I wrote a piece published here and on Huffington Post last week where I snarked at environmentalists to stop being such dicks. I’m sort of regretting it because it’s not helpful at all even if it felt good to say. What started as a straight attempt to understand a friend I disagree with on climate change became acute frustration because, after talking to her and after reading books by people I admire (and often agree with), I started to understand why she was suspicious of environmentalists. (I was also on the receiving end of denier accusations from some activists so I wasn’t feeling warm and fuzzy about them anyway.)
So, I slipped into a sarcastic mood and whipped out what was partly a satirical rant which hasn’t gone over too well. It’s so weird that people don’t like being called a dick.
One funny thing is that the whole idea originated from an article written by David Roberts at Vox about reframing the discussion on climate change. It made me want to understand Julie better and talk about where we could “nudge” each other to “nearby framing” on climate change. The funny part? My rant really irritated him. So, sorry, dude. I actually like you a lot so that bummed me out.
I’m not an expert on anything (except maybe swearing) but I read and observe and write (and rant). And I think we can figure out ways to understand and work with people like Julie because she is awesome even if she calls me a goo goo lib (thank you for coming to my defense, Julie) and she’s not denying climate change because she’s a Koch zombie. She’s denying it because she doesn’t trust the messengers so maybe we (the messengers) could try a different tactic?
Oh, and sorry for calling you dicks. I call dogs that bark a lot dicks too – but I still love dogs.
Here’s the original piece:
The Goat and the Racehorse Talk about Climate Change
Climate Change Denier – that’s the name we’ve given everyone who doesn’t accept the scientific consensus on man-made climate change. In the U.S., the term is almost interchangeable with Republican. It’s uttered with derision and it’s used to imply someone is stupid or backwards. The Deniers also get all the blame for blocking action on climate change. It will be their fault when we’re all washed out to sea or living in a dust bowl with cannibals.
But it is even true? Are deniers stupid? Will it really be their fault? I have no idea but I thought I could at least try to understand the thinking better.
I’ve become friends with and started co-writing with one of these Deniers, Julie Kelly, and I can tell you that she’s one of the smartest, most quick-witted people I know. She and I have different worldviews but we’re both passionate defenders of genetic engineering technology to address global hunger and nutrition. We co-write, laugh a lot, and talk all the time but we have opposite ways of looking at things. It’s one of those interspecies friendships like goats and racehorses.
Getting to know Julie has given me some new insight into why someone can accept the scientific consensus of the safety of “GMOs” while rejecting the scientific consensus on man-made climate change. I’m also starting to understand why she might be suspicious of activists who are using climate change as the excuse to takedown capitalism.
Reading Naomi Klein’s, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, and Naomi Oreskes’, The Collapse of Western Civilization, was eye-opening for me but probably not in the way the authors intended. While I respect both women and enjoyed their books, my mind kept going back to Julie and thinking, “God, she’d be crazy not to be suspicious. They really do hate capitalists and corporations.” They’re attacking the values of nearly half the people in the United States. They are essentially saying, “The end of the world is coming and it’s your fault so we’re going to take all of your money and make you change your way of life.” I’m not sure that’s an effective way to bring people on board to fight for the climate.
After reading these books and getting to know Julie, I figured it was time to hear her out on a subject we’ve more or less avoided. I’m not trying to change her mind. I just want to understand her point of view.
Questions for Julie:
The first question is obvious: Why don’t you buy climate change?
In my view, the global warming movement is fundamentally an anti-corporate, anti-capitalist crusade, so therefore targeted at Republicans. Early on, the movement blamed suburbanites – who represented the Republican political base in the 1990s – for contributing to global warming because of our SUVs, lawnmowers and McMansions I worked for suburban legislators throughout the 90s and we were constantly on the defensive about suburban sprawl, this notion we were decimating farm land and open space to build strip malls and toll roads.
I saw firsthand how it became an urban Democrat vs. suburban Republican political battle that really had little to do with global warming. Most of them didn’t care about climate change, they carried so much animosity towards suburbanites that they would use any issue against us (I remember many Chicago Democrats, including one well-known mayor, who recoiled when I said I liked living in the suburbs). To them, we were all vapid keep-up-with-the-Joneses types with no culture or compassion.
So here we were, being scolded by urban elites who lived in overcrowded, polluted cities with rundown neighborhoods and skyscrapers. Give me a break. I was turned off early on and never turned back on.
What research have you done?
Shortly after I became involved in the GMO debate. I started getting questions about my position on climate change. It was mostly from anti-GMOers who wanted to undermine my credibility by calling me a Republican climate change denier.
So I began researching it, trying to keep an open mind. I read a few of the IPCC studies (the shorter versions for policymakers) and was surprised by some of the vagueness in the conclusions. Terms like “medium confidence” and “somewhat likely” don’t exactly sound like settled science to me.
Who or what has been the biggest influence?
Al Gore was probably my biggest influence. I always viewed him as an opportunist and I could barely get through “An Inconvenient Truth.” All the cutaways of him looking pensive, or people cheering upon his arrival somewhere? Gross. He exploited what might have been a serious issue for his own personal profit, then bought a few mansions and a private jet.
Matt Ridley’s book, The Rational Optimist, blew me away. If someone that smart can doubt climate change (I think he refers to himself as a “lukewarmist”) then I can question it, too.
Patrick Moore is another influence. I didn’t know anything about him until this past year. Even though he’s kinda out there, I think he makes a lot of sense. He has the battle scars from both sides so I trust him. And I read a lot of Robert Bryce’s stuff on energy in general.
Are you ever worried that you might be wrong?
Not really because there is nothing I could’ve done to stop it. My biggest concern is how to help people grow food in parts of the world where the climate is hostile regardless of global warming. Drought, flooding, poor soil conditions, crop diseases – none of that is new. So how do we support people who live in those inclement areas and need food security? That should be the goal, regardless of where you stand on global warming.
What would motivate you to support clean energy?
Wind and solar are fine, but have their costs and limitations. I always laugh at the extreme climate people like Bernie Sanders who love renewables and hate fossil fuels, because you still need gas as back up for intermittency problems with wind and solar.
Nuclear intrigues me. I don’t fear it and definitely see its usefulness. The work that people like Michael Shellenberger and other ecomodernists have done on this issue is really convincing. Of course, as Michael said, I like nuclear because it’s a big F-you to the lefty environmentalists. That’s probably true, too.
What annoys you about climate change activists?
I hate nothing more in life than a hypocrite. If you are going to tell someone how to run their lives, you better walk the walk. The hypocrisy in the global warming movement is laughable, if not infuriating. Al Gore is an example, so is Robert Kennedy, Jr. Movie stars are the worst. Leo DiCaprio is a total fraud. The guy travels in private jets, sunbathes on yachts (owned by – wait for it – an oil sheik) and has made a fortune in one of the most energy-intensive industries, and he wants to tell poor people in China not to burn coal? Then he gets to meet with the Pope and give a lecture at the U.N. He’s using the issue just like Gore, but not to make himself rich, to lend himself some intellectual gravitas.
Mark Ruffalo is another one, I wrote an article about him. He constantly assails the fossil fuel industry. He led an anti-fracking protest just before he boarded a plane for a transatlantic flight to collect some bullshit movie award. Maybe he doesn’t realize where jet fuel comes from, or how much carbon steel is used to build a jumbo jet. Please, just shut up.
How does it make you feel when someone calls you a denier?
Oh, I don’t give a shit. I’ve been called worse. It’s a stupid, loaded term designed to shut down a conversation. It’s like calling me a shill when I defend GMOs.
Anything you’d want people to know about your position?
I can question the science and evidence about global warming and still accept the science and evidence about GMOs just like you can believe in global warming and reject GMOs (which seems fairly more common). I do not link the two from a scientific perspective, only from an ideological perspective because they are both fundamentally anti-corporate movements. They hate Monsanto as much as they hate Exxon. I do think it’s hypocritical because genetically engineered crops have huge environmental benefits, but the antis don’t care.
Just because I don’t believe in man-made global warming doesn’t mean I don’t care about the environment. Clean air, water and land are important. Our swimming pools and golf courses need to be pristine, otherwise we’ll all be stuck at the mall! (just kidding). Once the vernacular changes a bit and the hostility toward “deniers” eases, maybe we can start to get back on the same page on these issues.
Julie clearly has some strongly held views so I think it would be futile for me to go through her answers to point out where I think she’s wrong. It wouldn’t be good for our writing partnership plus neither of us is equipped to argue the science. Genetic engineering isn’t easy but it falls more or less under one scientific discipline we’ve been able to study. Climate science, on the other hand, is much more complicated because it involves so many disciplines – atmospheric science, soil science, geophysics, geochemistry, ecology, solar physics, economics, and on and on. So, it all boils down to a matter of trust. I trust the scientific consensus, she does not.
When activists like Naomi Klein and Naomi Oreskes try to make the case that the destruction of capitalism is the only way to address climate change, then we shouldn’t be surprised when someone like Julie, who is pro-capitalism, doesn’t buy it. Klein and Oreskes want a social movement to be behind our solutions to climate change which I may agree with in a perfect world but here in the U.S., they’re talking about a social movement that would roll over nearly half the voting population so unless they’re talking about armed conflict, it’s not going to happen in time to arrest some of the catastrophic consequences of a warming planet. Consequences that they have both convincingly laid out in their respective books.
Where does this leave us? David Roberts of Vox had a piece this past March that struck a nerve with me and made me think of Julie. He discusses the research on whether or not “reframing” the discussion on climate change is worth the effort and resources required. The answer? Probably not. Humans are hard-wired to seek out information and believe information that reinforces their existing framework. Julie does it and so do I. As Roberts puts it,
“The best that could be hoped for is to nudge people to a nearby framing, one that’s amenable to their priors,…”
So, I will keep focusing on where my framing overlaps with Julie’s – food security, clean air, nuclear energy – and attempt to move in the same direction even if our motivations don’t jive. Because we seem to be reaching the point, at least according to both Oreskes and Klein, where it could be too late reverse the warming trajectory we’re on and unless they actually value their social movement more than solving this crisis, it might be time to work within the framework we have instead of the one we wish we had..
Edited to add: I do get the ridiculousness of trying got build a bridge with one side while burning down my own.