12 November 2009

Hyper-Partisanship, Cartharsis and Non-Skeptical Heretics

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger continue their sequence of excellent analyses of what has gone wrong in the climate debate with a post focused on the hyper-partisan nature of the climate debate. The piece is worth reading in full, but the ending is especially on target:

Democratic partisans, liberals and greens have spent much of the last eight years tearing out our hair about all the ways the hyper-partisan it's-all-a-hoax! Republicans have blocked action on climate. These complaints may have been cathartic, but they have not been productive. We have not had and cannot have any impact on Republicans, and our partisan apocalypse talk and our sacrifice-now agenda are obviously alienating the vast, moderate middle.

The work of holding Republican obstructionists, anti-government extremists, and right-wing conspiracy mongers to task is work for principled conservatives, not liberals. The work of greens and liberals is to challenge the Democratic demagogues, the left-wing bullies, and the Climate McCarthyites who narrow and polarize the debate in ways that make effective policy action all but impossible. If we can hold our own hyper-partisans to account then fair-minded conservatives might do the same. For until the establishment and the grassroots on both left and right learn to say no to Joe Romm and to Glenn Beck, hyper-partisanship is here to stay.

What "left-wing bullies" (like Joe Romm) have done is turn the tactics that they have used on the "hyper-partisan it's-all-a-hoax! Republicans" onto anyone and everyone that they see any disagreement with. This has the metaphorical effect of painting themselves into a very small political corner. Nordhaus and Shellenberger do a nice job of explaining how Romm and his fellow travelers work to establish "the partisan identity of any given thing, whether it be a new technology, policy, or analysis." And guess what? If you try really hard to distinguish yourself from reasonable folks who share most of your views and might appeal to the "vast, moderate middle," you just might succeed!

The strong reaction by hyper-partisans to a New York Times article by Andty Revkin a few years ago exemplifies this behavior. Revkin wrote:

A third stance is now emerging, espoused by many experts who challenge both poles of the debate.

They agree that accumulating carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping smokestack and tailpipe gases probably pose a momentous environmental challenge, but say the appropriate response is more akin to buying fire insurance and installing sprinklers and new wiring in an old, irreplaceable house (the home planet) than to fighting a fire already raging.

“Climate change presents a very real risk,” said Carl Wunsch, a climate and oceans expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It seems worth a very large premium to insure ourselves against the most catastrophic scenarios. Denying the risk seems utterly stupid. Claiming we can calculate the probabilities with any degree of skill seems equally stupid.”

Many in this camp seek a policy of reducing vulnerability to all climate extremes while building public support for a sustained shift to nonpolluting energy sources.

They have made their voices heard in Web logs, news media interviews and at least one statement from a large scientific group, the World Meteorological Organization. In early December, that group posted a statement written by a committee consisting of most of the climatologists assessing whether warming seas have affected hurricanes.

While each degree of warming of tropical oceans is likely to intensify such storms a percentage point or two in the future, they said, there is no firm evidence of a heat-triggered strengthening in storms in recent years. The experts added that the recent increase in the impact of storms was because of more people getting in harm’s way, not stronger storms.

There are enough experts holding such views that Roger A. Pielke Jr., a political scientist and blogger at the University of Colorado, Boulder, came up with a name for them (and himself): “nonskeptical heretics.”

“A lot of people have independently come to the same sort of conclusion,” Dr. Pielke said. “We do have a problem, we do need to act, but what actions are practical and pragmatic?”

This approach was most publicly laid out in an opinion article on the BBC Web site in November by Mike Hulme, the director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research in Britain.

Dr. Hulme said that shrill voices crying doom could paralyze instead of inspire.

“I have found myself increasingly chastised by climate change campaigners when my public statements and lectures on climate change have not satisfied their thirst for environmental drama,” he wrote. “I believe climate change is real, must be faced and action taken. But the discourse of catastrophe is in danger of tipping society onto a negative, depressive and reactionary trajectory.”
I have often explained that I am not a big fan of using the term left-middle-right to describe the views of experts as expertise has many more dimensions and nuances than this simple framework. I do not claim that my views are in the "middle" of the extreme right or left, because they are not a matter of splitting the difference or triangulation. I have different views (as I think Ted and Michael would claim as well). They are not in the middle of the left and right, but they are better than those views from the standpoint of political action and policy outcomes. Thus, I do like the language of a "third perspective."

But in terms of describing the views of the public, it is entirely reasonable to say that the U.S. public is comprised mainly by people who are not on the fringe right or extreme left, so "vast, moderate middle" is an entirely fair characterization. The "vast, moderate middle" does not respond so well to hyper-partisan appeals (unless it is to reject them).

Yet, to win the hearts and minds of the American public and most decision makers depends up appealing to this vast, moderate middle. While there is plenty of cartharis involved in serving up red meat for the most ideological, this is almost certainly a strategy doomed to fail if the goal is to appeal to the vast, moderate middle. Efforts to demonize those seeking to appeal to this middle are only going to reinforce the pathologies of the hyper-partisan climate debate, and push that middle further away.


  1. As a liberal Democrat and climate skeptic, I am aghast at how people I'd normally agree with treat those who disagree with their dogma about climate change. It's a real eye opener to experience this first hand...

  2. The question of whether “it's-all-a-hoax” depends upon what the meaning of “it’s” is (apologies to Bill Clinton).

    1) Even the peer review process in publishing science has become politicized. But, this paper discussed in this post (full paper here) proves there is still some credibility left in that realm.

    Ergo, “it’s” not all-a-hoax”.

    2) The upper echelon of “journalism” has openly admitted to adopting the role of political propagandists.

    So, most what passes for environmental “journalism” is clearly “all-a-hoax” (or, at a minimum, a massive deception). Of course, some are far worse than others.

    Ergo, “it’s” very, very close, but not quite all-a-hoax”.

    3) All the politicians seeking to exploit the AGW hysteria whipped up by the so-called “journalists” are CLEARLY operating in the realm of the “hoax”.

    Ergo, here we can safely say “it's-all-a-hoax”.

    4) The most dangerously comical among AGW religious extremists are way beyond the realm of the “hoax”.

    We need something other than “hoax” to even begin to describe what Gore and Hansen engage in.

    5) As for myself…

    I would say -- based solely upon directly cited peer reviewed scientific evidence -- that the AGW alarm is the single most ill-informed (and dangerous) excuse global socialists (like Carol Browner) have EVER offered for expanding the Nanny State all around the world.

  3. He's right about the hydrogen car though. Well probably.:)

    I say the dems voted for a carbon tax and so they should have it. Let's see how much they like it! Cap and trade is obviously only an attempt to fool the public into thinking it's not really a tax while giving a nice percentage to the casino owners. So follow the French, strip off those concealing garments and present the nude tax. Maybe that'll stop the arguments about who's for action and who's against it. Make sure it all goes towards green tech though and zero for climate modeling - unless I'm doing it of course.

  4. "For until the establishment and the grassroots on both left and right learn to say no to Joe Romm and to Glenn Beck, hyper-partisanship is here to stay."

    It's bizarre that they chose Glenn Beck. Here's what Glenn Beck wrote about the about the Obama/McCain presidential contest:

    "A lot of people don't believe it, but the truth is that I really don't know whom I'm going to vote for this November. It won't be Barack Obama -- he and I simply disagree on too many fundamental issues -- but it also may not be John McCain."

    "Although I am a 'conservative,' I'm not a 'Republican,' and there's a big difference. A true Republican, or a true Democrat, is someone who puts their party above their principles and their candidate above their conscience."


    Can anyone imagine Joe Romm writing the converse (that he wouldn't vote for McCain, but also might not vote for Obama)?

    In fact, can anyone imagine ***Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger*** writing that they would not vote for McCain, but also might not vote for Obama? So arguably Glenn Beck is LESS partisan than Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger!

    A friendly tip for Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger...before you call someone "hyper-partisan," you might try finding out what their political views actually are.


  5. In an era when a 'left wing' president has pushed 23 trillion dollars of taxpayer's money toward the banks, his biggest sponsors and is conducting a global war against Muslims, we are no longer in nice, simple 1970s Carter vs Ford Kansas.

    When one realises that world saviour Albert Gore Junior spent his whole career working as a front for Occidental Oil like his father and has increased his personal fortune from 2 million dollars in 1999 to an estimated 400 million today, good guys vs bad guys gets complicated.

    If we remember that Enron pushed Gore into signing Kyoto in order to insert carbon trading into article 17, then the simple minded left vs right, saving the planet from big business narrative of the corporate media appears decidedly defective.

    Delusional would be a better description of the view that the denizens of Realclimate or Joe Romm represent the compassionate face of science.

    Everyone reading this will understand that Mike Hume's mouth is a complex polygon and that he is talking out of every side of it. Pieckle senior's 'Alternative Hypotheses About Climate Change' is an experiment to see how many scientists can stand on the head of a pin while simultaneously appearing to be on solid ground.

    What a terrible state of affairs. I am glad I am not involved. However, in case anyone thinks I am a complete cynic, I do appreciate this blog very much.

  6. I always astonished at how the people like Joe Romm (whom I guess never dreamt of being called a bully)attack the people who agree more than disagree with them about the science of climate change.

    Many activist prefer bringing the topic on the disagreement, instead of working with what they everyone agree about.

    For example, I don't agree with Al Gore on must of what he says, except that the other week on the Rachel Maddow show, he went on to say that climate policy would be good for the USA to be more independent for their energy.

    I don't believe that climate policy makes much sense, while policy that would help countries be more independent for their energy would make sense.

    Since many policy that could help climate change aren't that different then policy that could help achieve energy independence, it would be much easier to work with what most people can agree about.

    I could accept a carbon for energy policy and not for climate change.

    I hope it makes sense.

  7. It’s ironic that those who are not on the global warming bandwagon are labeled “anti-government extremists” by those who are, as a pejorative. Assuming that those who are not on the bandwagon are politically motivated, that motivation is the same as those who founded the US, risked all for its independence, and wrote its Constitution. The Constitution was designed specifically to limit the powers of the national government and to make it difficult for those powers to be abused or expanded. So, the Founders were indeed “anti-government extremists” in that they held the extreme belief that ordinary people could form and grow a nation without a monarch and the burden of his ministers.

  8. "If we can hold our own hyper-partisans to account then fair-minded conservatives might do the same."

    Hah. I used to live in DC and work for a political party, though not one of the big old ones. DC political operatives have a term for those who forsake red meat politics out of the kind of attitudes quoted above. They call it surrender. The other side then redoubles its efforts by going for the jugular, privately calling the other side suckers.

    Romm is an experienced DC operative who understands this process. Red meaters generally have a limited lifespan in that role (which most of them are thankful for since they don't usually relish the role). If you and others succeed in loading him with enough baggage, "they" will just find somebody else to fill the role. It's a normal progression.

    The whole process is poisonous of the public weal, but it has been that way in this country most of the time since Jefferson and Hamilton used funds earmarked to their cabinet departments for printing expenses to fund newspapers to attack the other side. It's not a good system, but it is the US system.

    I would also assert that dire warnings are not good politics, whether or not they are true and accurate. People don't want to be told that their lifestyles are "bad for the planet" any more than they want to be told that daily cheeseburgers are bad for their health. The whole "Breakthrough" premise seems to be built on avoiding this by speaking pablum that won't scare anybody. Sometimes we need to be scared.

  9. And to Mark Bahner, you are right about Beck. He is not hyper-partisan. He is a hyper-ideologue.

  10. Received by email:

    ""enforce anti-environmental orthodoxy on the Right."

    "The work of holding Republican obstructionists, anti-government extremists, and right-wing conspiracy mongers..."

    This type of name-calling is what passes for moderation from the pro-GW side?

    I am an atmospheric scientist and I consider myself a strong environmentalist. But, I believe this pollution www.chinahush.com/2009/10/21/amazing-pictures-pollution-in-china/ is a far greater threat to our environment and humanity than global warming. I believe most people with common sense would agree.

    Lomborg's recent posting in the WSJ, Global Warming as Seen from Bangladesh, (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704402404574523493799731188.html ) makes a similar point. As he states, it would cost billions to fix these problems which would have an immediate beneficial effect rather than spending trillions based on obviously flawed computer models of the future.

    The person on the street is more discerning than many of us scientists give them credit for. Until pro-GW advocates can make a more cogent argument than "the sky is falling" as to why we should ignore the deplorable conditions in China, Bangladesh and other areas of the underdeveloped world and spend trillions on their pet cause -- and make the argument without name calling -- their efforts are doomed to failure.

    Thank you,


  11. -10-Mike -- in a very well spoken comment -- sez:

    “Until pro-GW advocates can make a more cogent argument than ‘the sky is falling’ as to why we should ignore the deplorable conditions in China, Bangladesh and other areas of the underdeveloped world and spend trillions on their pet cause -- and make the argument without name calling -- their efforts are doomed to failure.”

    Mike - Don’t hold your breath! The AGW alarm has absolutely nothing to do with any concern for the environment and never did.

    Just like so-called Health Care “reform”, the AGW alarm is a Socialist power grab, plain pure and simple.

    There is a reason why Obama selected an overtly and undeniably Socialist Lawyer as his Energy and Climate Change Czar.

  12. I've become so focused and familiar with the climate change issue of late, I sometimes forget to step back and view the issue from a wider perspective.

    The American hyper-partisanship that's progressively plaguing this issue as we draw nearer to Copenhagen and a vote on legislation is affecting many more issues than just climate change.

    I wonder if we'd have to deal with the Romms and Becks of the world, or at least if they would have as much influence, if the US joined the vast majority of the rest of the democratic world by employing some form of a proportionally representative electoral system.

    I don't agree with all their stances - especially, having grown up in a rural area of a rural state, I don't support a popular presidential election - but yay for FairVote.org supporting a PR system in the US. Seems unlikely it'll happen any time soon, if ever, but in my own view, it's almost a necessary precursor to dealing with other political issues in any kind of rational and less-corrupt way.

  13. I doubt most folk find SBVOR's arguments very cogent either and it would be nice if he did without the name-calling too. Not that "Socialist" is name-calling if it is actually directed at a real socialist, most of whom seem opposed to the health care bill in it's current form anyway. Mandated insurance only becomes socially democratic if it is fairly priced. If set at a price the poorest can't afford to pay, it is not socialist by any measure. The same applies to any climate levy.

    The irony is that both sides pretend to care about the poorest in society while simultaneously doing their utmost to ignore them - as Lomberg points out very well.

    Meanwhile, while the left and right are fighting like cats in a bag, everyone worldwide is already paying the Goldman Sachs carbon tax, which currently amounts to 100% on the price of a barrel of oil. Worse still, US taxpayers are funding the theft. Not current taxpayers mind you - your children and grandchildren's taxes (if i may be Rudd-like). Any mandated carbon tax would be laughably puny in comparison.

    I wish Mike could feel free to speak out to his own colleagues so we could stop the charade. Green tech is actually progressing and providing jobs. The danger now is that it will be buried by big nuclear, not big oil.

  14. -13-jgdes,

    Noting that we can always count on you to defend Socialism…

    Why is it that Socialists always cry “name calling” when they are accurately described as such? Is it all part of the culture of victimhood promulgated by the Socialists?

    1) If you contend that Carol Browner -- Obama’s Energy and Climate Change Czar -- is not “an overtly and undeniably Socialist Lawyer” then you have clearly not examined the evidence.

    2) If you contend that the so-called Health Care “reform” sought by the Dims since at least the days of FDR’s so-called “Second Bill of Rights”, is anything other than “a Socialist power grab” then you have clearly not examined the evidence.

    Just the facts, jgdes, just the facts -- fully supported by the evidence.

  15. Well I'm all for the facts and I've been known to defend conservatism too. Nor am I socialist either. In fact I find government bureaucracy over here in France is hugely counter-productive. But everyone in Europe, of every political stripe, agrees that a social safety net is a price worth paying.

    The thing is, in France socialism is a highly respected mainstream stance, quite distinct from Marxism, Communism etc who have their own parties (largely rejected at the polls). It is quite ridiculous to call a member of the US democrats a socialist. They aren't even close. Perhaps FDR was and perhaps the new deal was a good thing, despite the frantic revisionism of it (noting the somewhat drastic results of that revisionism)! But I'm not an ideologue, I prefer to judge by results and I see the most progressive US states just happen to have the highest GDP. Coincidence?

    Calling someone a socialist is an insult unless that person claims to be a socialist. There is certainly no shame in it, just as there is no shame in being a liberal or conservative. You however mean it to be pejorative - as a scaaaaary thing that all little US children should fear.

    If I may point you to a left wing site - counterpunch.org - you'll find constant criticism of Obama, the Democrats and this so-called health care reform bill. They aren't the closed-minded control-freaks your right wing shock jocks like you to believe. Ever wondered if you are being manipulated?

    It's up to you guys to decide but you'll likely never get the health care we receive in France, ie better, universal and cheaper, partly private and partly public. I have witnessed the really poor US system at first hand; relatives refused cover because they had the cheek to be seriously ill, friends made bankrupt by a short stay in hospital, others paying most of their weekly wage for really poor cover, or even just me walking guiltily past someone profusely bleeding from a neck wound because I had cover and they didn't. I can only presume those who think it's all quite wonderful have never really needed to use it for something serious and so haven't discovered the truly awful truth.

    I note that all US politicians have full and free health cover. That's like going up the ladder and then pulling it up after you so nobody else can get there. If they had any conscience they'd either give that up and pay like everyone else, or else have the good grace to give the decision to an independent body.

    Sorry Roger for being off topic. I won't do it again.

  16. -15-jgdes,

    Since the odds of surviving cancer are notably higher in the USA than in France, you can keep your fantasy of Socialism providing you with better health care -- even in France.

    And, don’t even TRY that tired old canard of life expectancy (which is driven almost entirely by genetics and lifestyle -- with the quality of the healthcare system having virtually NOTHING to do with it).

    A government “safety net” is a lame excuse for those who are too selfish to donate to the FAR more effective and FAR more efficient private charities. It’s for those who prefer to compel others -- through FORCE of law -- to provide what they -- themselves -- are unwilling to provide.

    As for the rest of your usual Euro-Socialist nonsense, click here for the response.

  17. The history of environmental politics starts with the ultra conservatism of Nazi Germany. It was central to Nazi philosophy. They despised capitalism for a number of reasons. They wanted to return to a rural idyll (for Arians.


    The modern movement was unsurprisingly reborn in Germany (1983 election) but steadily became a home for disillusioned socialists who saw it as a way of fighting back against big business. I saw this myself attending Green Party meetings in Glasgow in the late 1980s.

    Today, there seems to be tendency for those who lean to the left to identify with the AGW cause. However, I cannot see the connection between Barack Obama, Al Gore, Tony Blair, James Hansen or George Soros and left wing politics.

    There is also the incredible enthusiasm of every corporate entity on earth for agw and Enron's role in promoting it.

  18. "I see the most progressive states just happen to have the highest GDP."

    jgdes - This is the tip of the iceberg. Virtually all countries in the world with a high degree of prosperity have a relatively high degree of government participation in the economy, and taxes to support it. Of course not all countries with active governments are prosperous. Government needs to be reasonably efficient and rational in how it operates. Some are and some are not.

    But you are right about ideology vs ratioanlly judging results. The empirical evidence that prosperity is built on reasonably good governance providing some basic services - like communication, transportation, as a minimum - is overwhelming, but ideologues will always find a reason to discount the evidence. Dogmatism defines ideologues.

    As to the subject of this post, I would suggest that if people want to undermine hyper-partisanship in this or any political area, the first step should be to recruit those on the "other" side who are offering to counter their own ideologues.

  19. -18-Dean,

    Let’s examine the evidence.

    Now, tell me again who is ignoring the evidence in deference to ideology.

    If big government is such a blessing, why does even the Pew Center on the States know that California is the most bankrupt state in the nation?

    Soon, the entire nation will get to bailout California.

    Are the most bank robbers located where the most banks are? IF there is a correlation between big government and high GDP, THERE is your explanation!

    The government which governs best, governs least.

  20. If SBVOR's "evidence" about everything else is as good as his evidence on health care then he'll be ignoring everything that disagrees with his preferred perspective. Like this for example:

    "In a Commonwealth Fund-supported study comparing preventable deaths in 19 industrialized countries, researchers found that the United States placed last. While the other nations improved dramatically between the two study periods—1997–98 and 2002–03—the U.S. improved only slightly on the measure."


    So who then compiled the cancer survivors list? Ex-Enron or Worldcom employees? Or was it the same jokers that calculate the faked jobless numbers

    Well actually I found out after very little research that the Cancer survival rate is thought to be artificially boosted up by the large number of false positives that other nations just don't count. It also doesn't include those without insurance in the first place - a rather sizable number.

    By the way that low life expectancy is due to a high infant mortality. Sorry RJ, couldn't leave it alone.

  21. And this nice link shows that California, in common with most progressive states has been a net donor to the government since 1986. In 2005 receiving 78 cents for every dollar paid. The difference of course was spent in subsidies to the Red states.
    So if that subsidy situation is reversed this year - due in some small part to them having elected a big spending Republican governor - then it's only fair.

    Well of course the entire country would be technical bankrupt without the rest of the world buying up US debt (presumably to prop up the dollar) but States don't have the luxury of making dollars out of thin air like the Fed does. If the US system was truly so palpably better than Europe then such a situation wouldn't have arisen of course. It's time for some folk to start smelling what they're shoveling and balance the overall budget.