Climate Policy Failure, and Laying Blame

Joe Romm battled extensively with Matthew Nisbet last week over the latter’s sweeping attempt to redirect much of the blame for the failure to achieve a climate bill onto environmentalists, scientists, and Al Gore. (I had a few whacks at Nisbet too.) The implication of the Nisbet report was that the standard villains—climate deniers, the Kochs, the media, the perpetrators of ClimateGate and those who can’t stop talking about it—had wrongly drawn all the attention. If we want to be charitable to Nisbet, we might recast his message as: “but look at all these other things, too.” However, his report was framed in such a way that such nuance was largely lost (and Nisbet studies framing).

Now Romm is back,  with his own apportioning of blame. He even gives figures: 60 percent for the denial machine, 30 percent for the media, and the remaining 10 percent split between what he calls “think small” centrists and the Obama team. Huh.

I now think I can see from this that I’m somewhere between Romm and Nisbet. I would never downplay (as Nisbet did) all the attacks on science that have occurred. But I also would not exonerate environmental organizations. God knows they have their problems, and personally, I’ve felt that the inward firing squad is the biggest—and the lack of unity and common cause.

Nor would I completely exonerate scientists—and they’re not letting themselves off the hook either. They know they need to communicate better. The introspection and reflection going on in that world at the moment is a really impressive thing to see.

But Romm is right that science denial and the media (combined) have been the biggest problem. I don’t know about 90 percent, but surely in the 60-90 percent range.

How do you calculate these percents, anyway? To me, the main factors in attributing “blame” (and I don’t think this is especially novel) are power and responsibility.

Thus, those who deny or attack climate science have a lot of power (through political influence, largesse, etc), and have done the wrong thing (responsibility) by undermining knowledge, disseminating misinformation, etc.

The media, meanwhile, also has vast power, and have done the wrong thing by not covering adequately the story of the century, and thus not living up to their societal responsibility.

Hence both deserve a lot of blame.

And of course here’s why scientists and environmentalists (and the Obama administration) are different: They didn’t misinform, and they wanted to do the right thing. Did they go about it the right way? Surely not, at least in many respects. And they do have power (especially Obama), so they are hardly blameless. But are they as blameworthy as those who have misled us, or those who ignored the problem? You see my point.

This may also explain why there was such a strong reaction to Nisbet’s report. While he might be willing to admit that much blame should  fall on the denial machine, the media, etc., his report was framed in such a way that it appeared to neglect them, while casting aspersions elsewhere. Thus, it seemed to shunt this power/responsibility dimension of laying blame.

By not showing outrage, it sparked outrage.


The media gave national coverage to the teeny tiny assemblage of 200 or 300 TeaParty members who showed up in D.C. a couple of months ago.

They gave almost no coverage to the 10000 people who attended the Power Shift 2011 conference in Washington, D.C. this month and none to the 5000 of those who marched to the White House and to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Why?

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