Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Impending Catastrophe

Chris Horner is all giddy and flushed because polls suggest that after the last eight years of gruesome warfare, inadequate healthcare, and general economic catastrophe, Americans do not view global warming as the most serious threat they face.

He also finds it bwahaha-worthy that people who do not believe in an unprecedented worldwide conspiracy to falsify decades of climate data are trying to figure out how to make a better public case for the demonstrable but complex facts on their side of the argument:

One of their contributors asking for suggestions would seem to indicate that they have yet to be clued in on talks about what to call this Edsel of a movement, on the heels of Pew and Rasmussen polling showing their team has wasted hundreds of millions of PR dollars already over the decades trying to sell this loser to the public.
If Horner is too modest to trumpet his own contributions to this outcome, that's fine. But he really ought to acknowledge all the visionary petrochemical firms that have done their utmost to prevent Americans from grasping the simple difference between climate and weather. Lord knows he wouldn't be writing this post without them!

Still, he has a point. Climate alarmists have indeed failed to exploit every rhetorical opportunity available to them. For example: It'll be 91 degrees tomorrow in Kuala Lumpur, but you won't see Al Gore hitting the networks to offer this context-free fact as a commonsense proof of global warming...even though highly trained cadres of junior climatalogical discoverists routinely treat every snowflake north of the equator as another nail in Gore's piano-sized coffin.

By the same token, references to the work of Tyndall, and magisterial explanations of borehole thermometry, aren't nearly as memorable as alliterative mantras like "it's the sun, stupid" or clever puns like "glow-ball warming," the conscientious use of which can make even the dimmest regulars at a topless barbershop sound like the Algonquin Round Table.

On the other hand, the GOP has spent millions on anti-choice dogmatics, and billions more on PR for George W. Bush and his awesomely outrageous wars, only to lose the White House to a black man with a foreign name whom it portrayed as a believer in postpartum abortion. So perhaps a little perspective is in order.

Also, a majority of Americans do believe in AGW, despite the past eight years of governmental interference with climate scientists. It's hard not to believe that public interest in this issue will increase under Our Supreme Exalted Dictator-for-Life Barack Hussein-Osama (especially once the re-education centers are up and running).

The most interesting thing about Horner's piece is that it follows a standard narrative in which the Right's enemies are everywhere and all-powerful, and yet weak as kittens. They're terrifying in their lust to destroy Western civilization, but so ridiculous and transparent that a child could see through them.

One of the things that makes communicating environmental threats difficult is that it tends to frighten people and make them apathetic. The denialist brand of alarmism is quite a bit different, in that it combines a constant threat with an equally constant spectacle of slapstick failure, and makes its believers feel that they're helping to solve the problem simply by laughing at Algore's weight. The Climate Conspiracy may be elementally evil...but how far is it going to get, realistically, when anyone can look out the window during one of Gore's speeches and see that it's snowing?

The ability of these people to live in simultaneous states of high peril and insouciant, cigar-chomping triumph has always fascinated me, and it's with this in mind that I approach David Robert's two-pronged call for a somewhat similar outlook:
  1. Greens, politicians, and other communicators need to get serious about calling climate change the impending catastrophe it is, with serious, dire consequences for people now living, certainly for their children. That means risking being called "hysterics" by conservatives and their dupes in the media.

  2. The same folks need to get better at showing the public the opportunities and benefits of action. It's about expanding the winner's circle and making damn sure everybody in it, or potentially in it, knows about it.
A couple of points come to mind. First, these communicators have been called "hysterics" for years, no matter how optimistic they claimed to be about our Bright Green Future, so I agree that worrying about the "risk" of being called this name is pointless.

On the other hand, "hysterics" is actually a pretty effective slur when it comes to climate change, for reasons ranging from the ordinary person's preoccupation with more immediate woes, to the toxic identity politics that misogynistically interprets sane concern for the environment and animals as womanish and shrill. This being the case, I'm not sure that a bold new resolve to be called names that you'll be called in any case is going to turn the tide, no matter how insistent you are about the Impending Catastrophe.

One alternative, I guess, would be to personalize things, as Horner and his ilk do when they pretend that AGW stands or falls with Al Gore. Instead of focusing on what needs to be done to help the environment, focus on the people who are standing in the way, and their motivations.

That's a dangerous course of action, and a distracting one, with far more opportunities for failure than success, and I've seen very little evidence that the modern Left is up to the job. That said, if there's ever been a time in recent American politics when the public is ready for that sort of message, this is it. In my view, the "communicators" Roberts talks about ought to be a little more willing to be accused of "class warfare," now and again.

But overall, I wonder if we need to fight "global warming" quite so explicitly. Couldn't it be more effective, among some demographics, to wage thousands of smaller battles on subjects that hit people closer to home? There are very few aspects of cutting emissions that don't offer other benefits, some of which can have a huge impact on everyday life. Consider bicycle-riding: You can promote it as a stern duty that must be undertaken for the sake of the few remaining polar bears, before it's too late, or you can present it as something that's healthy and pleasant and likely to reduce your risk of dropping dead from cardiac arrest, and treat any environmental benefit as a bonus.

Even if your goal is to warn of impending catastrophe, that kind of rhetoric has a lot more resonance when it's in reference to local issues. For example, coal plants aren't being rejected all over the country because of the IPPC consensus; that's part of it, no doubt, but the larger issue, usually, is going to be local air quality. It's easier to organize people against projects like these. And I think it's also possible to speak a little more negatively about them, partially because people feel that they have a little more power when it comes to local or regional issues, but also -- for better or worse -- because the "enemy" in these cases tends to have a face and a name and an address.

I do think that the "global" in "global warming" has the effect of instantly outnumbering and disheartening many people who hear it. And since this global problem stems from lots of local problems, it seems best to organize and act locally, with tangible, near-term goals as the consistent focus and any positive climate effects as an attractive benefit of actions that are seen as worthwhile regardless.

None of which should in any way dissuade concerned Americans from pointing out at every opportunity that Chris Horner is a fucking idiot.

(Photo at top by Alexander Petrenko.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It's nothing new. Check out the lead in gasoline wars or Herculeium in St. Louis, Mo.