The Nordhaus & Shellenberger piece certainly has kicked up a lot of dust, including from someone whose work I normally enjoy. Tom Toles issued his own ranting screed at the Washington Post yesterday. It includes most of the same over-the-top grousing about the N&S piece as other writers. But it includes a couple of things I’d like to highlight for additional discussion.
The ‘concern’ is that as a tactic it can ‘backfire’ and not win over conservatives to climate change action. Not win over conservatives! The article doesn’t place ALL the blame on faulty environmentalist tactics. It pauses to include what may be the most understated disclaimer in history: “Other factors contributed. Some conservatives and fossil-fuel interests questioned the link between carbon emissions and global warming.” Some! Really???
At what point will people realize that if we nullify conservative’s work against climate action, then the very thing Toles and others claim to care about so deeply will finally happen: widespread and robust climate action?! No, Tom is right. We should continue the same strategies that failed for 30+ years, because one day, gosh darn it, they’ll magically work. It’s quite simple really: identify and work via values and tactics that resonate with conservatives to achieve the same goal that working via different values and tactics that resonate with liberals. This is where tribalism rears its ugly head big time. Instead of recognizing inherent worldview differences and expending effort to talk to conservatives differently than liberals, it is much easier to shut your brain down and scream about how conservatives are “others” and should therefore be banned from all decision-making. What a wonderful strategy! Obviously it’s worked since so many conservatives are voting for carbon taxes and setting up subsidies for renewable energy and … that’s right, none of that is happening, is it?
N&S pointed out that many environmentalists work against their stated goals by purposefully shutting out 1/3 of the population. That doesn’t sit well with Toles or Romm or many others.
Here is the second thing Toles writes that irks me:
If environmentalists aren’t careful, it says, sufficient support for an adequate policy response might go away. Go away! As though it was ever even close to being there in the first place. They cite Al Gore’s 2006 ‘Inconvenient Truth’ as contributing to backlash and division. Do they think no one has any memory whatsoever? Let me remind those who don’t. Before “Inconvenient Truth’ there was close to ZERO widespread public concern about climate change.
How close to ZERO was there, Tom? Let’s check the first thing that comes up when I Google search ‘global warming polling 1980’:
Well, would you look at that – somebody polled Americans for decades now – who would have thought? It turns out that 50-72% of Americans worrying a great deal or a fair amount is close to ZERO in Tom’s world. That’s enlightening. Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth” in early 2006. In Gallup polling, worry jumped from 51% in 2004 to 62% in 2006 and 66% in 2008. So yes, Truth likely brought American’s attention back to the issue in a way that other efforts did not. Note however a couple of things this time series shows us: support was higher in 1999 and 2000 than 2008. So Truth wasn’t the most effective strategy. Also, worry post-2008 fell back to 2004 levels: 51%. Worry was falling in 2009 – when Waxman and Markey were writing their cap-and-trade legislation – through 2010 – when the legislation failed to pass Congress. That was despite having a Democratic President and a Democratic-led House and Senate. That combination will not repeat itself any time soon. So what should liberals do? Find alternate tactics to motivate conservatives instead of denigrating and alienating them? That sounds crazy to me.
Gallup’s page has plenty of other interesting results to chew over. I will include one more in this post for illustrative purposes because it gets at the heart of what N&S really wrote about. Gallup started asking in 1997 whether people thought global warming was a threat in their lifetime. Guess what the majority answer was. That’s right: most people said “no”. Most people (50%-69%) hold this belief at the same time they believe that global warming is real, that human activities cause it, and that news reports on it are correct, if not underestimated.
What does that mean? It means that people view the problem as a distant threat that will impact others before Americans. There is scientific truth behind this belief. The first reports of impacts were on Asians and Africans. Those same populations will continue to be disproportionately affected in the coming decades, as the IPCC AR5 reported this year.
N&S’s post was an attempt to change this perception. If scientists employ “communications approaches that take account of individuals’ personal points of reference (e.g., based on an understanding and appreciation of their values, attitudes, beliefs, local environment, and experiences) are more likely to meaningfully engage individuals with climate change,” more people are likely to view climate change as a direct threat to their own lives. If that happens, support for climate action will break through traditional barriers. But I guess Toles, Romm, and others aren’t really interested in that. They’re interested in this topic on ideological grounds: so long as liberals beat conservatives and people with slightly different worldviews, they’re happy.