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We’re losing the rhetorical battle of global warming

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, March 11, 2010 21:59 EDT
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Drop what you’re doing and read Peter Daou’s impassioned response to the news that nearly half of Americans now have bought into the idea that global warming is an exaggerated and quite possibly made up problem. That’s the sort of thing that really makes you want to throw your hands up in the air and give up, but of course, we can’t do that. Pro-science people feeling overwhelmed by the problem is half the reason denialists are getting an edge.

It’s time to take a serious look at why anti-science arguments are gaining an edge in our society and think very hard about what it’s going to take to fight back. I think part of the problem is that pro-science people feel that the twin pillars of evidence and moral responsibility to not ruin the only planet we have is argument enough, and we just keep running on this hamster wheel of pointing to the evidence and thinking that settles it. Why on earth are conservatives winning this rhetorical battle? Peter:

Green-bashers have had a banner year — they found a couple of openings, some hacked emails, a few scientists being flawed humans rather than data-processing automatons, and they went ballistic. With funding from big oil, they’ve engaged in an all-out assault on science and reason, and this assault has been tepidly rebutted, if at all. The rightwing message machine has been in high gear, blasting out misinformation and pseudo-science, cynically sowing doubt.

He then goes on to talk about the baffling effectiveness of beating up on Al Gore as an “argument” against global warming. It’s so fucking disturbed. Every fucking Republican I know melts into giggles at the very sound of Gore’s name. I tend to take it personally, too, not because I’m in love with Al Gore or anything, but because the “joke” is that he’s a smarty-pants that has the audacity to educate himself thoroughly on topics and then share what he knows with the world. And as someone who makes her living doing something similar, I find that incredibly offensive. I remember that he was a punchline even before he was Vice President, probably because the nascent right wing media of the 80s already had him pegged as a threat, and they trained their followbots to hate Gore. I’ve made it a minor life mission to swiftly correct anyone who makes jokes about inventing the internet. “Al Gore is a nerd” doesn’t disprove fucking global warming.

But this all does show exactly how we’ve come to this place. The global warming denialist industry intuitively (or perhaps not intuitively—I’m sure they’ve spent their money on collecting thorough cognitive research on how to persuade) understands that playing on people’s prejudices tends to be a lot more effective than a straightforward facts-based argument. And the Gore thing isn’t logical, but it plays on people’s childish desire to resent someone for being better than they are—oooooh, Gore thinks he’s so smart and noble, just because he cares about the planet! Well, we’ll show him. We’ll take a big ol’ crap on this planet to show him who’s boss! We hope that people get over this by the time they reach the 3rd grade, but apparently not.

It’s arguable, however, that the Gore thing is only a minor issue in selling denialism to the general public. Where the right wing is really making inroads is convincing people they know better than the scientists, because they have “common sense”. Americans eat that shit up. It’s not just when it comes to global warming, either. Americans enjoy feeling like they’re smarter than the people who invented vaccines, smarter than the scientists that put a man on the moon, and smart enough to think that random herbal crap you picked up off the shelf will work better than a thoroughly tested medication.* Now they get to feel smarter than those number-crunching climate scientists.

Of course, you have to be engaging in some bone-deep stupidity to think, “Ha ha, those stupid scientists spend all their time crunching numbers, but they didn’t take the time to notice that it’s snowing. I know more than them by looking out my window!” Perhaps you can believe this if you forget that scientists have homes they go to after work, and so do in fact have the same exposure to the weather that non-scientists enjoy. The levels of denial you have to go through to get yourself to a point where you can be that stupid must be astounding.

The other part of this is plain old fear of change. I loved Peter’s piece, but if we’re really serious about winning the rhetorical battle—and if we really need to view this as all-out war over the fate of the planet, which it is—we need to start being as thoughtful about language and working with the audience where they’re at, like conservatives do. And so I object to Peter’s use of the term “sacrifice” to describe what needs to happen to fix this problem. Environmental changes often have all sorts of unexpected benefits that make them seem less scary after the fact than you might have initially thought. I see no problem in highlighting this fact. In fact, a lot of what I do in my brand new book about liberal politics (see how I did that?) is that cultural changes that need to occur to clean up the environment can be sold as beneficial in and of themselves. For instance, we should really not talk about urban density so much as walkable neighborhoods. There’s a minor movement in some liberal yuppie circles to look at the upside of living in smaller spaces, for instance. Reading one issue of Ready Made on how to live in a small space will charm you so much you’ll demand 300 less square feet in your apartment before you hit the last page. We need more of that, even if it seems a little crass and distasteful at times.

Fear of change is the problem we really need to tackle, because above all other things, it’s what lays the groundwork for people to be willing to hear these other arguments from denialists. How to make people not only not fear change, but to embrace it? Part of what we need to do is really create a vision of what the world looks like after we get the environmentalist policy wish list. And that means all the details, not just vague visions of cleaner air and water. Will it be a world of smaller homes and more walkable neighborhoods? What does a society that doesn’t have much use for cars look like? Are there places where they’ve made these changes, so we can get a better picture of what we’re going to get? (Rhetorical question: I know that there are.) After we have the details down, we need to start selling this shit out of this vision, using every tool we’ve got. The pitch has to be positive and upbeat. No talk of sacrifice, no guilt trips.

For instance, IBM made this ad about congestion pricing in Stockholm, and it’s incredibly effective:

That’s how you sell environmentalism. Make it sexy. And dangle some goodies out that you can’t get without the policy changes. Most people are going to have a highly emotional reaction to the image of the pre- and post-policy traffic pictures, showing how the traffic jams completely disappeared after the policy was implemented. Being able to get out of traffic jams will make people salivate. In an ideal world, people would vote for these reforms because it’ the right thing to do. But in our world, they’ll vote for it if you can promise them immediate improvements to their daily existence.

*OT, but my favorite example of how stupid this gets is the proliferation of expensive herbal acne medications marketed as “willow extract”, which is presumably a “natural” alternative to mundane OTC acne medications made by Neutrogena or Johnson and Johnson. But the active ingredient in those mundane acne medications is salicylic acid. You know, willow extract. I’m surprised I’ve never seen “willow extract” sold as a “natural” alternative to aspirin, which is also made of salicylic acid. Huh, maybe that’s how I should get rich.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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