The Lazy Environmentalist joins the circular firing squad

Dorfman on HuffPost: “Let’s Stop Debating Global Warming, Instead Convince People To Solve It”

I understand why anti-science disinformers like Marc Morano kick climate science messaging when it’s down.  But why Josh Dorfman?

The Host of “The Lazy Environmentalist” writes on Huffpost how he got truck drivers and other car enthusiasts excited by the “fast speeds, raw power, and American self-reliance” of electric cars running on American electricity.  Cool.  I’m all for it.  Been pushing electric drive vehicles myself for quite some time.  Heck, been pushing the American self-reliance pitch a long, long time (see my 1996 Atlantic Monthly article, “MidEast Oil Forever”).

But then he feels obliged to join the circular firing squad:

Did I care whether they believed in global warming? Nope. Not one bit. Because I realized in that moment that I didn’t have to convince these guys that global warming is real in order to get them fired up about the solutions that solve it. It was a hugely important lesson for me and one that I believe is essential for the environmental movement.

Well, electric drive vehicles don’t “solve” global warming, but they are a key enabling technology if you were to clean up the electric grid by … oh, I don’t know … maybe passing a bill that puts a shrinking cap and rising price on greenhouse gas emissions.

As a green retailer, blogger, author, spokesperson, and radio and television host, I’ve learned that I’m most effective as a green communicator when I first take the time to understand what really matters to people and then demonstrate how environmental alternatives directly satisfy those needs. If that means talking about how eco-friendly electric cars deliver on speed, power, and independence from oil dictatorships then that’s what I’m selling. Words like “should”, “must”, and “sacrifice” don’t enter into my environmental lexicon. I don’t ask people to share my concerns about polar bears and other species that are getting a raw deal from climate change and I don’t guilt-trip people by asking them to think about what future generations will think if we fail to act now. The reason is simple; those tactics fail to move most Americans to action. If they did, we wouldn’t be sitting here scratching our heads and wondering why the talks in Copenhagen fell apart.

I can’t let this on sequitur go.  If Copenhagen “fell apart” (a characterization lots of folks don’t agree with) that would certainly be mostly due to China (as Ed Miliband, the UK’s Climate Change and Energy Secretary and others have made quite clear)!  In fact, Copenhagen moved things forward.  But in any case, if we all stopped “debating” global warming that would hardly have led to a better outcome in international global warming negotiations!  Heck, why bother having negotiations at all — all that debating is counterproductive, no?  But I digress.

We become influential as green communicators when we emphasize how green choices enable people to achieve the things that matter to them. If green choices help us save money, look cool, get more dates or improve our children’s chances of getting into a great college, then people are far more likely to embrace them. It makes no difference whether we’re selling a green product, raising money for an environmental campaign, or pushing climate change legislation; our success depends upon our ability to convince Americans that supporting the environmental option directly serves their own interests, not based on what we may value as environmentalists, but rather on what Americans value in their personal lives and collectively as a nation

Unfortunatley, “green choices” don’t reduce the emissions from existing coal plants, don’t get you the kind of steady and deep reductions in emissions needed to preserve a livable climate.

Again, I’m all for pushing multiple messages, including the many benefits of going green.  I spent nearly two decades focusing on that message.  But climate change matters to a great many people — along with clean air, clean energy jobs, reducing our $1 billion a day spending on foreign oil, restoring US leadership in manufacturing, and so on.

Dorfman may think knows what most Americans value — and he may think he knows how climate activists have been messaging on the bill.  But he doesn’t.  In fact, pretty much every major poll in the past six months makes clear that the public supports climate and energy legislation because it achieves multiple benefits (as the advocates have explained), including reducing greenhouse gas emissions:

Indeed, the biggest problem on the climate bill hasn’t been convincing the public — they really want action, especially political independents.  The biggest problem has been moving the immovable anti-science ideologues and overcoming the disinformation campaign.    But “stop debating global warming”?  That’s just what the anti[science crowd wants!  They want us to only talk about new green products because those are little threat to existing dirty power plants.

If there is no climate bill this year, many enviros will form a circular filing squad, blaming the messenger.  Now I would be the last person to say that the message or the strategy has been ideal — and I certainly plan to continue criticizing progressive leaders who get either wrong.  But let’s try to remember where 90% of the blame goes — to the people who are telling lies and blocking action, not the people who are telling scientific truths and trying to put together a politically viable bill.

Coincidentally, the Harvard economist Robert Stavins just wrote a blog post, “What’s the Proper Role of Individuals and Institutions in Addressing Climate Change?”  You should read the whole thing — certainly Dorfman should — but here’s the bottom line:

However, despite the fact that these decisions are made by firms and individuals, government action is clearly key, because climate change is an externality, and it is rarely, if ever, in the self-interest of firms or individuals to take unilateral actions.  That’s why the climate problem exists, in the first place.  Voluntary initiatives – no matter how well-intended – will not only be insufficient, but insignificant relative to the magnitude of the problem….

My bottom line?  Try to focus on actions that can make a real difference, as opposed to actions that may feel good or look good but have relatively little real-world impact, particularly when those feel-good/look-good actions have opportunity costs, that is, divert us from focusing on actions that would make a significant difference.  Climate change is a real and pressing problem.  Strong government actions will be required, as well as enlightened political leadership at the national and international levels.

I have always urged people to take individual action — not because that would have a major real world impact but primarily because it would allow them to see how easy it is to lower emissions and lower their energy bill, which in turn would allow them to be a more persuasive advocate for action at a state, national, or international level.

And I have always urged people to advance multiple messages, since advancing clean energy and reducing greenhouse gas emissions has multiple benefits.

If Dorfman doesn’t want to talk about global warming, if he hasn’t found a way to talk about it that works for him, well, that’s his business.  But he has no business telling the rest of us to stop “debating” the subject — a debate that mainly exists in this country and mainly exists here because of an active anti-science disinformation campaign that Dorfman apparently wants us to concede to.  Not gonna do it.  That would be the laziest thing of all.

23 Responses to The Lazy Environmentalist joins the circular firing squad

  1. david freeman says:

    Dorfman would have made better sense if instead of saying no to talking about global warming, he had just said that it was productive to talk about the other issues separately sometimes. If you know someone will have a bad knee jerk response to “electric vehicles reduce our carbon emissions” then start out with “electric vehicles will help reduce our dependence on oil from nations which hate us.” Maybe later he’ll warm up to discussing climate change in a reasonable manner after we’ve developed some common ground. It’s a small point but once you realize a family member is a hopeless case on global warming it may be better for the relationship to change the subject to dependence on foreign oil where we have some chance of progress.

  2. Bill Waterhouse says:

    Looking at the issue as one of correcting externalities — here emission of GHGs — is helpful. The free market is not going to do it left unfettered. The government can force the internalization of economic externalities through regulation or taxes.

    We used to have a general poltical consensus in the US about the need to internalize harmful externalities when Congress enacted the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, among other environmental laws with broad support. Now we have groups that either deny that GHGs are an externality requiring any correction and/or asserting that it is not an appropriate governmental role of the government to constrain the free market by correcting and mitigating the GHG externality.

    We have an unholy alliance between the anti-science folks that don’t understand GHGs are a harmful externality, the libertarians who think governmental action is unecessary because the market will deal with it, and the creators/beneficiaries of the externality who out of narrow self interest encourage and support the first two groups.

  3. Dean says:

    Dorfman’s format reminds me of the Breakthrough Institute Feel-Goodism. Don’t tell anybody anything that doesn’t make them happy, because it is bad politics. Messaging is important, but nature doesn’t care about our politics. The science has to drive the messaging rather than trying to make it be the other way around, which it can’t be.

  4. David B. Benson says:

    One action everyone can take which will assuredly help is

    eat less red meat.

  5. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    There is a continuing need to find ways to get through to people. I would not want to stop anyone trying new ways.

    PJV Dixon asks businesses “Do people believe global warming is real? What is the emotion? Dixon shows that it is good business to deal with global warming issues even if you do not believe yourself.

    Greg Craven asks can we afford the risk? He uses a risk analysis, source assessing, perspective.

    Quoting the CNAC and other military types gets through to some gung ho right wingers.

    You take the political approach.

    Desmogblog, study the marketing spin.

    Interpretive dance did not move me at all, but it did get through to some.

    I feel the is it real argument gets away from just how bad will it be? How bad could it be? As the scientist said “Uncertainty is not your friend” So far we have more it will be at least this bad analyses. MIT’s probabilistic method is a good start.

    It is also way past time for preparatory adaptation. Do we wait until aircraft are cicling to land on the water before we build new airports. New inrastructure that is to last more than 100 years needs to take into account far greater changes than predicted for the next 100.

    It will continue to get worse, we just don’t know how fast.

  6. mike roddy says:

    I just told my young son that I shouldn’t be trying to persuade people to care about his future because that would be “guilt tripping” them.

    And, of course, electric cars, rail, and solar won’t take off as long as dirty and entrenched interests remain protected, especially in Congress. What does Dorfman expect us to do about that? Talk to people in Wyoming about the cool new all electric Volt for $45k?

    Anyway, I understand how he got his nickname. I just hope he isn’t writing stuff like this while smoking the wacky tabacky.

  7. Ronald says:

    Good analogies would be World War II, Civil rights and pollution in the 1970’s.

    Would we have any chance of winning in World War II if it had been voluntary? It was a mobilized effort from all sides, with the government leading industry and citizens.

    Or civil rights. Sometimes, you just need the fist of government.

    and how would it have been with pollution controls if that had been voluntary? I might spend a thousand extra to add ‘after market’ pollution controls to my car and maybe some others would to, but the air would still be dirty. It took the government to say all cars will have 250 dollars of clean air equipment (whatever the cost was) to sell the car in the United States.

    I’ve driven Forklift trucks that are electric and gas. The best ones are electric for a number of reasons, but just using electric forklifts doesn’t mean global warming will be any less.

  8. Leif says:

    Dean,#3 says: “Don’t tell anybody anything that doesn’t make them happy,…”

    Listen up folks. At the present we apparently have the ability to take prudent actions that will cost some money and require sacrifices of one and all but with rational decisions and scientific understanding humanity has a very good chance of being successful in ushering in a new dawn. On the other hand continued disregard for earth’s life support systems will surely spell disaster and doom for most and possibly all of humanity as well as a good portion of earth’s animal kingdom.

    That is about the best I can do.

  9. Sam says:

    Exactly right Joe.

    Talking about climate solutions polls well like positive political ads poll well. The obvious point is that negative ads work. All of our big green groups seem to have forgotten that solutions only work if the public understands that there is a problem. There needs to be a concerted effort to bang the drum on the climate problem.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    Rabid Doomsayer — Actually, we do have some idea how fast it will become worse. Just not well enough to say more than the risk is high and the sooner action is taken the less the solution will cost.

  11. Mike#22 says:

    Spot on, Leif

  12. Lou Grinzo says:

    This issue of how exactly to approach mainstreamers is a difficult one I’ve struggled with for a long time. I’ve found that even some of my fellow very committed enviros still believe ridiculous things like, “peak oil will save us from global warming”.

    At one level, I don’t care which message or way of delivering it works, so long as we find (and take!) a path to success. But I’ve yet to see anything, whether it’s the “carrot only” approach Dorfman prefers, the “unvarnished truth” approach many online want to follow, or something else completely, that I think will work all by itself. Like policy and technology solutions to climate change and peak oil, I think we’re making a huge mistake to look for a single, silver bullet communication strategy.

    I think the best we can hope for is a hybrid strategy that appeals to different groups of people. E.g. some business owners look at literally every decision in the context of this quarter’s results, while some others are far more idealistic. And some won’t be convinced, no matter what we say or do, until there is a “climate 9/11” (insert your own example here), some huge, horrific event that the mainstreamers will associate with climate change (possibly incorrectly).

    We are in the position that prompted Matt Simmons years ago to describe peak oil as an “all levers” problem, meaning we have to pull all levers available to avoid a disaster. (And no, this is not advocating anything illegal or immoral, like the disgusting thugs who sent death threats to climate scientists. I’ll gladly let the deniers have a monopoly on that sort of abhorrent behavior.)

  13. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Fourteen years after the scientific advisers of the fossil lobby’s “Global Climate Coalition” reported that the science of anthropogenic global warming was undeniable, the tactics advancing their strategy of deferment of controls continue.

    Dorfman plainly doesn’t need paying as a shill against coherent action; he’s easily duped into pushing the brightsider line of “sell the gizmos – stuff the debate.” The goal of the shills who’ve sold him this line is deferment of demand for action commensurate with the problem – i.e. of demand for ending fossil fuel dependence.

    Indeed, Dorfman’s lie cuts deeper than its primary deception that there is no urgency for far more significant action: it sets up a potential resistance amongst those spending large sums on the gizmos (from EVs to PVs) when govt. calls for serious cuts in fossil fuels’ affordability, on the lines of,
    “Well I’ve already done my bit, stuff this carbon price bill, it ain’t fair!”

    As soon as the urgency of commensurate action is acknowledged, then it becomes obvious that the paramount need is not of green status symbols for the wealthy in developed nations, but of a global climate treaty:
    one that puts a cap on GHG outputs whose annual contraction is sufficient to peak global outputs this decade,
    and under whose aegis national output shares change in a necessary convergence to per capita parity by an agreed date.

    For this reason I’ve long applied, and found effective, the idea that human GHG pollution poses diverse serious threats, of which by far the most deadly is that it has awoken feedbacks from vast natural carbon banks, which are already accelerating and which will, if not stopped, impose irreversible catastrophic climate destabilization. Loss of snow-cover, plus permafrost, plus forest wildfire make convincing evidence.
    Going beyond the problematic idea that human pollution is great enough to damage this vast planet’s atmosphere, into the idea that nature is touchy enough and potent enough to cause terrible turmoil if perturbed, seems to reach people who are unimpressed by scientific analyses.
    Moreover, the focus of action then advances to include halting anthro GHGs as the starting point, with the recovery of airborne carbon and the temporary restoration of albido as the necessary new responses to address the feedbacks.

    The fact is that it is only the treasonous messaging of denial by the Global Climate Coalition and its successors that has caused the problem to become so acute as to require these additional responses. It seems only a matter of time before their arraignment becomes inevitable.

    And as for Dorfman, if he lacks the integrity to resign for promoting prevarication, then the Huffington Post should send him on a year’s sabbatical, to Africa, to discover just how urgent is the issue of wealthy nations’ intransigence over global climate destabilization.



  14. Mark Green says:

    Is there a site for laymen where people can go that tells us how Planet Earth doing for each month? Sometimes there are notifications here about record temperatures and the like, but it’s rare. I’m curious whether February was a record month, how warm 2009 was compared to the previous year, etc.

  15. Michael T says:

    Mark (14),

    If you want strictly U.S. monthly climate data, NCDC gives detailed info:

    They also put out global reports each month, although February hasn’t been released yet:

    NASA GISS products:

  16. Trenchant analysis as usual here. I only differ on the “circular firing squad” analogy. It pertains when sniping leads to a refusal to act together. I see the point that advocating clean energy alone and ignoring the need to deal with carbon sets advocates of each against the other, when they should be allies. So it works for that.

    But it could be interpreted as bemoaning critiques of effective communication, and in that regard, self-criticism is useful. I don’t think most environmentalists or most climate scientists would dispute the contention that they haven’t communicated very effectively.

    Better ways to communicate still probably wouldn’t be enough to completely change the dynamic, and make believers out of the various brands of deniers. But it sure could help. I think we ought to be striving to communicate effectively as well as accurately, and critquing past attempts is a step in that effort, especially if it motivates us to seize upon better means–better words, images and ideas–when we see them.

    For example, I’ve just read a piece that refers to “heat-trapping gasses.” That’s really good–it’s concrete, not abstract, and it tells the story. I’m only going to refer to “heat-trapping gases” from now on.

  17. mike roddy says:

    Captain Future,

    I like heat trapping gases, too, good idea- greenhouse gases sounds too much like a lovely future with ferns and flowers.

    The deniers are hopeless; it’s the ones in the middle who need to be persuaded. And Lou is right, that no single approach will work. This may actually be a more important challenge than the science, since we already know that we’re headed into dangerous waters.

  18. Doug Bostrom says:

    Mark Green says: March 9, 2010 at 9:42 pm

    NOAA has a pretty nice climate synopsis site, including a “Global Climate Dashboard”, here:

  19. KeenOn350 says:

    >> #14 Mark Green

    Daily Earth Temperatures from Satellites here:

    daily update, Arctic Sea Ice here:

    Multiple graphs here:

    graphs updated about monthly from Jim Hansen & assistants here:

  20. Mark Green says:

    Perfect. Thank you.

  21. Wit's End says:

    You can’t solve a problem if you don’t acknowledge there is a problem in the first place.

    I liken that carrot approach to trying to persuade an obese diabetic to lose weight by giving them a plate fresh fruits and vegetables along with their big mac, fries and chocolate shake.

    Here’s a portion of a comment I read at Greenfyre’s that I am afraid is quite true, if shockingly cynical:

    A couple of things I’ve discovered over the years and some observations:

    1) Conspiracy theorists never investigate real conspiracies because the fake ones are much safer to investigate. Investigating real conspiracies can get you hurt or killed. This is why Monckton can safely rant about Global Warming being a conspiracy by what essentially comes down to the Illuminati, but we see very little in the mainstream media about how the deniers function.

    2) The professional deniers know what the consequences of their actions will be if they are successful, in fact they are counting on them. If large areas of the Earth are turned into lifeless desert that opens up all kinds of opportunities for oil and coal exploration. Besides we will need those energy resources to survive in a world growing more hostile to life. So what if a large portion of the Earth’s population dies, it will mostly hit the poorer people who don’t buy much coal and oil anyway. This is the way they are thinking.”

  22. WastedEnergy says:

    Regarding the EV question. I happen to be a skeptic that it would really be all that useful, and think we should look for better alternatives (like really good alternative fuels and hybrids). Here’s a post I made on the matter:

    I would agree that in a world with more renewables, EV’s would be less bad, but that still wouldn’t address issues like recharging time, being unable to go on longer trips, and so forth.

    Feel free to “correct me if I’m wrong,” of course.