Chris Mooney's blog

Why Did Climate Progress Stall? It's Called Conservative Ideological Activation

There has been much reaction to this weekend’s Elizabeth Rosenthal New York Times piece—“Where Did Global Warming Go?” Clearly, the issue has fallen out of the news, and off the political agenda. The reasons for this are numerous: Politics, the recession, and media coverage are all at play here. But I think the New York Times piece does a stellar job of skirting the truly obvious explanation: a conservative denial machine was whipped up by “ClimateGate,” leading to a whole new and destructive brand of climate politics.

Recall the year 2007. Al Gore and the IPCC win the Nobel Peace Prize. The climate issue is riding high. Many of us assume that the next president will solve the global warming problem for good.

There was already much political resistance to climate action in the U.S. at that time, and right wing think tanks were sowing vast amounts of misinformation—as was Fox News. But the tide had clearly turned against the delayers and deniers…for good, many of us thought.

Then came a little event that the New York Times analysis does not even mention—“ClimateGate.”

The Old War on Science Returns Under Rick Perry

In an August post about the return of the “war on science”—prosecuted by the political right—I drew a key distinction between attacks on knowledge that had occurred during the George W. Bush administration, and those we’re seeing now. To wit:

1.      Bottom Up v. Top Down Anti-Science Attacks. Clearly, the U.S. Republican right has remained at “war” with science—at least on the most hot button issues. Were this not the case, Huntsman’s claim would not resonate, as it so obviously does.

If anything, however, I believe matters have gotten worse. Why? Largely because we’ve swapped the relatively genteel “war on science” of the George W. Bush administration (which was prosecuted in top-down fashion from the White House and administration, largely in service of what various staff believed that the president wanted, or what should or shouldn’t be on the public agenda or in the media) for a more populist and bottom-up strain associated with the rise of the Tea Party. This is partly a function of the fact that the GOP is in the opposition right now, rather than running the country; and partly a function of the right moving further to, uh, the right; and partly also, I think, a function of the increasing influence of the blogosphere.

Either way, there are lots of consequences. For instance, the attacks on science are now nastier, aimed at individual scientists and presenting direct assaults on their integrity and their work. This goes far beyond Bush vaguely mumbling that scientists don’t have a consensus on climate change, or that it might be natural; or some aide at NOAA or NASAblocking a scientist’s media interview.

I think this distinction is fairly crucial. It’s one thing to attack science in a populist vein. You can probably get away with being nastier about it, but you’re not necessarily wielding any power over scientists. You don’t have, for instance, the ability to censor them, as you do when you’re running things.

Most of the Tea Party and GOP-debate attacks we’ve seen of late are clearly populist in nature. But let’s not forget that one of the leading GOP presidential candidates is also a governor of Texas, who therefore does hold the reins of power.

Once And For All: The Precautionary Principle is Not Unscientific

Some conservatives are immensely more fun to debate than others.

In the past month, a debate over left-right science abuse with Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute led to him hurling charges of “socialism.” Not kidding.

Unfortunately, “Carol Browner is a socialist” isn’t an argument. It’s a heuristic device. It’s the kind of thing you say if you want to get emotive Tea Party reasoners whipped up.

Ron Bailey of the Reason magazine is, in contrast, full of…reason. He weighed in last week on this topic, went through the issues, and came down slightly differently than I did on some of them, but actually agreed that the GOP is doing much worse now with respect to science.

Evolution and Climate Deniers: Natural Allies?

On the face of things, there is no clear reason why the same person—like, say, Rick Perry–ought to deny accepted science about both evolution, and also global warming. After all, the fundamental reason or motivation for denying these things appears very different.

As has been clear for more than a century, the theory of evolution threatens a certain breed of religious belief. It clearly undermines a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, for instance. It suggests that God didn’t create people or make them out to be anything special. Indeed, if you think about it, it suggests that if God does exist, then God created humans through a bloody and brutal process (natural selection) that is full of death, pain, and cruelty over vast time-scales. (Great guy, this God, eh?)

Climate change has nothing—or at least nothing obvious–to do with this. That’s not to say climate science isn’t threatening; it is, but surely in a very different way. Modern climate science suggests that the free market, the source of so much economic growth and prosperity, also has a dark side. It suggests that humanity, left unchecked to exploit technology and maximize productivity, can really shoot itself in the foot sometimes. It suggests you need governments to step in and regulate, rather than letting the market rip.

In a socio-political vaccum, then, it is not at all clear why these two views should go together.

Unequivocal: Today’s Right is Overwhelmingly More Anti-Science Than Today's Left

Last week, I took to task a really poor USA Today op-ed making the following claim:

“In short, for every anti-science Republican that exists, there is at least one anti-science Democrat. Neither party has a monopoly on scientific illiteracy. Indeed, ignorance has reached epidemic proportions inside the Beltway.”

I accused the author, Alex Berezow, of constructing a false equivalence between right and left wing science abuse. The latter does occur sometimes, and I’ve given many examples (ionizing radiation risks, vaccines, GMOs, etc). But it has relatively little mainstream influence today—and can hardly compare with the sweeping denial of huge bodies of knowledge (e.g., all climate science, all evolutionary science) that we see on the right.

Joe Romm also reposted my post and weighed in, further trashing Berezow’s weak argument, and particularly on the nuclear power front. Paul Raeburn also weighed in at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, noting Berezow’s conservative media connections.

In the comments on my post (no longer available, as the blog has just moved to a new URL—please update!), and then in a subsequent post, another conservative—Kenneth Green of the American Enterprise Institute—weighed in. Who is Kenneth Green?

Science Communication: Training for the Future

Yesterday I arrived in Las Vegas, Nevada, for another installment of an enterprise to which I’ve been increasingly devoted over the last year: Training scientists in communication, public engagement, and media outreach. Working with the National Science Foundation, but also sometimes on my own, I’ve now probably been involved in training over a thousand scientists in these, er, “arts.”

In this, I’m just one part of a much broader communication and outreach wave that is sweeping the science world. This wave, in my view, has built up for two related reasons: 1) ongoing frustration in the research community over the failure to get its knowledge “out there”—successfully disseminated—especially on controversial subjects like climate change and evolution;  2) the decline of science coverage itself in the traditional media, and the concomitant rise of the new media. This development is both exhilarating and  also rather terrifying, because it increasingly places the scientist him- or herself in the position of serving as a direct-to-public communicator, rather than in the old role of communicating through an intermediary (the journalist).

My co-authored 2009 book Unscientific America noted these trends and called for greater outreach efforts—and now, I’m also heavily involved in trying to realize the vision. As a result, I think it’s worth laying out some conclusions I’ve drawn so far from the “sci comm” training enterprise, as well as to describe what appear to be the next steps. (This is also something I’m going to be talking about more at two conferences coming up: The Soil Science Society of America annual meeting in San Antonio in October, and the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union this December in San Francisco.)

To me, the key tension at the center of this exercise is between “theory” and “practice.” And we have to ensure it’s a productive one.


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