Global warming: Did I wrongly enlist Mark Kleiman and Chris Mooney in my cause?

Back from a trip to Europe, a bad bout with the flu, and other things (more on which later), I find myself fielding the displeasure of one of my favorite bloggers on the liberal side, Mark Kleiman. In my latest Boston Globe column, I quoted what I thought was a fascinating December 16 post by Kleiman on the topic of global warming. Here, in its entirety, is the column.

GLOBAL WARMING is the subject of intense debate. But if ideology is getting in the way of science, maybe both sides of the debate are letting that happen.

While the evidence of global climate change is overwhelming, there are skeptics who challenge the consensus view that warming is caused by human activity. These individuals are routinely accused of being in the pocket of big corporations that would be hurt by aggressive measures to curb carbon emissions. (And, in fact, many of them work for groups that receive funding from such sources as ExxonMobil). Chris Mooney, author of “The Republican War on Science,” has argued that treating the issue as a legitimate debate is misleading because it bestows legitimacy on pseudoscientific propaganda.

But is everyone on the other side disinterested? On his blog, Mooney notes that sometimes “environmental groups and their ilk oversell the science.” On the issue of whether global warming is to blame for hurricanes, he says, “it’s clear the science has been abused on both sides.”

People can easily see economic motives to bend the facts and abuse the science. Ideological motives are less readily apparent, but no less real; and, for quite a few people, environmentalism has become a matter of not just ideology but quasi-religious zealotry.

Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy studies at UCLA and a self-identified liberal, noted this recently on his blog. Writes Kleiman, “To those who dislike a social system based on high and growing consumption and the economic activity that supports high and growing consumption and maintains high and growing demand (a dislike with which I have considerable sympathy), to those who think that the market needs more regulation by the state, to those who think that international institutions ought to be strengthened . . . global warming is a Gaia-send” — since it justifies drastic worldwide public action to curb production and consumption. (Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess of the earth, is a term used by many ecologists to refer to the earth as a living entity.) While Kleiman sympathizes with environmentalists, he notes that “their eagerness to believe the worst” — for instance, in Al Gore’s documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth” — “is just as evident as the right wing’s denialism.”

As an analogy, Kleiman cites many social conservatives’ attitude toward the AIDS epidemic, which has been used to portray sex outside monogamous heterosexual marriage as fraught with deadly peril and to preach the message of premarital abstinence. (Kleiman doesn’t explicitly say this, but his comments hint at another abuse of science: Many conservatives and gay rights activists, for different motives, have exaggerated the fairly tiny risk of HIV infection from heterosexual sex.)

The analogy between AIDS and global warming also extends to attitudes toward ways to remedy the problem. The religious right, Kleiman points out, pooh-poohs condoms as a way to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases because the effectiveness of such a remedy would undermine the abstinence message. Similarly, those on the left who embrace environmentalism as their substitute religion don’t want to hear about scientific and technological solutions to climate change — from nuclear power to geoengineering, the artificial manipulation of the global environment — that do not include stepping up regulation and curbing consumption.

There is a growing number of voices in the scientific community that reject both denialism and alarmism on global warming. Roger Pielke, an environmentalscience professor at the University of Colorado, calls such people “nonskeptical heretics” — those who believe that human-caused global warming is a real problem, but one that can be met in part with technological management and adaptation. Mooney has come to embrace such a viewpoint as well.

Pielke has pointed out an unfortunate tendency toward political polarization within the scientific community. Last year, Tech Central Station, a website that supports the free-market system, promoted a statement by several scientists who dismissed any connection between hurricanes and global warming — while environmental activists promoted the views of other scientists who argued that such a connection exists.

Most journalists and pundits have limited knowledge of science; as a result, they tend to pick whichever science best suits their political prejudices. Both science and journalism deserve better. Perhaps we can start by remembering that an ideological crusade can be as strong an inducement to bend the truth as the profit motive.

In his response on January 15, Kleiman writes:

The column isn’t bad, as such things go. But I don’t agree with Young nearly as much as she seems to think. And I think the column misstates the relationship between the global warming issue and nuclear power generation.

Young wants to be even-handed as between the global-warming denialists and Al Gore’s tendency to treat the extreme case as the likely case. That’s carrying even-handedness a little bit too far, and certainly further than the original post carried it. I was careful to say, in anticipation of such a misinterpretation, that the two sides aren’t “equally wrong,” and to point out that on this issue the stubbornness of the right in denying the problem has robbed it of credibility when it comes to discussing solutions.

She also attributes to me the thought that “those on the left who embrace environmentalism as their substitute religion don’t want to hear about scientific and technological solutions to climate change … that do not include stepping up regulation and curbing consumption.” That’s a considerable overstatement. Solar power, wind power, biofuels, hybrid automobile engines, “green” building techniques, and carbon sequestration are all basically technical rather than regulatory approaches; there’s quite as much techno-optimism among environmental enthusiasts as there is among space-colonization enthusiasts, though the technologies are different.

He then concludes:

I argued for a symmetry between environmentalist opposition to albedo-increasing efforts to fight global warming and religious opposition to using condoms to fight the global AIDS epidemic: between Al Gore and Pope Benedict. Young argues that distortions of the truth by those concerned about global warming are symmetric with distortions of the truth by those who deny that it’s a problem: between Al Gore and ExxonMobil. Whether or not I made out my case, I don’t think she made out hers.

However that may be, at least they’re not the same case. So while I’m flattered to be quoted, I must decline Ms. Young’s efforts to enlist me in her cause. The anti-environmental alliance, consisting of people in Adam Smith neckties who hate taxes and regulations, people in boardrooms who just want to be left alone to profitably wreck the planet, and their tame scientists, think-tank intellectuals, journalists, and politicians, blew the global warming issue. They blew it badly, and their credibility deserves to suffer for it. When they’ve taken the beam out of their own eyes, they’ll be able to better see the mote in Al Gore’s.

Re-reading my column, I see no statement that the distortions of truth have been equivalent on both sides. I think it’s pretty clear from the column that I reject global warming denialism; when citing Chris Mooney, I was very careful to note that his statement that “it’s clear that science has been abused on both sides” applies only to the issue of the relationship between global warming and hurricanes. It is true that I did not include, in the limited space of the column, Kleiman’s disclaimer: “That’s not to say the two sides are equally wrong, just that neither side starts from an impartial position in examining the science.” I don’t, frankly, see much of a point in keeping scores on who’s worse, and to me that was a fairly tangential issue.

Re-reading Kleiman’s original post, meanwhile, I see more of a moral equivalency there than he is now willing to admit. For instance, near the end of his post, he writes:

Still and all, it seems to me that denying (or ignoring) the potential of albedo-increasing approaches to control global warming isn’t much more sensible than denying global warming itself, or denying that increasing condom use would decrease HIV transmission.

The tone of Kleiman’s two posts differs in other ways as well. In the December 16 post, he asks:

So why is [geoengineering] still a fringe topic? Partly, of course, because of the stupidity of the anti-environmentalist right and its corporate sponsors, for whom denying the existence of any environmental problem is by now strongly conditioned reflex. … But largely, I submit, because the people who think Earth in the Balance was one of Al Gore’s accomplishments rather than one of the strongest reasons to doubt his fitness to be President really don’t want a non-Gaian, non-regulatory solution to their most precious problem.

The tone of this passage differs from Kleiman’s post in response to my column in two rather striking ways. In the December 15 post, Kleiman may not equate Gore with Exxon Mobil, but he does (in my reading of this passage) imply that Earth in the Balance is “one of the strongest reasons to doubt his fitness to be President.” Also, he seems to be clearly making the same assertion that he now brands as a “considerable overstatement” on my part: that ideological, left-wing environmentalists “don’t want to hear about scientific and technological solutions to climate change … that do not include stepping up regulation and curbing consumption.” (Solar and wind power, as far as I know, are widely viewed by greens as solutions that are not going to be embraced by the marketplace without stringent regulations and other coercive measures.)

As for nuclear power: Kleiman thinks I’m mistaken in lumping it together with geoengineering (which was the main focus of his December 16 post) because (1) unlike geoengineering, “nuclear power is on the table in the global warming discussion, albeit much to the dismay of the Nader-types”; and (2) unlike geoengineering, which could improve climate problems quickly, nuclear power is a long-term solution. Fair enough; but my point was that both those solutions are rejected by the environmentalist left.

Kleiman’s main concern in the January 15 post seems to be not to let the right wing off the hook. To this end, he adopts a rather mean-spirited tone, resorting to cheap caricature of corporate greedheads who want to ravage the earth and laissez-faire fanatics in Adam Smith neckties. A conservative could just as easily take a swipe at unwashed tree-huggers and hippies with ponytails who love spotted owls more than people and who are itching to take away other people’s SUVs and disposable diapers.

Yes, there has been a lot of stupidity and downright intellectual dishonesty on the right when it comes to environmental issues. But today, the “denialists” are pretty thoroughly discredited, and the obstacles to technological, adaptive solutions to global warming are at least as likely to come from the eco-fundamentalists on the left as from the anti-environmentalists on the right. That, it seems to me, is the real issue — not “who’s worse” and who deserves the greater embarrassment.

Finally, I am not trying to enlist Mark Kleiman in any “cause.” Mainly, I mentioned his post because I thought his analogy between the religious right’s attitude toward AIDS and the eco-religious left’s atittude toward global warming as punishments for each group’s deadly sin of choice (and, consequently, toward the remedies) was extremely apt and insightful. If my column does, in fact, impute to Kleiman a belief in the moral equivalence of scientific distortions on both sides in the global warming debate, I apologize.

Meanwhile, Chris Mooney takes milder exception to my column, also expressing concern that I may be unwittingly imputing to him a “pox on both their houses” position in the global warming debate:

There’s nothing literally incorrect about how my stances are portrayed in this article. But after reading it, one might get the impression that I think (as Young apparently does) that the “industry” and “environmentalist” sides are equally culpable when it comes to misusing science in the global warming debate. In fact, however, I don’t think that at all.

Yet it seems to me that the article’s second paragraph — in which I specifically state Mooney’s opinion that it is wrong to treat the existence of human-caused global warming as the subject of a legitimate scientfiic debate, and that the “denialist” argument is “pseudoscientific propaganda” — makes it pretty clear that Mooney does not think anything of the sort. I am actually in agreement with much of what Mooney — whom I had the pleasure of hearing on a panel with Ron Bailey at a Reason event a couple of years ago — has to say in his post, and I greatly appreciate his fair and measured approach.

Meanwhile, Roger Pielke likes my column (which has prompted one commenter on Chris Mooney’s blog to call him a tool of the right).

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Global warming: Did I wrongly enlist Mark Kleiman and Chris Mooney in my cause?

  1. Nick S

    Kleimann says that “the stubbornness of the right in denying the problem has robbed it of credibility when discussing solutions.” The flaw in this argument is that you don’t have to be convinced that a problem is as bad as is claimed to be able to offer possible solutions in the event that it is. Surely it is better to support possible solutions even if you are unconvinced of the extent of the problem, than to oppose solutions (like nuclear power) while demanding everyone accept how bad the problem is.

    I think Kleimann’s column makes it clear that he is more interested in scoring points against the right than in saving the planet. For many leftists, global warming is simply the latest line of attack against the market economy. Because the Left have realised they can’t win the argument about maximising economic growth, the next best line of attack is to simply discredit economic growth altogether.

    It’s typical of many leftists to argue that large corporations are the only vested interests, and that everyone who supports their causes is driven by selfless concern for the greater good. But I have no doubt that there are plenty of vested interests behind the global warming hysteria. Not least of which are European nations, which are less dependent on fossil fuels and have larger nuclear sectors, that see this issue as an opportunity to steal a march on nations like the United States, Japan and Australia. Also, scientists would probably have a vested interest in exaggerating the problem to attract more funding. Not to mention all the investors in alternative energy who are eager to gain government subsidies. Then there’s the vast number of middle-class liberals who need to feel morally superior to their fellow citizens.

    I have often thought that global warming is the secular left’s equivalent of the lake of fire that awaits us if we don’t mend our wicked ways.

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