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No wonder people are confused … v2 …

November 15th, 2007 · No Comments

Andrew Revkin, at the New York Times, who I generally find very much worth reading, has a dousy today.  In a review of three global warming books, Revkin speaks of Bjorn Lomborg as a “centrist” and discusses his book without suggesting that there any factual errors or how truthiness runs roughshod over the truth. He similarly glosses over the serious problems with Newt Gingrich’s Contract on the Earth.  Nordhaus and Shellenberger (Breakthrough) are discussed between Newt and Lomborg, and thrown into the same camp with Lomborg.

Revkin seems caught into a journalistic model of balancing, of having the right and the left, and if, well, writers are somewhere between these “poles”, they are centrist — irregardless of minor little issues like fidelity to facts and representing truth, rather than pandering truthiness.

For many years, the battle over what to think and do about human-caused climate change and fossil fuels has been waged mostly as a yelling match between the political and environmental left and the right.

What is interesting here, to me, is that the word “science” does not appear. Fact and reality are not relevant to the discussion?  

The left says global warming is a real-time crisis requiring swift curbs on smokestack and tailpipe gases that trap heat, and that big oil, big coal and antiregulatory conservatives are trashing the planet.

The right says global warming is somewhere between a hoax and a minor irritant, and argues that liberals’ thirst for top-down regulations will drive American wealth to developing countries and turn off the fossil-fueled engine powering the economy.

To a certain extent, this strawman description is one that make sense, is mostly on target.

But, again, where could you find “science” amid this discussion?  Thus, to start with, a frustrating element of this review of three books related to Climate Change is any real examination of where truth might lie, what are the perspectives supported by, what are those words? Data? Evidence? Facts?

There are also value words here: “swift”? “real-time”? “trashing”?   And, well, the “left” is not described as proposing things that might have economic value (energy efficiency, renewable energy) and positive health impacts (reduced pollution), etc. Revkin does not suggest that the “left” might be proposing positive elements. Thus, these paragraphs seem to buy into the argument that fighting Global Warming is a cost — with a debate as to whether the cost is worth it — rather than exploring the potential that it represents an opportunity, the potential for benefit.

But in three other recent books, there seems to be a bit of a warming trend between the two camps. Instead of bashing old foes, the authors, all influential voices in the climate debate with roots on the left or the right, tend to chide their own political brethren and urge a move to the pragmatic center on climate and energy.

What is a “pragmatic center” when one side is relying on evidence, on facts, and the other has been fighting to suppress them and confuse people?

It is hard to explain all the problems with this review as it truly mischaracterizes these presentations.

All have received mixed reviews and generated heated Internet debate — perhaps because they do not bolster any one agenda in a world where energy and environmental policies are still forged mainly in the same way Doctor Dolittle’s two-headed pushmi-pullyu walked. (It didn’t move much.)

Ah. The problem that we have here is that these books challenge pre-conceived notions?  That they don’t simply reinforce what we already believe and advocate?

And, well, what does it say about the level of debate and discussion when someone (like Lomborg, in Cool It and other material) whose work focuses on truthiness rather than truth is represented as a centrist, someone reasonable in the discussion? (See, just for a taste, misrepresenting evidence, reviews are coming in, truthiness, putting the heat on Lomborg just, well, to start.) From Bill McKibben‘s review, discussing Lomborg’s first bok:

The book was warmly received on the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal, but most scientists were unimpressed. Scientific American published scathing rebuttals from leading researchers, and its editor concluded in a note to readers that “in its purpose of describing the real state of the world, the book is a failure.”

And, well, as for Cool It:

Lomborg’s actual arguments turn out to be weak, a farrago of straw men and carefully selected, shopworn data that holds up poorly in light of the most recent research, both scientific and economic.

As I have written elsewhere, Lomborg raises a good question: How can we make better, more informed decisions about use of (by definition) limited resources?  He then focuses, falsely, on Global Warming and plays very loosely with statistics and data to present an incorrect view of the realities of the threats and opportunities that we face.  His question: reasonable.  His approach to answering it: disingenuous, at best.

Newt Gingrich‘s Contract on the World is also filled with misleading truthiness. He decries the partisan nature of Washington, DC, yet cannot find a phrase to indicate that he might have had anything to do with that, in any way.  He decries the failure to use science in decisionmaking without mentioning his role in the dismantling of the Office of Technology Assessment (OTA), the small group that provided non-partisan scientific advice to Congress.  Many of his thoughts and concepts are worth discussing but they are wrapped in a disingenuous way of discussing the world. A truthiness that obscures truth and fosters his arguments for an inevitably inadequate response to the challenges we face.

I am in a weaker position re Nordhaus and Shellenger (Breakthrough: From the death of environmentalism to the politics of possibility) as, of this trio, I have yet to read their book.  Yet again, there is a lot of material to make one think, that I expect to appreciate when I do read it (as their essay The Death of Environmentalism (warning: 37 page pdf) made me think and sparked a debate) but, from what I can tell, while I will not “agree” with all of it, I will find much to appreciate in it.  (For a flavor of the discussion, see: Chris Mooney, DeSmogBlog, Kevin Drum, Washington Monthly, Carl Pope, Grist, Bill McKibben, Grist (also published in the New York Review of Books, also discusses Lomborg’s Cool It), and, well, to be balanced: Nordhaus & Shellenberger respond to critics, Grist)  Again, staying with Bill McKibben:

with its conclusion that good times bring out empathy and generosity in Americans, and that in fact environmental progress has traditionally been a product of surplus — when we felt rich, we’d spend money on cleaning the air.

Unfortunately, at the moment growth means burning more fossil fuel. As Friedman acknowledged (though Nordhaus and Shellenberger don’t include this crucial quote in their retelling), CO2 is “the one major environmental contaminant for which no study has ever found any indication of improvement as living standards rise.” How can that fact be faced? How to have growth that Americans want, but without limits that they instinctively oppose, and still reduce carbon emissions? Their answer is: investments in new technology. Acknowledge that America “is great at imagining, experimenting, and inventing the future,” and then start spending. …

The antipathy of Shellenberger and Nordhaus to placing limits on carbon emissions, an antipathy based on their fervent belief in what they hear in their surveys, locks them into accepting slower progress than is necessary and possible. No one thinks we can stop global warming, but the IPCC data makes it clear that it is still possible — if we begin immediately and take dramatic steps to limit carbon emissions — to hold it below the thresholds that signal catastrophe. The authors concede too much to the enemies of regulation, a concession they’re willing to make partly because they’ve convinced themselves that clinging to the static biological world we were born into is impossibly conservative. Global warming, they write, “will force human societies to adapt in all sorts of ways, not the least of which could be bioengineering ourselves and our environments to survive and thrive on an increasingly hot and potentially less hospitable planet.”

We cannot, evidently, challenge growth. And, well, we must accept (embrace even?) adaptation over prevention?

dot Earth

Revkin also addressed this issue in his worthwhile blog space, dotearth: Words on Warming: Which Message Works?  Here, unlike the piece that was published in the print section, one can place comments. And, well, many of the comments spoke truth to power (Revkin). Andy Frank is particularly eloquent/strong, as per these excerpts:

I am usually very impressed with your reporting. However, I was appalled to see you lump Bjorn Lomborg’s “Cool It” in the ‘middle ground’ of discourse on global warming. It is very well documented that Lomborg’s book is not only scientifically biased and inaccurate, but also celebrated by far-right politicians and think tanks. The fact that even Lomborg is forced to admit that global warming is happening and requires relatively major policy intervention is a sign that even the far right is shifting, NOT that he’s representative of a “middle ground”.

Yet again, you and the NYTimes have relied on the journalistic crutch of defining the “middle” as the difference the psychotic far right and the far left of 1972. The argument that these 3 “moderate” books should be highlighted because they typically get overlooked is refuted by the fact that all three actually have gotten a good deal of press since they were published.

And, well, Frank finishes with a sentiment much like mine:

Again, I am usually very impressed with your writing and grasp of the issues, but sometimes you fall back into bad habits…very disappointed.

Natasha Chart has a quite serious (and recommended) discussion of this at Golden Apple Press, The Sorry State of Global Warming Reporting

so-called climate moderates [have] lost the battle over whether or not climate disruption is important, and are now fighting to keep people in the dark about how pressing it is. Unfortunately for all of us, the latest incarnation of climate skepticism is getting plenty of help from the New York Times, where book reviewer Andrew Revkin decides that the solution to all the arguing is to split the difference between the people who say it’s an urgent problem and those who think it isn’t a problem .

Without a serious consideration of the facts, Revkin awards the victory in the debate to the people who say it’s a problem, but not anything to get agitated about. Not anything to act on immediately. Don’t be hasty.

In any event, Revkin has done his readership and discussions of Global Warming a real disservice with this review.  To the extent that Gingrich and Lomborg are “centrist”, this can only be viewed in a context of American politics where utter rejection of fact and dismissing evidence are accepted as reasonable.  

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Just to show some of the great material already discovered via dot earth …

Thanks to Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth Blog, NYTimes for the tipper on this in The Life and Death of a Climate Hoax.

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Tags: Bill McKibben · bjorn lomborg · climate change · Global Warming