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.