Some have encouraged me to watch Roger Pielke Jr’s presentation on Climate politics as a manichean paranoia, and I have now done so (slides here, and I’ll post the video at the end of the post.). Manichean paranoia refers to the idea that both sides regard the other as evil, that the end justifies the means, and implies a lack of willingness to engage in substantive debate. Roger’s suggestion is that there are ways to break out of this pattern, and he provides 5 basic suggestions (which I’ll discuss briefly after a few general comments).
Ideally, I’m all in favour of trying to improve the climate debate, whether that’s about climate science, or about climate policy. Attempts to do so should probably be applauded. However, Roger’s basic suggestion seems rather naive; a form of deficit model thinking, essentially. The problem isn’t that people don’t know how to engage in a reasonable debate about climate, it’s more that they either don’t want to (they’re happy for it to be adversarial), or it would require accepting things that they’re unwilling to accept.
Additionally, this was a talk hosted by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an organisation well known for promoting misinformation. There’s, of course, nothing wrong with associating with such an organisation, or being hosted by them. However, you can’t expect to not be judged in some way for doing so and if you don’t at least try to acknowledge that you understand their pedigree (or lack thereof) then that would suggest that either you endorse their misinformation, don’t have a problem with promoting misinformation, or don’t realise that they do so, which might then suggest that your understanding of the topic is somewhat lacking.
Also, if you think that the two sides of the debate are represented by James Inhofe, on one side, and Michael Mann on the other, then your sense of where the reasonable middle lies is wildly different to where most would regard it. Similarly, if you think it can be largely described as alarmists versus skeptics, then – again – you have an odd sense of where the middle should lie. Thinking we should act on climate does not make one an alarmist. Disputing mainstream climate science does not make one a sceptic. This ignores that Roger managed to use a somewhat pejorative term (alarmist) to describe one side, and quite a positive one to describe the other (skeptic).
Okay, what about Roger’s actual suggestions?
Engage with those with whom you disagree:
A reasonable suggestion, and one I’m happy to attempt, right up until the point at which it becomes abusive, which is – sadly – a common outcome. Also, Roger is known for being quite a prolific blocker on Twitter. Nothing wrong with this at all. However, if one does regularly block people on Twitter, one might be slightly circumspect about suggesting that others endeavour to engage with those with whom they disagree.
Maintain the integrity of science assessments:
Okay, I guess there is a suggestion is that we haven’t been (which I would largely dispute) but let’s at least agree that we should be willing to think about how to ensure that we do maintain their integrity.
Understand the Eff-U principle:
The suggestion here is that we should avoid saying things that are essentially interpreted as telling others to eff-off. Fair enough, makes sense. However, the key example is consensus messaging (97%). I realise that this is a controversial topic and that there may well be arguments for using it carefully, but it is essentially true (there is a very strong consensus about the basics). I simply have no problem with people highlighting truths and do have an issue with suggestions that this should be avoided.
Other examples of eff-U issues, were highlighting the so-called “pause” and claiming that climate change is a hoax. So Roger’s main examples of things we should avoid because they effectively tell another group to eff-off is something that is true (consensus), something quite nuanced (the so-called “pause”), and something completely false (hoax). Hmmmm.
Discuss policy proposals in terms of first-year benefits:
Okay, I do think we have to be careful of letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; we should be trying to develop policy that is actually achievable, rather than aiming for something that will almost certainly fail. However, the idea that we can only really develop policy that has some kind of short-term (first-year) benefit, or only a very small short-term discomfort, is somewhat concerning. Putting climate to one side, there must be occasions where it would be worth enacting some policy that will have some medium, or long-term, benefit, but no obvious/clear short-term benefit, and maybe even some short-term discomfort. You would like to think that policy experts would be thinking of ways to develop such policy, rather than claiming that there is some kind of iron law that means that it is virtually impossible. In fact, Brexit currently feels like a counter-example to this supposed iron-law.
Debate policy through causal pathways:
This doesn’t seem like an unreasonable suggestion, but what it seemed to miss was that you should also be willing to discuss the outcome of your causal pathway. Saying we can do this, and then this, and then this is certainly useful, but if we do have some idea of a carbon budget, then it would also be useful to know whether or not such a pathway might stay within that budget. This has certainly been a criticism of some policy ideas, such as ecomodernism, which seems to promote all sorts of optimistic, futuristic pathways, but doesn’t seem to really provide any kind of carbon budget.
Okay, I do think that trying to improve the climate debate is commendable, so kudos to Roger for at least trying. I should also add that if I have misunderstood some of his suggestions, feel free to point that out in the comments. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the only behaviour you can really influence is your own. So, if you have some idea of how to improve the debate, you should really start with yourself and hope that others follow suit. Telling others how they should behave in order to improve the debate is probably going to be unsuccessful, especially if you do so at an event hosted by an organisation that is regarded by many as a key player in making sensible discussion more difficult. What I will say, though, is that Roger’s talk made me think, which is always – in my view – a good thing.
Anyway, a video of Roger’s talk is below.