal. Now the question is, can we get everyone who likes it to use it as consistently as possible?

    Also, it’s got to be turned into a thinktank or a real movement or it’ll always be just a rhetorical flourish.

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  6. mike says:

    Given the wreckage you left behind you at SciAm might I suggest a name change: Climate Dodo? Climate Great Auk? Climate Pteradactyl? If you’ve got something to say–post it to Judy’s blog. That is, if your high-testosterone “hawk” instincts can take the heat. Doubt it.

    • John Rennie says:

      Is there a particular relevant post on Judith Curry’s blog to which you want me to reply? If she wants to reply to mine, here or at Climate Etc., I’d welcome it.

      My guess is that Curry wouldn’t call herself a climate hawk because she seems to want the dangers of global warming to be better characterized before policy responses are drafted. But perhaps that’s not the case and I’m misreading what she’s written. In any case, if you reread my post, you’ll see that I didn’t criticize her one way or the other. I wrote about categorizing her position unambiguously for policy discussions.

      And I’ll repeat to you what I wrote to Meme Mine: your comments would be much more powerful if you even tried to rise above the personal aspersions and frame an argument.

      • mike says:

        Mr. Rennie, your “retort” is noted. Sorry for the length of my reply, but your requirement that I “frame my argument” necessitates the length.

        Implicit in the main article is that the “true faith” of climate science orthodoxy is having a “little problem.” Namely, the latest climate science orthodoxies just aren’t selling and big-green’s high-carbon-lifestyle nomenklatura are not realizing their expected cap-and-trade big payday. And that “little problem” is one of “image.” Let me guess. The dizzy kids, aging youth masters, milquetoasts, venomous geeks, spoiled brats, peggers, dorks, and gong-show rejects that make up the hardcore of the Gore-grokker legions somehow just aren’t connecting with Joe Six-pack. Who’duhthought?

        The brilliant solution? Tweak the agit-prop–“brand” the activists “Climate Hawks” so that the dumkopf American electorate will be fooled into thinking that a bunch of Beta-weenies are all really strong and agressive Alpha-greenies (Didn’t Al Gore have this discussion with Naomi Wolf already?) You know, like, the slow-witted kulaks think that the Atlanta Falcons are a cool bunch of bad-dude jocks and that the “Screaming Eagles” of the 101st Airborne Division are one kick-a** outfit. So the rubes will think that a “Climate Hawk” is some sort of bone-crushing pro-lineman, ex-paratrooper. Get it? This is self-parody, Mr. Rennie. And then to be informed that the inspiration for the “Great Hawk Idea” is no less a personage than the estimable Donald Rumsfeld defeats any attempt at satire. I cannot imagine a more preposterous idea or more outlandish supporting arguments. Your “Climate Hawks” will positively compel ridicule because their un-raptor like qualities offer an inherently derisory contrast with their hot-dog name. Are you people idiots? Soros and crew need to clean house.

        And then there’s this gem of your own devising, “…
        the climate denialists–or should I now say “climate cowards”?…” Climate cowards? Cowards?! Mr. Rennie, I looked real hard, but I couldn’t find any examples of “denier cowardice” in your main article. So where did the “climate cowards” potshot come from, I wondered? Very perplexing at first, but I think I’ve solved the conundrum.

        -The key to the solution is that stirring, Churchillian call to action that ends the main article. It is too delicious, so please permit me to quote it in full: “So climate hawks, sharpen your claws, take to the skies and inspire us all with your righteous ferocity.” Oh my goodness! Lucky you’re not working for ol’ Don Rumsfeld because I have no doubt he would have tacked your butt to the wall if you delivered, for his approval, a little “purple patch” like that amidst a sea of green.

        -Then I made the connection. Climate hawks are ferocious predators in a righteous cause and they naturally prey on climate coward vermin. Now real, bird-type hawks prey on rodents, fluffy little bunny rabbits, frisky squirrels, and the like. ( Right, Mr. Rennie? See, I’m getting there.) Now when those hawks that actually fly (as opposed to those that figuratively fly) are espied aloft by the cute little furry creatures on which Mr. Hawk dines, then the little cutie-pies timorously hide and hope that Mr. Hawk’s sharp talons pass them by. (Your logic is subtle and brillant, Mr. Rennie, so I’m walkin’ it through real slow like.) Where was I? Oh yeah!–so now since a real Hawk’s prey recoils in fear from a real hawk’s real “claws”, then so too do the the climate cowards figuratively recoil in fear before the “righteous ferocity” and figurative sharp “claws” (don’t hawks have talons?) of the figurative “climate hawks”. ( Yep, I’m almost there! Final step, Mr. Rennie. Keep pulling for me because I’m bringing this one in.) So since the natural prey of real Hawks are a bunch of scaredy-cats, then, by analogy, the natural prey of climate hawks are also scaredy-cats. And in conclusion, since cowards are scaredy-cats, then we can put everything together and demonstrate without question that the natural prey of climate hawks are are a bunch of scaredy-cat “climate cowards”. I mean that settles that, doesn’t it Mr. Rennie? And isn’t your brilliant logic exactly the sort that produces “settled science” as well?

        You know Mr. Rennie, for most of my adult life I pursued a profession where the word “coward” was not used lightly. Indeed, in my former line of work, one could even be executed for cowardice. So the word falls on my ears with some “punch” to it. Now I tell you this, Mr. Rennie, not because your breezy use of the word “coward” for cheap propaganda purposes offends me. I assure you it does not–such stunts are to be expected from the likes of you, Mr. Rennie. Rather, I tell you this because I want you to know the import I attach to the word “coward” when I use the word. You claim to have “sound science” on “your side”. Well then, spread the wealth Mr. Rennie. Quit playing the coward and hiding behind a classroom lectern, Editorship of a once-great magazine, or this obscure vanity blog of yours. Get in the ring with the heathens. Take on the climate cowards at WUWT and Climate, Etc. in their own lair. Ferociously rip their furry, quivering yellow-bellies with your righteous talons/claws. Slay those dragons with the mighty sword of sound science. And not just you alone, Mr. Rennie, but bring on that whole invincible flock of “climate hawk” high-flyers with whom your prowl the skies.

        A partying thought, With the quality of thought I’ve found in your main article, Mr. Rennie, I must tell you frankly that I don’t think either you or tag-team pals would last a second in the Climate, Etc./WUWT ring. But I could be wrong. And even if you are promptly thrown out of the ring on your first try and made to look like a clown, then getting back up and getting back into the fray will show us all your courage. And win or loose, Mr. Rennie, you’re a bright guy, and we’ll all learn something, which is the point of the whole business (or should be), I’m sure you’ll agree.

        • John Rennie says:

          So this bloated, invective-filled screed is your idea of framing an argument? Mercy.

          Let me, as an editor, help you out by boiling this down for the sake of those who probably tuned out around the word “kulaks”: You think the effort by those advocating for smarter climate and energy policies only shows their political weakness and cultural irrelevance. You think the particular choice of “climate hawk” as a label is laughable. You’ve decided to puff up with manly umbrage at my use of the term “climate cowards.” You think… I don’t know, something much too horribly convoluted about the hawk metaphor; I can’t even wade into the thicket of that mess, but I gather it’s supposed to emphasize again that you think “climate hawk” is a bad choice. And you think I should be scrapping with the denialists at WUWT and Climate Etc. rather than writing here.

          That’s fine, mike. Those are your opinions and you’re welcome to them. You’re even welcome to express them here. And as H. L. Mencken used to reply to people who sent him screeching hate mail, “Dear Sir, You may be right.” In time, we’ll no doubt see.

          As for where I choose to write, I’ll make that decision for myself, thanks. I have a long history of engaging with denialists and others on that side of the climate argument. It’s not as if I’m hiding, hard to find or anonymous, “mike.”

          • mike says:

            Thank you for your response, Mr. Rennie. I half-expected that my previous post would be moderated to oblivion. For what it’s worth, I’m impressed with your tolerance for “manly umbrage” and “screeching hate mail” of a “denialist” persuasion. And I mean it sincerely, I’m impressed.

            Two points:

            -You were “off-base” Mr. Rennie when you used the term “climate coward”. But I suspect you’ve reached the same conclusion.

            -You did manage to put a talon in me and draw blood with one of your comments. Yes, I do hide behind a somewhat anonymous name (although its the diminutive of my Christian name) when I post. And that does have an unmanly, even (I wince to say it) a somewhat cowardly quality to it. On the other hand, I value my peace-and-quiet, especially at this point in my life. I mean, I don’t want some creep calling me in the middle to the night to inform me, between heavy breaths, that “Gaia knows where you live.” (crazies on both sides.) Also, I’m a bit of a control-freak. In that regard, who knows, we may not be fellow “climate hawks” but “birds of a feather” nevertheless.

          • John Rennie says:

            Understood on all counts, and thank you (sincerely) for your own gentlemanly follow-up. I can especially sympathize with not wanting to have loons and fanatics—of any stripe—bugging you, or dragging you into fights you would frankly rather ignore. If there’s a bird called the Greater Crested Control Sparrow, then you and I may both be beautifully feathered examples of the type.

            It never even occurred to me to moderate away your comments. I try to maintain a thick skin about comments, both because it goes with the blogging territory and because I’m all for freedom of expression of dissenting views—especially ones that might be persuasive or informative. My only interests in zotzing comments come up if I think somebody is violating the standards that PLoS would like to maintain, or generally ruining the experience of this online place for others. I like to keep the place tidy.

            Beyond that, my rule of thumb is simple: no one gets to be a bigger jerk here than I do. And that leaves a huge amount of running room for the rest of you!

            Write again anytime, mike. Always welcome.

    • John Rennie says:

      By the way, thanks for “climate dodo.” I’ve already made use of the term:

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  9. Bill says:

    Isn’t “Climate Dorks” the obvious answer, (or is that allready taken).

    Seriously, if you spend years agonising over whatever you want to call yourselves, you have lost the plot.

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