The rise and fall of America's climate deniers: How politics hijacked the fight against global warming

Partisan rhetoric has stymied real action on climate change, but there's still hope, says philosopher Dale Jamieson

Published April 26, 2014 1:30PM (EDT)

  (<a href=''>Volodymyr Goinyk</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>/Reuters/Larry Downing/Chris Keane/Salon)
(Volodymyr Goinyk via Shutterstock/Reuters/Larry Downing/Chris Keane/Salon)

Dale Jamieson, a professor of environmental studies and philosophy at NYU, has, as his title indicates, spent a lot of time thinking about climate change. Specifically, he's been thinking about why all of our efforts -- to wake up the world to the urgency of the problem, to take meaningful action, even just to convince people it's happening -- have been such a disappointing failure.

To that end, Jamieson's written an entire philosophical treatise on what went wrong. The challenges, as he identifies them, aren't just structural. Figuring out how to keep the concentration of atmospheric CO2 below catastrophic levels is only one small aspect of what needs to be done. The problem we're dealing with has also become tied up in matters economic, institutional, moral and ethical in nature -- not to mention intractably political.

What it's not, however, is hopeless. And in “Reason In a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed and What it Means for Our Future,” Jamieson discusses the ways in which we might still be able to pull ourselves together and, if not beat this thing (that ship, he argues, has long sailed), then at least change the way we talk and think about it, and perhaps begin to move toward meaningful action. Jamieson spoke with Salon about how this debate got so muddled in the first place, and puts forward a few ideas for how we can begin to reframe the conversation. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Before anything else, I want to address that subtitle: In what sense do you argue that the struggle against climate change has failed?

So, one problem that I have in the way that a lot of people talk about climate change, as in every time there’s a new IPCC report or something dramatic happens in the world of science, the newspapers will be full of articles suggesting that we just somehow heard about climate change or that the science has become clear and definitive. Then there will be a little period where "we must act now," where if we don’t act now we will go beyond 400 parts per million, or we’ll start getting into a range where climate change can’t be prevented, etc., etc.

And then, of course, not very much happens and the discussion goes silent until we go through that same cycle again. And I felt it was import to start speaking honestly  about this problem and for people to recognize that, first of all, we’ve had an a  enormous amount of science about climate change that has been building for over a century; that the issue was already in the Oval Office during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. That the first IPCC report issued in 1990 basically laid out the outline for the issue and continued to color it in since then. And given the enormously long time scale in which we’re working, what we’ve already done essentially will affect the earth’s climate for the next thousand years and maybe longer. If the question is: Are we going to experience anthropogenic climate change?, the answer is yes. We’re beginning to experience it now and nothing can be done about it. So we have to change the question, and recognize our failure, rather than thinking that we can ride in in the nick of time and prevent climate change from occurring.

But there still needs to be the focus of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and convincing politicians to make this a priority in policy, right? Otherwise, wouldn't people take away the kind of discouraging message that climate change is happening and we might as well give in now? 

Often in American public life, we have to speak optimistically about everything. Because the idea is that people will only act if they feel empowered and so on. And what’s happened is that people have used an overly positive rhetoric about climate change and we still haven’t been motivated to act. And part of the reason has been because of these really, really serious institutional and structural problems that I talk about in my book. It’s not that we’re bad people; it’s the hardest problem humanity has ever faced. So I think at this point we have to recognize that positive rhetoric doesn’t just produce positive results, we need a realistic appreciation of where we are.

One of those problems is the degree to which climate change and climate science have become politicized. What allowed that to happen, or how did the reality of climate change become up for debate just like anything else? 

This goes back to the first Ronald Reagan administration -- particularly, its first two years. Up until that point, Republicans had been as progressive on environmental issues as Democrats. Sometimes it was for different reasons, but basically the environment had been a bipartisan project. When Reagan came into power, partially because he had strong support from the Western states, he brought with him a particular band of characters that some people may remember and some people won’t, like James Watt and Anne Gorsuch. And these people were very right-wing, libertarian-oriented, local politicians mainly who were very much against government regulation in every area. So it was really the Reagan administration that began to politicize the environment and frame regulation as a restriction on economic growth and a restriction on freedom.

Then what happened is during the Bush years, there was a struggle between some elements, really led by White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, who really didn’t believe in climate change, and others like EPA director William Reilly, who did, and who actually wanted there to be action. So things were relatively inconclusive. The U.S. signed the Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992 in Rio de Janeiro, but resisted the idea that there should be mandatory emissions reductions, and instead argued for voluntary emissions reductions.

When the Clinton administration came into power, the environment was seen as a real strong suit for them. Gore had published “Earth in the Balance” and was seen as an environmental hero. But then during the Clinton-Gore years it seemed like the environment was just another interest group -- and they had that interest group in their pocket. If you just look at emission trajectories and government action, not much was done in those years. We came up to the time of Kyoto and because the Clinton-Gore administration had done very little on climate change, they had to make sure that in the international process went forward and the U.S. was part of it. But meanwhile, by that time the Republicans were really mobilized to see Kyoto as The Gore Issue. Gore was now part of this international, U.N. conspiracy, if you want to call it that, to control the way we live in America.

So it was really in Kyoto in 1997 that the full politicization of the climate change issue became apparent, and it’s played out since then in an ever-more-alarming way -- so that if you believe in free enterprise, you have to disbelieve in climate science. That’s obviously absurd. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t be a pro-market, free-market Republican and believe what scientists tell you about climate change.

Then it would become an issue of how to address it, which is a conversation we’re not really having right now. 

Right, exactly. It becomes a policy question. And you might have disagreements about the strategy, but it’s a little bit like how you might disagree about the best strategy to deal with somebody else's tumor. You don’t go in and say, "I don’t care what the doctors say; they’re just a bunch of alarmists who make a lot of money by saying we have cancer."

In the book, you write about Roger Pielke, Jr., and what you describe as his "shrill accusations" that it's scientists who are politicizing the issue. Have you been following the more recent controversy surrounding his work for FiveThirtyEight? 

I’ve known Roger for a long time, and he's done a lot of work that I respect. Part of why I called him out in the book is because he’s not a climate change denier. He’s somebody who knows better, but the rhetoric that he’s used against scientists and the exaggerations and the kind of personal fights that he’s gotten into around the issue have really distracted from the broad consensus that actually exists around doing something. I know that Roger is really hot right now around the FiveThirtyEight and the Nate Silver thing, but what the section was really about was saying we load too much onto the sciences on both sides. There’s a tendency for the right to basically blame the scientists -- this isn’t Roger, exactly -- building this conspiracy to make money from grants and scare us all about climate change. And then there are people on the left who also say the scientists don’t do enough, they just sit there like ostriches in their laboratories, they need to be out there politicizing the world and so on. But what I really want to say is that scientists have done their job. They’ve done the science, we know there’s a problem. It’s our problem now, it’s a problem of the political system and for us as individuals. We need to address this problem.

I guess it’s hard to get to that point when there are still so many people saying the science is wrong or trying to make arguments that the science isn’t there. Could there be a place for scientists to better show how they’ve reached these conclusions, or how much of a consensus there really is?

One thing I don’t like is that even the IPCC process gets reported as "the U.N. says this" and "The U.N. says that." We think of the U.N. as those people who can’t stop genocide in Rwanda and can’t all agree about Bosnia and so on. And it’s not really the U.N. -- I mean the U.N convenes this group, but it’s really a group of scientists from all over the world, and the statements in the IPCC report are actually approved by every government in the world. So when you read that report that’s being released, it’s been agreed to not just the by the U.S. government and the Swedish government, but by the Kuwaiti government and the Iraqi government and the Ecuadorian government. All these governments have signed off on those statements. For somebody to come in and say that somehow this was a conspiracy and it doesn’t really represent opinion, it actually represents a very conservative opinion about what’s happening with the climate.

Do you think that’s part of the reason why the reports don't make as big of a splash as the panel probably hopes? That this idea isn’t getting across to people? 

Well, it’s certainly the case that individual scientists are frustrated. You can see that particularly with someone like James Hansen, who really was as mainstream, quiet, devoted to his work kind of a scientist as you could find, who once he retired has gone on to becoming a full-time activist. But I think really in terms of the scientific community, their job is to report the science; it’s not their job to solve the problem — when it comes to that, they’re just citizens.

I guess another way of putting it is -- this may sound a little bit extreme, but sometimes I say things like "It isn’t that we failed to act because we think there’s uncertainty about the science, rather we think there’s uncertainty about the science because we failed to act." So what really drives the failure to act are all these things about our institutions, about our politics, about our economics and about the way we think about our ethical responsibilities. And the kind of problem it is: Carbon dioxide is tasteless, invisible, we can’t smell it, all those kinds of things. That’s why we don’t act. But since we don’t act, then we look around for some rationalization or some justification, pick up the newspaper and say "not even the scientists really agree."

So far as our ethical responsibilities go, is it that people don’t want to feel personally responsible for this?

Right. And our ethics don’t really hold us personally responsible. Every moral and religious tradition has prohibitions against all kinds of things, but there’s no ethical or moral tradition against emitting colorless, odorless, tasteless gases into the atmosphere.

And how do you square the ethical arguments with the economics?

Of course, the economics has the same problem, because you can generate economic studies that produce wildly divergent numbers, which all depend not really on the underlying science, but on how you value impacts that happen 100 years,  500 years or 1,000 years in the future. So there’s no real independent economic evaluation over and above the ethical stance. However you feel about what happens to future generations affects the economic calculation. So we’re kind of at sea with this problem.

You know, the ethics doesn’t really compel us in the way that prohibitions against killing, cheating and stealing do. The economics doesn’t really produce hard numbers the way that we’re used to thinking about them in regular market transactions. It’s a long-term problem, it affects everyone, all of our contributions are small; so we’re just sort of lost in trying to deal with the problem. That’s why in some ways we need to slap ourselves silly. That’s why in some ways we need to get past some of the happy talk. Happy talk doesn’t get you out of the wilderness when you can’t find your way around. You have to really understand the seriousness of the situation.

When you say "happy talk," do you mean saying it’s not as bad as we think, or do you mean spreading positive news about, say, policies that are going into place or technologies that we are coming up with?

It’s just part of who we are -- maybe because of the television shows we grow up with or the way history is written or whatever -- but we all have this tendency, and you can fill this in generationally, to have the Lone Ranger or John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzenegger or the equivalent superhero who’s coming in save everything and then cut. We frame our problems as bad guys and good guys. Even when we read in the newspaper that Republicans and Democrats are at each other’s throats, we’re going to have a meltdown in the market, disaster is going to happen; somehow, it never seems to happen. Somebody comes in and kind of puts it together. Nobody may be happy, but the day has been saved and disaster doesn’t befall us.

The climate change problem isn’t like that. There is no singular solution. There’s no single person or country that’s going to come riding in from stage left to save the day. It’s going to be much more like managing a syndrome than curing a disease.

One way to do that is we’re going to need to take the reality of climate change into account with everything that we do. Secondly, we’re going to have to break off pieces of the problem to attack. So the biggest, baddest piece of the problem to attack is really coal, because the reality is we’re going to burn most of the easily recoverable oil in the world for various reasons; that’s almost certain to happen. The fact of the matter is, we need to phase out coal for all kinds of reasons, climate change being the most important one. If we could start to do that and have an international agreement where different countries at different rates of time, in different ways, would move through coal-free energy systems, that would be a big and important step to begin to moderate the problem on the emissions side. We have to break off pieces of this problem -- no one thing is going to be a silver bullet that’s going to fix it.

If I could back up for a minute: When you say we’re probably going to burn to all of the available fuels, does that mean you don’t hold out much hope for the Keystone fight?

Well, Keystone is a bit ambiguous. Here is the thing about oil: It is an extremely attractive energy source because it’s highly mobile, easy to use in automobiles, we have a infrastructure that supports it and so on. So when it comes to conventional oil, there is no question that it is extremely desirable and always will be. The prices may go up, but it will be used. Keystone is a tricky business and it’s become quite polarizing in part for its symbolic importance and in part for its real importance. It's about extracting oil from shale, and if we go into that business then we are going to squeeze a lot more oil out of the earth’s surface than if we just continue to maintain conventional ways of capturing oil.

I must say, for me, I am against the Keystone project, but I don’t see it is the absolute game changer that some environmentalists do. I think it’s much more important to focus on phasing out coal than to focus on one particular unconventional oil project; although I think it’s good to do that, it’s import to do. I also think, in general, it’s not good to focus on single, high-profile, symbolic projects -- the whole conversation has to change. If we did have a coherent and good plan for phasing out coal all over the world, for example, there would still be new coal plants being built in China for the foreseeable future, just with a cap on them. And in the U.S., coal-fired power plants would still be operating for some period of time. But we'd have a coherent strategy that would take us somewhere in 10 years, in 20 years, in 30 years, in 40 years, instead of this constant, incoherent guerrilla warfare, project by project, that we have going on now.

So what is the  "slap in the face" that will make people realize this has to happen, and shake us out of our current debate? 

You know, a lot people say that it’s nature that gives us the slap in the face. And there is some truth to that.

Hurricane Sandy, for example, changed the discussion about climate change in New York. It isn’t that people went from "I don’t believe," to "I do believe." They went from "Yeah, I believe" to "Shit, we need to actually think about this." And it doesn’t mean that we’re being so effective or doing the right things, but it definitely changed the discussion.

There are two problems with that. One problem is that nature may not slap the people who are doing the emitting in the face. I mean nature will slap people in Bangladesh in the face who do very little of the emitting.

Right, and that’s another huge debate happening. 

Exactly. So the impacts may be far from the sources. And another amazing thing: If you take the gun issue, there was a time in which people would have thought, "Well, yeah, we kill a lot of people with guns, but if someone came in and shot up a school, then we’d really get some gun control." And actually now, after somebody came and shot up the school, it just meant that we started thinking that shooting up schools as kind of normal. So I think part of it will come from these disasters, but I don’t think we can really count on that.

I’d like to think that writing a book like my book is part of what it is to slap people in the face. I would like to see some politicians start speaking more realistically to people about this problem. You know, people talk about budget deficits; a lot of doom and gloom. But when you talk about climate change, you almost seem to have to do it with a happier face on, if you’re going to be thought politically relevant. I mean my contribution is to try to write a book that I think, in a completely rational and not emotive way, just tells it how it is. I don’t have any secrets for how to do more than that. I wish I did.

Maybe if the Dalai Lama… well, even the Dalai Lama talks about climate change from time to time. Even the pope talks about climate change from time. I don’t know who people listen to or what makes a difference.

While avoiding too much happy talk, is there any way we could end this on a slightly more positive note?

Well, let me just say two things. One is, this is not an all or nothing, turn on a dime, save the damsel in distress kind of problem. It’s a sloggy kind of problem. So the fact that there aren’t these instantaneous successes doesn’t mean that there isn’t success; the slow turning of the boat around does make a difference. The Obama administration, for example; there’s no big fancy international agreement, but there are things like the increased CAFE standard, there’s the new rules on coal fired power plants -- all of this stuff makes a difference. And it’s all important. And for people who care about climate change, it’s important to stiffen the back of the politicians and the administration that’s willing to do those things.

The other thing is we have to think of this in terms of our own life. I think that there are these personal conversations to have about what it means to live in a world that’s going to be undergoing these changes in which wild animals are largely going to disappear, landscapes are going to be transformed and a lot of things that we take for granted now are going to be different. It’s going to be harder to understand the world that your parents grew up in and harder for your children to understand the world that you grew up in. And I think coming to terms with what climate change means individually for people and families, even when it’s not typhoons and droughts and the movie "Noah." It’s important, first of all, because people are going to have to live in this world and have good lives in this world and it also can help to move people and affect them in a more personal way than just the kind broad political appeals.

By Lindsay Abrams

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