Time to Stop Blaming Climate Skeptics for Societal Inaction
Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Public Policy, and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. Nisbet studies the role of communication and advocacy in policymaking and public affairs, focusing on debates over over climate change, energy, and sustainability. Among awards and recognition, Nisbet has been a Visiting Shorenstein Fellow on Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, a Health Policy Investigator at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and a Google Science Communication Fellow. In 2011, the editors at the journal Nature recommended Nisbet's research as “essential reading for anyone with a passing interest in the climate change debate,” and the New Republic highlighted his work as a “fascinating dissection of the shortcomings of climate activism."
One of the arguments I have been making in talking to journalists is to beware the hype over the relative impact of the climate skeptics movement in contributing to societal inaction on climate change. As many studies, articles, and experts have documented and described, the impact of the skeptic movement is only one of several significant contributors to political gridlock and perceptual differences on climate change.
In a recent blog post on Copenhagen, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus adeptly argue this point. I don't agree with all of their post and I don't share the same pessimism on Copenhagen, yet as they often do, they raise important issues and meaningfully expand the scope of discussion. Here's their specific point on the climate skeptic blame game:
Copenhagen was preceded by a seemingly genuine fight between skeptics who deny the reality or threat of global warming, and greens who deny the political economy of carbon. In their respective simulacra, they see each other as mortal enemies. In reality, they desperately need each other.
In a brilliantly timed release of emails and data stolen from Britain's East Anglia Climate Research Unit, skeptics managed to create an international debate over the evidence of climate change, calling the hack "climategate." The emails didn't challenge human-caused global warming. But that didn't stop the skeptics from waving the emails around as proof that it was all a hoax. Greens dismissed the controversy and the bad behavior of prominent climate scientists, aggressively spinning the CRU hack as "swift-boating."
The result was a phony debate. It served greens and skeptics well but did nothing to spark an honest discussion of economics and technology. Instead, climate scientists and environmental activists continued their running battle with skeptics over trivial disputes such as warming and cooling in the medieval period -- a subject that offers no insight whatsoever into what we should do about today's global warming.
Journalists and activists alike value "global warming deniers" because they are useful villains in the story. Reporters and activists never tire of writing about Exxon-Mobil's funding as some kind of a major scoop, and a researcher at Media Matters can feel like Woodward and Bernstein after just a few hours downloading IRS 990 financial statements from Guidestar.
But really it is phony investigative journalism posing as the real thing. In truth, skeptics of global warming are poor, not rich. According to Media Matters, Exxon-Mobil has given conservative think tanks less than $7 million total since 2001 -- about $1 million a year. By contrast, the combined annual budgets of America's leading environmental philanthropies and NGOs total well over $500 million a year. Two funders alone have promised to spend $2 billion on climate communications over the next few years. And governments collectively spend billions annually, as they should, funding climate scientists to conduct research and publish their work.
Activists, with the help of reporters, have grossly exaggerated efforts by the Bush administration to muzzle NASA scientist James Hansen, perhaps the best-known scientist in the world. Hansen routinely publishes blunt attacks on Congressional proposals and advocates his own agenda all as a government employee. After the Bush Administration attempted to censor his work he complained to the New York Times and the problem disappeared. Hansen has one of the safest jobs in America.
The notion that climate skeptics are to blame for collective government inaction is as phony as the debate over whether the stolen emails change our understanding of the science. Neither skepticism of anthropogenic warming nor the belief that scientists are divided nor the public's lack of understanding of science have been significant factors in preventing action on global warming.
The big story is that there is now 20 years of evidence that green communications on climate have backfired. Public concern about global warming today is no greater than it was 20 years ago. Public support for action to reduce carbon emissions quickly evaporates as soon as there is a serious price tag attached. Increasingly dire warnings of impending climate catastrophes have triggered apocalypse fatigue and rising skepticism about climate science. Greens have not only failed to achieve action, they have made the situation worse, alienating the public even more than they had alienated them before 2004, when the two of us denounced apocalyptic environmentalism in "The Death of Environmentalism."
The reason for inaction is the same today as it has been for 20 years. Consumers and businesses alike are loath to increase energy costs in order to address global warming. Fossil fuels are cheap. Low carbon power sources are expensive or, like nuclear power, politically unpopular. No political economy in the world is going to significantly raise energy prices and slow its economy to deal with climate change. So long as the primary lever that climate policy proposes to use to address global warming are mechanisms that, one way or another, increase energy prices, efforts to substantially reduce global carbon emissions will fail.
This reality is as firm as the relationship between emissions and warming, but it is one that the United Nations, the world's largest governments, and green activists refuse to accept. For this reason, global warming deniers are, for greens, highly useful enemies -- ones they simply cannot let go.
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