The Climate Extremes

Can the public discourse snap out of its own negative feedback loop?

A core tenet of climate science involves feedback loops, which as the Guardian explains, “is the equivalent of a vicious or virtuous circle — something that accelerates or decelerates a warming trend.” Many climate feedback scenarios are worrisome, and some others have been overblown. The general concern is lucidly articulated by one environmental policy expert, who writes: “Climate change feedback loops are self-reinforcing cycles; problems that echo off each other and quickly spiral out of control.”

Commentary

Scientifically speaking, how climate feedbacks will play out remains to be determined. But there can be no doubt that the public discourse is trapped in a negative feedback loop. To a great degree, this reflects the larger political landscape that has reduced dialogue on most issues to mud wrestling. As Alex Berezow wrote in the American Spectator last year: “One thing that both sides of the political spectrum seem to agree on is the notion that political discourse in this country has become increasingly shrill, hyperbolic, and dominated by two extremes.”

Berezow goes on to cite climate change as “perhaps the best example” of a scientific issue caught in this vortex. He writes: “One extreme argues that climate change will cause billions of people to starve/drown/burn/die of horrible diseases. The other extreme says that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by people wanting to establish global socialism.”

These extremes are fortified through their separate echo chambers (via political actors, interest groups, partisan bloggers, and media outlets), which amplify the polar ends of the climate spectrum. The Web, for all its positives, is also partly responsible for this feedback loop, as many of us have built customized media silos. Such cocooning encourages our ideological and political biases.

Mainstream media, because they are attracted to the loudest voices and most politically agitated — the “bright, shiny objects,” they like to say — reinforce the loop with their coverage of the extremes. For example, a recent New York Times story reported:

Across the country, activists with ties to the Tea Party are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations-led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.

As the Times story makes clear, the Republican Party (and one of its presidential candidates, Newt Gingrich) is echoing this U.N. connection on the campaign trail, which then reinforces an eco-conspiracy narrative that gets amplified at the national level. We’ve already seen how this dynamic has shaped the election-year debate on climate change. One side (the GOP) has made rejection of climate science a litmus test for electability. Meanwhile, on the other side of the spectrum, eloquent climate writers argue that civilization is doomed if urgent action is not taken, and quickly, on climate change.

Democrats by and large don’t echo this argument (much to the chagrin of climate activists), so there is not an equivalency. Still, that either/or frame pretty much sums up the terms of the public debate, as the American Spectator‘s Berezow noted: Climate change is either part of a massive hoax or it’s going to be the end of mankind. He also suggests there is a “bright side” to the “two commonalities between the warring factions: (1) Neither argument remotely resembles reality; and (2) Both sides find it politically expedient to smear the credibility of scientists.”

The implication here, it seems, is that the two extremes cancel each other out. Evidence for that, however, is sorely lacking. Indeed, the extremes have created a noxious feedback loop that has made the climate debate increasingly nasty and irrational. Is there any way to break this vicious cycle?

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
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17 Responses to The Climate Extremes

  1. harrywr2 says:

    Evidence for that, however, is sorely lacking.

    The policy debate related to climate originally started out as a notion that developed countries would be able to cut CO2 emissions sufficiently to allow to grow ‘on the back of cheap coal’. Both sides of the echo chamber are still holding onto this premise.

    As recently as Cancun the policy debate shifted as developing countries are faced with the question of ‘What cheap coal’? The Chinese and Indian’s are both importing $100/tonne Australian and South African steam coal. Not exactly what one would call ‘cheap’, and growing ones economy of the back of ‘expensive energy’ would be something of a magic trick.

    So the new policy debate that has ‘left the station’ without the usual suspects on board is how to provide developing countries with the technology to ‘skip coal’.

    Cancun explicitly stated ‘technology transfer’.

    So just as the children of divorcing couples eventually grow up and move out of the house while their parents continue to feud over custody…so has the Global Climate Change Policy Debate.

  2. Kennneth Orski says:

    Is there any way to break this vicious cycle?” asks Keith Kloor. Yes, admit that belief in global warming is a religion and therefore not subject to a rational debate.

  3. melty says:

    “Is there any way to break this vicious cycle?”

    Not while America remains an oligarchy whose political system is dominated by the wealthy; a system so obviously anti-democratic and clearly abhorrent — but rationalized by a pretense that donations should be protected as “free speech”. While money is speech and corporations are people, we will continue to slowly submerge into an Orwellian dystopia. I don’t think that is not too pessimistic, based on the last 12 years.

  4. Bridget F. says:

    Mr. Kloor,

    I was interested in your opinion – and any opinion – on the idea that the climate change debate is stalled because those protecting the status quo (which include climate deniers, companies who understand they will lose a great deal if climate change regulation occurs, the global ‘north’, etc.) are more effective in framing the debate. They emphasize the problematic tendencies of regulating climate forcing gases and the concept that climate change legislation/ government efforts would induce unknown and unpredictable consequences for the economy and political stability.

    The other side of the argument – that the climate is changing and it is human’s responsibility to mitigate the change – is having a harder time pursuing a recognizable and steady set of frames for climate change. Depending upon the values or mission of an author or advocate, climate change might be an environmental stewardship issue, a national security issue, a long-term economic issue (costs of adaptation are higher than costs of mitigation), a social justice issue (global north exploiting the atmosphere at the expense of the global south), etc. This is by no means an expansive list, but it makes the initial point that those advocating for climate mitigation occupy such a broad spectrum of interests and arguments that it is difficult for the average person to pin down ‘what climate change debates are all about’.

    Simply put, is this more an issue of which ‘side’ is more effective at framing the argument than the merit or plausibility of the arguments themselves?

    I appreciate your opinion.

  5. Erl Happ says:

    No warming since 1997! Where is the problem?

  6. keith Kloor says:

    Bridget F,

    There are numerous scholars and experts who have much greater insight than me into the intractable politics of climate change. I think David Victor (and his latest book) is essential reading. Here’s an essay that’s a good overview of his thinking:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/apr/04/un-climate-change

    I’d similarly recommend Roger Pielke Jr’s book, The Climate Fix.

    I also think Mike Hume’s book, “Why we disagree about climate change,” is another must read:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Disagree-About-Climate-Change-Understanding/dp/0521727324

  7. RickA says:

    I don’t see the debate ending anytime soon.

    The data is just plain ambiguous – so each side can find lots of papers and data to support their position.

    I think it will take until 2100 to resolve the debate.

    That will allow for the collection of worldwide climate data which is clean, and also allow for an actual measurement of climate sensitivity instead of trying to calculate it from models (which are crappy and incomplete).

    My bet is that climate sensitivity will turn out to be a lot lower than 3C, more like 1.2C – but only time will tell.

  8. keith Kloor says:

    Chris Mooney has a related post up today that is worth checking out: http://www.desmogblog.com/santorum-calls-global-warming-hoax-suggesting-full-fledged-climate-conspiracy-theory

    Mooney discusses Republican Presidential candidate Rick Santorum’s recent charges that global warming is a “hoax.” It’s utterly absurd. Mooney writes:

    “If we had a reasonable national discourse, making the ‘hoax’ charge about global warming would get Santorum labeled a conspiracy theorist.”

    Of course, the point of my post is that we don’t have a reasonable national discourse about climate change.

    • harrywr2 says:

      Of course, the point of my post is that we don’t have a reasonable national discourse about climate change.

      We have multiple ‘utility scale’ wind demonstration projects operating, multiple ‘utility scale’ new nuclear demonstration projects proposed or under construction , multiple ‘utility scale’ solar projects, more money flowing into ‘storage technology demonstration projects’ then at any time in history.

      It’s ‘half-time’ at the ‘energy super bowl’.

  9. Gary Braasch says:

    Keith, what’s the evidence for this statement in your wrap-up, assuming it is meant to say the two sides are equally active and vociferous: “Both sides find it politically expedient to smear the credibility of scientists”? There are very few climate scientists on the denier side. If you are just saying that some of those are called in for criticism or their funding sources identified sometimes, how can that even slightly compare with the vitriol, threats, and personal insults levied by many denier posts and articles against a broad spectrum of climate scientists who are in the consensus? One might tally the apparent viewpoints of those who respond to climate articles to see if the number of “smears” is even close to equal.

    • keith Kloor says:

      Gary,

      Do I think the bad behavior is equally proportionate? No. It’s obvious from the political dialogue alone (See Rick Santorum this week, for example) that one side is on the fringe, with the other side feeling compelled (understandably so) to rebut the smears.

      But at this point, the feuding has taken on a Hatfield/McCoy dynamic. I think that’s what I’m trying to get at.

      • Eadler says:

        I am glad that you have rejected the idea that people who accept the science behind global warming are equally culpable with the Heartland Institute and the Republican Right for the way the discussion has proceeded.
        I took your blog post as an equal condemnation of both sides.

  10. Steven Sullivan says:

    I hope Berezow at least acknowledges the small but enthusiastic role the American Spectator and its master, R. Emmett Tyrell, have played in achieving our current shrill, vicious, hyperbolic state of American politics.

  11. Jon Flatley says:

    This has been mentioned at times before – and I’ll mention this again…as long as the whole thing is even called a “debate” the fossil fuel industry and their friends are winning some of the public opinion. (and as a result hurting the chances of saving the earth from runaway global warming) That’s all they (skeptics) have, they have a vested interest in keeping up the “debate”, which the media welcomes with open arms.

    Once the rhetoric falls silent, the clear science is undeniable. The truth – science – has no need to debate. Only the misinformed with their livelihood on the line are compelled to stoke the fire of debate.

  12. hunter says:

    Not being a supporter of Santorum, and not knowing his thoughts well, I would still offer a context in which his summary of AGW was probably made. AGW (the social movement) is making false claims about risks and evidence, and is proposing bad policies for dealing with what they see as a crisis. When people started standing up against eugenics, at first in small numbers, and pointing out the problems, bad evidence and poor policy solutions eugenics believers were pushing, they were also dismissed by the enlightened eugenics supporters.
    In that sense AGW is a fraud.