CSW director Rick Piltz and six other individuals responded to an invitation from The Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media to reflect on how advocates for action on climate change have been shifting to more energy- and public health-related communication strategies to gain support for reducing reliance on fossil fuels. Our responses “illuminate long-standing differences of opinion over whether and how much supporters of action to manage climate change risks should base their appeals on the findings of climate science itself.”
‘Climate Change’ … and ‘Global Warming’: The New Dirty Words? And If So … What Then?, by Bill Dawson, August 10, 2011
Other respondents included Andrew Dessler, climate scientist at Texas A&M University; Peter Dykstra, publisher of “Environmental Health News” and “The Daily Climate”; Jim Marston of the Environmental Defense Fund; Frank O’Donnell of Clean Air Watch; Roger Pielke, Jr., at the University of Colorado; and David Roberts, senior staff writer at Grist.
My comment was reported as follows:
“It seems clear that there is a conscious decision by government leaders and advocacy groups to play down explicit discussion of climate change when dealing with issues of clean energy,” Piltz wrote.
“I believe this is a strategic error, although it is understandable as a short-term tactical approach, given the political difficulties that currently affect climate policy.”
Climate-action supporters now typically focus on “opposing ‘dirty’ energy and supporting ‘clean’ energy alternatives, with narratives about green jobs, air and water pollution, public health, energy independence and national security — with greater or less emphasis on climate change per se depending on the tactical circumstances, or on the commitments of particular advocates.”
This effort includes “a lot of good and necessary and important work,” he added, but “the clean energy frame has, thus far, not been sufficiently strong to overcome established patterns and organized resistance. If climate change is dropped from the discourse because it seems politically inconvenient, how much time will be lost, how will public support be maintained through the costs and inconveniences of a sustainable energy transition?”
President Obama, by failing “to address climate change forthrightly in his public communications,” has created “a void where presidential leadership could play a valuable role — an indispensable role, it can be argued.”
Dave Roberts was on target with his response:
[He noted that he] “criticized Obama for dropping climate change” from his remarks on energy issues. “I don’t know what people think is going to happen, but we’re not going to get to a point where the right sort of gives in and accepts it.”
The issue will remain intensely divisive, and climate-action advocates can only prevail through “repetition of our own,” he said. “That means Obama doesn’t have to make it his central message. He can focus on green jobs or whatever, but he needs to say, every time he shows up in front of the American people, climate change is [screwing] up our weather and it’s going to get worse and worse and we’ve got to do something about it. He just has to say that over and over again. It’s that repetition from every responsible public official that is the only hope for fighting back.”
Roger Pielke, Jr., as usual not misssing an opportunity to miss the essential points, suggested that avoiding advocacy in terms of climate change is a good thing and that the path to decarbonizing the energy system could lie in pushing for sustainable energy. A few of the problems with this:
1. As co-author with Chris Flavin at the WorldWatch Institute of Sustainable Energy, which in 1989 was, as best I can determine, the first monograph for a general audience to use the term “Sustainable Energy” in the title, I suggest that 22 years of experience shows that “sustainable energy” and “clean energy” narratives per se are not sufficiently compelling to drive the fundamental decarbonizing transformation of the energy system with the urgency that climate science suggests is needed. If it were sufficient, we would be farther along by now. To the extent that sustainable energy is even a major public issue, it got to the front burner primarily as a result of concerns about global warming.
And why be in any hurry to “decarbonize” if global climatic disruption isn’t sufficiently threatening to even bother discussing it with the public? And what reason is there to think that the corporate energy interests that have used their enormous political and economic clout to stymie meaningful action on climate policy will be any more likely to step aside and countenance the decarbonization of the energy system without a counterattack? And what reason is there to think that the global warming denialists will be any less likely to also block action on major government initiatives to drive the energy system toward decarbonization?
2. Pielke attributes the politicization of climate change, and how it has been swept up into the culture wars, to its having become an element of “ideological identity for some on the right and left.” This ostensibly even-handed critique of “right and left” is an intellectual copout, considering that the American right wing has turned an anti-science global warming denialism into essentially a political litmus test and has not hesitated to attack the integrity of climate science and climate scientists. The left (to the extent that there actually is a ‘left’ in American politics – it’s certainly not much in evidence among the mostly heavily compromised liberal centrist Democrats in Washington) has many flaws, but an anti-climate-science litmus test isn’t one of them.
Pielke’s framing, which then leads to moving away from the climate discourse altogether because it has become politicized, would essentially capitulate to the global warming denial machine’s campaign to turn climate change into a political hot potato and thereby discourage discussion of it by political leaders. One of the reasons Pielke so consistently misses key points is his seeming inability, odd for someone whose academic credential is in political science, to mount an intellectually serious critique of U.S. politics. In any case, his argument on this point bespeaks a failure to stand up for the climate science community as it is subjected to a political jihad on behalf of corporate interests and anti-regulatory ideology.
And there is one other problem, which actually characterizes the overall framing of this generally very good Yale Forum piece and the general thrust of comments (including Pielke’s), or at least those comments that are reported. That is, the emphasis appears to be almost entirely on mitigation, reducing emissions, and thus the question of whether we can get emissions reductions more effectively by separating the energy discourse from the climate change discourse.
What this misses, of course, is that, beyond the whole question of emissions reductions and alternative energy, there is the fundamental problem of global climatic disruption already underway, and the need for a strategy of proactive adaptive preparedness planning and action. The U.S. faces a wide range of adverse and potentially disastrous impacts, arguably already beginning to manifest in disrupted water resources, extreme precipitation, severe drought, flooding, extraordinary wildfires, accelerated Arctic melting, and record heat. How does the country begin to address this reality if the President and other ‘leaders’ and the policy intelligentsia decide it is politically inconvenient to discuss climate change as such? How does the public get the message it needs to hear?
In conclusion, I believe that scientific integrity and government accountability, as well as the politics of successful long-term strategic policymaking, demand that political leaders and the public pay attention to what climate science is telling them, make that a serious component of the national discourse, and begin to take immediate steps to change our trajectory. The goal should be both to avoid consequences of global climate disruption that would be unmanageable and, to the extent possible, to manage those consequences, already becoming evident, that will be unavoidable.
I see no way to deal with climate change unless people are willing to talk about climate change. This should not be all that difficult. I believe that ‘solving’ climate change, i.e., developing the capacity to deal with it as an ongoing policy and societal management problem, cannot be done indirectly through a stealth approach, as a byproduct of addressing other related issues.
For the record, here’s a fuller version of my comment on the Yale Forum topic:
It seems clear that there is a conscious decision by government leaders and advocacy groups to play down explicit discussion of climate change when dealing with issues of clean energy. I believe this is a strategic error, although it is understandable as a short-term tactical approach, given the political difficulties that currently affect climate policy.
Since global warming first emerged as a front-burner political issue in the late 1980s, one if its extraordinary characteristcis is the extent to which public concern has been driven by the advance of scientific understanding. Reports of research findings and periodic assessments by the leading climate scientists have identified and continue to characterize the problem of global climatic disruption and its potentially disastrous implications.
Although political leaders recognized that this was a problem, it was evident from the beginning that it would be very difficult for the political system, with its partisan and short-term calculus and built-in impediments to expeditious strategic action, to deal with it effectively. Here was a problem that implicated our entire way of life, suggested the need for a radical transformation of our highly-develop energy system, and called on government and society to commit to long-term policies to deal with a problem the impacts of which lay well in the future, all on the basis of technical scientific work that was very complex and not at all well-understood by politicians and the general public. Were it not for the continuing communications from the leading scientists during the past two decades, with a growing sense of urgency, the tendency would be to let the problem slip off the radar screen.
A few years ago, it appeared that concern with global warming had reached a critical mass of high-level political leadership and public awarenes such that it would no longer be possible for the system to turn away without acting. In 2009, with a new president in the White House and a new congressional majority, it appeared that the system was poised, at last, to take action – on the diplomatic front with the climate treaty negotiations, on the legislative front in Congress, and in the regulatory system with rulemaking by the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as a stepped-up pace of initiatives in states and local communities, and in the private sector.
But this momentum toward action was countered by an aggressive resistance, mounted by corporate interests seeking to block restrictions on emissions, and by ideologically driven ‘shrink the government’ politics that opposes government initiatives to proactively address societal problems. These powerful interests have had considerable success in blocking effective policy action, through their ability to influence politics, the media, and public opinion. This has included everything from direct funding of politicians’ campaigns to a predatory use of scientific uncertainty, going even so far as to launch attacks on the professional credibility and personal ethics of the climate science community.
As a result, for those who are focused on near-term tactical gains, climate change – always a difficult issue to educate the public about and on which to move the political system in the face of powerful economic opposition – has come to be very much a political hot potato. Climate change is complex, politically sensitive. In some quarters it is seen as a political loser, a lost cause at least for now. So it is understandable why some of those who are focused on short-term tactical gains and immediate pragmatic results appear to have decided that their best course is to steer around direct confrontation with the climate change problem and find other ways to move forward.
Most typically, this has taken the form of opposing ‘dirty’ energy and supporting ‘clean’ energy alternatives, with narratives about green jobs, air and water pollution, public health, energy independence and national security – with greater or less emphasis on climate change per se depending on the tactical circumstances, or on the commitments of particular advocates. A lot of good and necessary and important work is being done on this front. In particular, I would note the efforts to shut down coal plants and abolish mountaintop removal coal mining, the campaign to stop the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to carry tar sands oil from Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast, and the many efforts to put facts on the ground with deployment of solar and wind energy and energy efficiency improvements.
Nevertheless, I believe that scientific integrity and government accountability, as well as the politics of successful long-term strategic policymaking, demand that political leaders and the public pay attention to what climate science is telling them, make that a serious component of the national discourse, and begin to take immediate steps to change our trajectory. The goal should be both to avoid consequences of global climate disruption that would be unmanageable and, to the extent possible, to manage those consequences, already becoming evident, that will be unavoidable.
I see no way to deal with climate change unless people are willing to talk about climate change. ‘Solving’ climate change, i.e., developing the capacity to deal with it as an ongoing policy and societal management problem, cannot be done indirectly through a stealth approach, as a byproduct of addressing other related issues.
I believe public opinion on climate change is, in general, not highly informed and relatively soft. Much of it is subject to change in light of how ongoing events are framed and interpreted by leaders, both inside and outside of government. President Obama, before his inauguration, called climate change “a matter of urgency and of national security.” He has certainly been an improvement over his predecessor on a number of fronts.
Yet, as president, he continues what has become a standard practice of essentially remaining silent about this “matter of urgency and national security” when talking to the general public. Obama has never given a single address to the American people in which he takes ownership of climate science, acknowledges and characterizes what he has learned from the climate science community, and lays out clearly what the U.S. must do, in terms of both emissions reductions nd proactive adaptive preparedness steps to deal with a range of likely harmful impacts of climate change. In this he is no different from previous presidents. None has yet given such a talk.
Obama’s approach is characteristic of the leadership in Washington now. He is only the most prominent and important example of a pattern that has become widespread among elected officials. An implied ‘climate change is a dead issue’ avoidance also appears to have taken hold of members of Congress who, until recently, conveyed a sense of urgency about climate policy. One is reminded of the line from Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Some people consider this to be politically shrewd. What’s wrong with deftly sidestepping this potential headache, while instead touting the prospective benefits of clean energy and enhanced U.S. economic competitiveness? Throw in an added dose of rhetoric about energy independence – which, of course, is a mythical goal, at least as long as oil retains its stranglehold on the transportation system. Isn’t that a message that will go down easier with a public for which the climate change problem is of limited salience and limited immediate concern?
On the other hand, Obama’s failure to address climate change forthrightly in his public communications leaves a void where presidential leadership could play a valuable role – an indispensable role, it can be argued. I believe this failure will only make more difficult the challenge, down the road, of creating the necessary public understanding and building – and, even more challenging, maintaining – public support for the kinds of policies that will be necessary to deal with the threat of global climatic disruption.
What is left out in the President’s evasiveness about finding a way to communicate forthrightly about global warming and climate change?
First, of course, it betokens a failure of integrity and accountability in openly acknowledging the best advice that he is getting from the leadership of the scientific community. And with the global warming denial machine in full attack mode in Congress and in the corporate-funded and ideologically driven policy advocacy world, and with climate scientists taking a beating from people whose political agendas are all too apparent, Obama has been pretty much AWOL in supporting the science community. Not someone they can depend on to have their back in a fight. He has other priorities. The climate scientists are on their own.
And of course there is the problem of coal, the number one bad actor in driving anthropogenic climate change. By his evasiveness on climate change, Obama gives himself a pass on having to confront the problem of coal. He can look like a good guy in supporting the strengthening of vehicle fuel economy standards to reduce oil consumption, without acknowledging that, in terms of the most fundamental socio-environmental problem we face, steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the use of oil are meaningful only in the context of a larger strategy that also breaks the role of coal in the electric power system. And if we move beyond oil in motor vehicle transportation to alternative hybrid and electric vehicles – probably our best strategic alternative – then it makes a big difference what we’re using to produce the electricity that drives transportation. If we don’t confront the problem of coal, we don’t deal with the climate change problem. If Obama doesn’t discuss climate change, he manages to avoid discussing the problem of coal. This is politically convenient in the short-run.
Further, beyond the whole question of emissions reductions and alternative energy, there is the fundamental problem of global climatic disruption already underway and the need for a strategy of building resilience through proactive adaptive preparedness planning and action. The U.S. faces a wide range of adverse and potentially disastrous impacts, arguably already beginning to manifest in disrupted water resources, extreme precipitation, severe drought, flooding, extraordinary wildfires, accelerated Arctic melting, and record heat. How does the country begin to address this reality if the President and other leaders decide it is politically inconvenient to discuss climate change as such? How does the public get the message it needs to hear?
During the current session of Congress, right-wing global warming deniers who seem to have captured a critical mass of the Republican Party have launched an attack on climate science, and the translation of science into policymaking, by using the appropriations process to seek both to cut research funding and to prohibit federal agencies from engaging in adaptive preparedmess activities and from providing decision-support climate services. (This is discussed in detail in the post, Dangerously Unprepared: Congressional Budget Cuts are Leaving Americans Vulnerable to Climate Extremes, at http://www.climatesciencewatch.org/2011/07/22/dangerously-unprepared-congressional-budget-cuts-are-leaving-americans-vulnerable-to-climate-extremes/.) This no-bones-about-it attack, which if successful over time would threaten to leave the country dangerously unprepared to understand and manage the consequences of climate change, appears to be running into no well-presented climate narrative from Obama and congressional Democrats.
This leaves nongovernmental advocacy efforts without strong support from the top. A number of the major national environmental groups probably inadvertently contributed to the problem of softening of public opinion by focusing so much of their effort during 2009-2010 on working with the Democratic leadership to try to pass cap-and-trade legislation. There was a sense of, ‘the science is settled, people understand the problem, and now it’s time to play an insider policy game.’ This approach lost some connectivity with public opinion and the grassroots, and left a wide field of action open to counter-measures by the global warming denial machine.
Now, with Washington in gridlock and global warming on the back burner, so to speak, the focus turns to using a variety of approaches in a variety of arenas in the battle to replace ‘dirty’ energy with ‘clean’ energy. One question is, is the clean energy framing sufficiently strong as a driver of policy action in the absence of placing climate change front and center as the driver? What is the great urgency for the radical transformation that will be necessary to fundamentally change the energy system, except for the threat of global climate disruption and its disastrous consequences?
The clean energy frame has, thus far, not been sufficiently strong to overcome established patterns and organized resistance. If climate change is dropped from the discourse because it seems politically inconvenient, how much time will be lost, how will public support be maintained through the costs and inconveniences of a sustainable energy transition? And will people realize only when it is too late that failure to keep hammering away on the climate science-policy connection was a fatal error?