Having Only One Loud Minority Makes the Climate Change Debate Lopsided and Dangerous

Dave Roberts makes a forceful argument that climate campaigners should prioritize activating their base and expand from there to reach the persuadable middle. Roberts cites Yale’s “Six America’s” survey, which puts the 12 percent of Americans who are “alarmed” about climate change on one end of the spectrum and the 10 percent who are “dismissive” on the other. Everybody else is, to one degree or another, much less engaged in the climate debate.
The consequences of these numbers are relatively straightforward for politicians at the federal level.  If a large enough portion of a given House member’s potential primary voting base is dismissive of climate science, embracing climate change will open them up to a primary challenge. So they stick to the script and deny climate change is real or, if they can’t accept that, don’t talk about it at all. Vocally acknowledging what scientists are telling us is verboten for them. It practically invites a primary challenge.
How did acknowledging a scientific reality turn into a litmus test for some politicians? And what does this mean for the future of our country?
The stalemate strategy

A man shouts at former Sen. Arlen Specter in August 2009. Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images North America

From the perspective of corporations such as Koch Industries that are keenly interested in blocking federal progress on addressing (or even acknowledging) climate change, their strategy is simple: target part of the base of at least one major political party and make them more dismissive of climate change. From their perspective, getting just five to 10 percent of the American public on board with their agenda is a win because those minorities can have outsize impact in low-turnout primaries.

Through investments in a variety of front groups and heavy spending on campaign contributions, they’ve been able to flood a narrow and strategic zone with anti-science messages about climate change. Specifically, they’ve targeted the Tea Partiers, who far and away are more likely to be dismissive of climate science than other Republicans.

Self-identified Tea Partiers are also much more likely to tune into Rush Limbaugh and Fox News, sometimes exclusively. A former Limbaugh staffer works for a leading climate denial non-profit and regularly pumps info into the show. Fox News is far more likely to interview climate deniers than people who accept the science and even its news department has issued directives urging reporters to inaccurately report on climate science. That said, the organization is not a monolith and there have been some good examples of climate change interviews and reporting there.

But from the perspective of the companies and ideological groups that want to block action, pumping resonant messages about creeping socialism, environmentalism and Al Gore into the conservative media creates a cohesive (but scientifically inaccurate) memeplex that feeds on itself. By memeplex, I mean a set of beliefs that have, among other things, built-in defense mechanisms that let people ignore conflicting memes. So, for instance, even though scientists universally say human-induced climate change is occurring, the memeplex also contains the assertion that scientists are making it all up. Accordingly, climate deniers have invested increased time and attention to beating up on individual researchers to put a face on that argument. While those attacks are morally reprehensible and simply wrong, they serve the deniers’ agenda well.

At a February 2011 Conservative Political Action Conference meeting a group invited participants to throw eggs at pictures of Al Gore and leading climate researcher Michael Mann. Photo by Republic-of-Gilead.blogspot.com.

By expanding and deploying this memeplex, flooding specific media with flawed arguments, and capturing a small, but vocal sliver of the engaged electorate, the climate deniers have moved acceptance or rejection of climate science findings from a political signifier to a classic litmus test for many Republican candidates. And given our special system of checks and balances, a divided government gives them the stalemate on broad climate policy they want.

How the strategy distorts the rest of the debate

Roberts notes the relationship this strategy has to the Overton window. The extremists can make wild claims in one corner — for instance, there is a vast and shadowy conspiracy of climate scientists — thus allowing someone who wants to maintain some appearance of moderation, such as a presidential candidate who eventually needs to run in a general election, say something like, “We just can’t be sure how much human activity is contributing to climate change.” In the absence of the extreme voices, such a statement would seem very wrongheaded. After all, it stands in direct contradiction to what decades of observational data and our own National Academy of Sciences has to say. But in comparison to people who say the Earth is cooling and climate change is a United Nations plot, such ambivalent statements sound reasonable to the uninitiated and are rarely newsworthy.

And this year, in particular, deniers have taken to classic propaganda techniques, labeling anyone who even breathes an accepting word about climate science an “alarmist.” Newt Gingrich has never been a huge advocate for seriously addressing climate change, yet climate deniers have claimed he is just another “alarmist” in an attempt to paint him into a corner and intimidate other politicians into distancing themselves from the issue.

I’ve also noticed far more references to climate scientists as “priests” in a “movement.” Most scientists find that idea weird and a little laughable. But it’s another example of climate deniers trying to paint them into a corner, labeling any scientist who is simply doing his or her job collecting and analyzing data about climate change another “alarmist.”

There are a lot of Republicans who are perturbed by the anti-science coming from some of their colleagues but who haven’t spoken out about it. Certainly, ex-members such as former House Science Committee Chairman Sherry Boehlert have been quite vocal about the key role science plays in fostering innovation and economic growth and the unacceptable consequences of science denial. They have the freedom to speak their minds without worry for the shift in attitude among the “dismissive” climate deniers have brought about over the past several years.

Many Republicans who are currently in office remain silent, fearful probably of bringing up an issue that splits the party and invites a primary challenge from the extremists. The National Journal found as much in a recent survey of House and Senate Republicans on climate science. Most of them refused to answer basic questions about their take on whether or not human-induced climate change is real, including House Speaker John Boehner. “The speaker’s job is to maintain unity in a caucus constantly on the verge of fracturing and to also try to increase his party’s majority in 2012,” Coral Davenport and her colleagues wrote. “His advisers fear that taking a clear position on climate change could crack the caucus in two and stop the cash flow from the biggest campaign money machines.”(I sincerely hope National Journal will expand its excellent survey to Democrats and independents. These sort of evaluations should be non-partisan and I suspect they’d find some chirping crickets on the other side of the aisle, too.)

That second reason — campaign money machines — is important, too. Energy companies are among the top contributors to candidates and oil and coal interests dominate the sector’s political spending. And it’s pretty obvious by looking at which members of Congress their money goes to that their strategic focus is on Republicans, just as many of these same companies have invested in the Tea Party as a way of influencing Republicans.

The unfortunate reality: climate keeps changing, regardless of our political beliefs

Unfortunately, the climate deniers’ strategic chickens are coming home to roost as communities grapple with how to respond to a changing climate. Recently, the Washington Post highlighted one consequence in a coastal Virginia community dealing with the prospect of sea-level rise. A public planner who is looking to prepare for climate change at the municipal level, found himself targeted by a Tea Party group that was offended by the idea of even recognizing that climate change might affect their own community. He said he’s been called “a dupe for the [United Nations]” a talking point right out of the climate denier playbook.

Unfortunately, planning and infrastructure decisions made today need to take sea-level rise, changes in precipitation, and other climate-related factors into account, regardless of whether or not Congress does anything to dramatically reduce the emissions that are driving modern climate change.

The cynical strategy of the fossil fuel industry and the politicians who have gone along with it aren’t just defaulting on our future by ignoring climate change; they’re hurting the very communities they claim to represent. And the local groups targeted with climate denial messages are now taking their jaundiced view of climate science to planning meetings — just as some others have taken it to school boards — and are trying to undermine efforts to offer long-term protection for their own homes, their families and their neighbors.

That fact should make the “alarmed” even more so and perhaps provides an opening for making people care more about this issue. Too many of our political leaders are letting the industries primarily responsible for climate change and the ideological extremists they support hold our future hostage. They’re fiddling out an anti-science tune while the Southwest burns and the glaciers melt.

There is also much room for more conservatives to speak out. To extend Roberts’ argument a bit, more conservative voices speaking out about climate change can help encourage other conservatives to end their silence on the issue and discourage some who might consider embracing climate denial. New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a Tea Party darling no less, embraced climate science even while he critiqued climate policy.

Having worked for a Republican member of Congress from New Jersey (Jim Saxton), I know Garden State politicians recognize the special role the shore plays in the state’s economy. A threat that coastline is viewed as existential in many communities.

At Commentary, Kenneth Silber advanced an argument he thinks might resonate with a conservative audience: get rid of some payroll taxes and make up the revenue with carbon taxes.

We need more ideas like that. Both sides should understand that science presents us with problems — whether it’s lead contamination, tobacco smoking and lung cancer, or climate change — and that denying the reality of that science should never be an option. Both sides should be willing to come to the table with competing views on climate change policy, but a shared understanding of the science.

That will take more conservatives shifting the window back toward the middle to include reasonable reactions to the challenges of climate change. And it will take more of the “alarmed” making it clear to their representatives that neither climate denial nor silence in the face of a changing climate are acceptable responses.

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