Chris Mooney has a smart post on the vicious—and viciously effective—comeback campaign that’s been mounted by climate change deniers. I highly recommend it, but his claim that deniers “didn’t need good science to make another sally: Their strength has always been in communication tactics anyway, and not scientific exactitude or rigor” reminded me of something I feel like needs pointing out every now and again.
Something those of us who want to prevent catastrophic climate change need to remember is that we’re right. Not just factually right, but morally. But while it’s true that effective communications tactics employed by the other side have been helpful to their cause, ultimately the main thing that’s helped them has been the willingness of people who know better to act in a morally indefensible manner.
I’m fairly certain, for example, that Fred Hiatt wouldn’t strangle a baby polar bear just for cheap thrills. But he would run an ignorant Sarah Palin op-ed on climate, and repeatedly allow George Will to mislead people about climate science. What’s more, if Hiatt strolled around Washington soaked in the blood of polar bears he’d been strangling, people would treat him like a pariah. But instead his friends and colleagues and professional peers have evidently decided that he’s just a nice guy who happens to run a crappy-but-influential op-ed page. Similarly, Collin Peterson made the House climate bill much worse, but more financially advantageous to his donors and constituents. But, again, you can’t imagine Peterson roaming around Indonesia killing island-dwellers and pulling off bank heists in order to bring more cash back to rural Minnesota. It’s just that in the context of legislating, people have decided that it’s morally okay to do the wrong thing for personal gain.
CNN was running a climate change story yesterday with the chyron “Global Warming: Fact or Fiction.” It’s clearly not the case that that happened because no one at CNN is unaware that framing the story that way is nonsense. They just chose to let it happen. John McCain used to recognize the urgency of the climate threat and then, thanks to pique or something, he decided to become an opportunistic pollution-defender. Bob Corker recognizes the need to curb carbon emissions but insists that he’ll support a bill if and only if it meets his exact politically unrealistic expectations. And millions of Americans supported the ACES bill in the House but didn’t bother themselves to call their congressman about it, helping to create a situation in which phone traffic tilted heavily against the bill and progressives on the Hill now feel defensive.
All this—and more—is carried out by free moral agents on a daily basis. And this is simply not an issue you can solve without people raising their game, morally speaking. That means politicians, and activists, and ordinary citizens and business elites and media figures and all the rest. We’ve developed a public culture in the United States in which it’s regarded as grossly naive to suggest that a Senator or an executive ought to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing. But if you think of any major problem this country has ever solved—the Civil War, women’s suffrage, defeating Nazism, Civil Rights—it’s always required not just smart tactics, but moral behavior, people willing to cast risky votes, people willing to risk physical harm in combat or non-violent resistance. It’s been the same all around the world throughout history. If people don’t want to do the right thing, the right thing doesn’t get done. On climate, in particular, a huge swathe of the American elite has simply refused to acknowledge any sort of duty or obligation.