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February 13, 2007

The Politics of Spite

Issac Chotiner gets this exactly right:

If you read, say, The Corner on global warming, you get the sense that many of the contributors are skeptics not because they spend time with other skeptics or because being a skeptic is broadly consistent with their worldview. Rather, you get the distinct impression that they don't want to believe in global warming because they want to embarass and annoy Al Gore and company.

There's nothing earth-shattering in there, but it's useful to keep in mind. Tribalism is often the force motivating outlandish convictions and actions that are often chalked up to corruption. So Matt says:

One doubts that any of these various rightwingers were actually humming along and then got bribed by energy companies to come up with the outlandish conservative arguments you here on this score. Rather, the money's just sort of out there ready to flow to individuals who make outlandish arguments and to publications and institutions that associate themselves with such people and such arguments.

But it's hardly necessary. Some of these folks would gouge their own eye out with a spoon if doing so would make Al Gore look pompous. That's not to say there's no money flowing to individuals willing to lay a thin film of superficial empiricism atop global warming skepticism, but the wide resonance of their arguments on the right has little to do with money or science and everything to do with a visceral hatred of treehuggers. The global warming skeptics have to be right because the right wants the left to be wrong. It's a rather immature approach to a calamitous trend that threatens the lives of millions, but have you ever met a hippy? They smell bad.

February 13, 2007 | Permalink


Chotiner has the wisdom to recognize the same impulse in himself. Which leads one to suspect that the main reason that so many liberal bloggers are staunch believers in 100%-human-caused-global-warming is not because they have all read up on the climate science, but because their fellow tribe members believe it, and it gives them a chance to sneer at some right-wingers that they already hate.

Posted by: John Doe | Feb 13, 2007 10:40:45 AM


Even your wording proves the point. The statement by most is that humans are contributing to global warming. It's the child like level of thinking on the right that requires a discussion of contribution to be 100 percent or else we do nothing about it. It's equivalent to my wasting my time recently arguing with a libertarian who wanted to scientific consensus to be more than 90 percent but instead 100 percent. I will say to you what I said to him- nothing will convince you because it's your world view to disbelieve anything that disagrees with you. The evidence is mounted outside of what the left or right thinks on this issue. That evidence happens to support the left's position. Your problem with the discussion is not whether we are wrong or right- it's that you need us to be wrong. Finally, cite evidence of actual research that is repeatable for your position or don't try to play games of false equivalence. There is nothing equivalent about being right on the evidence that humans contribute to global warming (however one chooses to act) versus being wrong on the subject simply to spite the other side. One side at base has the evidence to back up their position.

Posted by: akaison | Feb 13, 2007 10:47:06 AM

John Doe:
I think there's a difference when the fellow tribe members we rely on are 99% of the world's scientists.
Also, I don't think that many liberals believe in "100%-human-caused-global-warming", but rather that human activitiy is the main contributor to global warming, and that we should worry about the anthropogenic factor because it's the one we can actually do something about. But that's a nice straw man you threw in there, so kudos.

Posted by: justin | Feb 13, 2007 10:54:12 AM

John Doe seems to miss another point: even without the evidence of the human contribution to climate change, there's a compelling argument against wasteful energy use.

Funny how conservatives aren't big on the whole 'conserving' thing any more.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Feb 13, 2007 11:04:03 AM

One other point- this is one of the principle reasons why there can be no uniting or consensus. Not every subject is something where you are going to find a middle ground. Sometimes the best answere isn't in the middle, sometimes it is. The key is to know which is which, and to lead accordingly.

Posted by: akaison | Feb 13, 2007 11:04:22 AM

In Chotiner's last line, for "threatens the lives of millions," substitute "threaten the lives of billions." That's the scope of the danger, which only reinforces the overall point of the argument--the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of the global warming "skeptics."

Posted by: Ed Baptist | Feb 13, 2007 11:29:16 AM

Granted, most scientists believe that humans are causing some global warming. No dispute with that. [Please read those two sentences again and again, before showing a lack of reading comprehension by accusing me of disagreeing with the science on this issue.]

Where most of the disagreement lies is about the policy: Should we really undertake "thirty Kyotos" if that's what it takes to remedy global warming? [Google that phrase if you doubt that this is what people have called for.]

In this context, most of the liberal bloggers who call for us to address global warming either 1) have no idea of the basic fact that piddling measures like using different light bulbs will have virtually zero effect, or 2) are pushing for thirty Kyotos with no real idea what this would do to the economy. They're certainly not just following the lead of "scientists" -- science does not and cannot tell us what policy to follow.

Anyway, most liberals are taking their cues here not from "science" but from their fellow tribe members. Indeed, for some of them, it's a purely religious belief, exactly analogous to the Christian fundamentalist belief in the Apocalypse (i.e., God [nature] is about to punish all of humanity for its wicked ways, if we don't immediately turn our society around).

That's why a lot of liberals in America are suspicious of nuclear power, even though nuclear power would be the number one thing that we could get large amounts of electricity without producing carbon. They're suspicious of nuclear power NOT because of the "science," of which the average liberal blogger knows nothing beyond perhaps an email bulletin from NRDC or the Sierra Club (also note that the French seem to have figured out the science). They're suspicious of nuclear power for religious reasons: If Nature wants our corrupt society to repent of its wicked ways, we shouldn't be able to get off the hook so easily.

Posted by: John Doe | Feb 13, 2007 11:39:49 AM

John Doe is right about Chotiner's point. Here's Chotiner:

I certainly hope Iraq will be pacified, but a part of me takes pleasure in how disastrously the occupation has gone. I can't deny that I really, really want to see Dick Cheney and Bill Kristol humiliated for making really, really bad predictions (and because, well, I despise Dick Cheney). Rationally one can know this is an unhealthy impulse (not the hating Cheney part!), but it's prevalence in a contentious, partisan environment can't be overstated. And, I'd argue, it's one of the reasons you see people take the party line more than they ought to.

To cite Chotiner's post as though it were just about global warming or "those other people" is to miss the self-reflective element that he intended.

Posted by: Sanpete | Feb 13, 2007 11:59:31 AM

Regarding John Doe's latest, why do those who bring up the economic cost of dealing with global warming ignore the costs of global warming itself? What will be the economic costs of mass migration from Bangladesh, desertification of Iowa, the flooding of Manhattan? Dismissing these outcomes as alarmist simply because they are alarming doesn't cut it.

As for grasping after nuclear energy as a savior, many environmentalists are doing just this (see, for example, here). I would go for nuclear energy, too, if I thought it would solve our problems. It won't. Follow the link for some reasons why.

Posted by: David Houghton | Feb 13, 2007 12:04:19 PM

I'm going to have to go with John Doe vis-a-vis liberals and nuclear power (suffice to say I disagree with him about the climate change issue).

The problem with current political discourse is two-fold. One, it's unthinking adherence to ideology, to not deviating from the part line. Two, it's a pervasive culture that cares more about winning than about being right, more about scoring points off the other side than about making the country a better place.

Here are two pertinent quotes from--guess who!--Barack Obama:

"Values are faithfully applied to the facts before us, while ideology overrides whatever facts call theory into question."

"This is not a game, it's not a contest for the TV cameras, this is a serious moment for America. And the American people understand that. They're in a sober mood... And if [cynicism] is true, then politics is not a noble calling, it's a game, it's a blood sport with folks keeping score about who's up and who's down. At best it's a diversion."

Posted by: Korha | Feb 13, 2007 12:08:35 PM

Uh, I'm against nuclear power because of that pesky problem of storing extremely hazardous waste that could be intercepted by terrorists for nefarious purposes. Also because the cooling water they use heats up the streams and rivers downstream of the plants, harming the ecosystem. Most of the anti-nuke people I hear from in the media cite these concerns, too.

As far as the 30 kyotos thing is concerned, they're right. Kyoto was flawed since developing countries like China and India were exempt from these provisions, and they are increasing CO2 levels faster than anyone. Kyoto is a mild measure, and we are going to have to do much more than reduce our CO2 emission rate to 10% less than 1990 levels. To really help us out, we're going to have to have net *consumption* of CO2, not net emission.

I don't see any liberals saying that global warming is "punishment for our wicked ways". or are you counting people saying that our previous activites are the cause of global warming? If that's the case, then it sounds like you're just bitter that people (rightly) point out that our previous shortsighted actions are having real consequences now.

Posted by: verplanck colvin | Feb 13, 2007 12:10:21 PM

I'm against nuclear power because of that pesky problem of storing extremely hazardous waste that could be intercepted by terrorists for nefarious purposes. Also because the cooling water they use heats up the streams and rivers downstream of the plants, harming the ecosystem.

OK, then this just proves that, like a lot of conservatives, your interest in stopping global warming ends as soon as you think of a higher priority.

Posted by: John Doe | Feb 13, 2007 12:17:58 PM

Ummm -- no, John, it means that his interest in your particular solution for global warming has ended... because your solution, from a technical standpoint, sucks.

Posted by: Evan | Feb 13, 2007 12:30:37 PM

They're suspicious of nuclear power NOT because of the "science," of which the average liberal blogger knows nothing beyond perhaps an email bulletin from NRDC or the Sierra Club

I consider myself an environmentalist before everything, but for several years I believed we would have to turn to nuclear power to deal with global warming. We may have to use it to some degree, but this article convinced me it simply won't be a very large part of the solution. Here's the abstract, but I encourage you to read the whole thing, as I did, before you start throwing accusations of tribalism my way.

It takes a lot of fossil energy to mine uranium, and then to extract and prepare the right isotope for use in a nuclear reactor. It takes even more fossil energy to build the reactor, and, when its life is over, to decommission it and look after its radioactive waste.

As a result, with current technology, there is only a limited amount of uranium ore in the world that is rich enough to allow more energy to be produced by the whole nuclear process than the process itself consumes. This amount of ore might be enough to supply the world's total current electricity demand for about six years.

Moreover, because of the amount of fossil fuel and fluorine used in the enrichment process, significant quantities of greenhouse gases are released. As a result, nuclear energy is by no means a 'climate-friendly' technology.

By contrast, check out this fascinating proposal for a charcoal-based economy that does offer answers to many economic questions as well as an unexpected energy idea.

John Doe: You'd have more credibility if instead of shouting dumb things like "liberal bloggers want to wreck the economy with 30 Kyotos!" you maybe applied yourself to the policy question you imply. Okay, how can we cut emissions the amount we need without wrecking the economy? If we could get the debate over to that ground, we could actually start getting somewhere.

Ezra: I'm sorry if this multiple-posts, but your site seems to have had a commenting problem for several days now that has many people doing the same. You might look into it.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Feb 13, 2007 12:35:45 PM

If I was a conservative, I would claim that you "hate America" and are "objectively pro-terrorist" for supporting policies that endanger our public safety.

Good thing I'm not...

Posted by: verplanck colvin | Feb 13, 2007 12:36:54 PM

I shouldn't have let my link speak for me. The chief problem with nuclear energy as a solution to global warming, setting aside its own environmental issues, is that it is an extremely expensive source of energy. One would think that this would make nuclear a non-starter for John. The nuclear industry survives on massive government subsidies. Our limited resources are better spent on cheaper carbon neutral energy sources and reducing consumption.

Posted by: David Houghton | Feb 13, 2007 12:45:39 PM

Some of these folks would gouge their own eye out with a spoon if doing so would make Al Gore look pompous.

I don't know him personally, but I wouldn't be surprised if Al Gore was fine with the pompous image if they promised to do just that.

Posted by: latts | Feb 13, 2007 1:29:47 PM

I do not smell bad.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Feb 13, 2007 1:33:18 PM


He was talking about me. Sorry.

Posted by: verplanck colvin | Feb 13, 2007 1:50:24 PM

Ummm -- no, John, it means that his interest in your particular solution for global warming has ended... because your solution, from a technical standpoint, sucks.

You're saying the same thing that I did. Stopping global warming is all fine and well, but not if it means doing something that sucks. [I like your sophisticated scientific lingo there.] A lot of conservatives would say the same: Stopping global warming is all fine and well, but not if it means charging $10 a gallon for gas in the United States, which would have devastating and deeply regressive effects on the prices of just about everything, especially food (not many people live in states where you can grow your own garden year-round).

Also, the fact that you think a reference to "thirty Kyotos" is dumb merely indicates your lack of knowledge about the scientific literature here. See this 1997 Science article.

And the fact that you let yourselves be swayed by the first activist article you come across just proves my point: Liberals aren't just following the "science" on nuclear energy. They're suckers for what the rest of their tribe (= environmentalists) say.

For example, your activist says that there is only six years' worth of uranium if used to supply all the world's electricity. But according to the IAEA, there could be anywhere from 50 years to 200+ years' worth of uranium. Of course, that seems to be at current usage levels -- but then no one is saying that the entire world is going to switch entirely to nuclear tomorrow, are they? So that's a completely unrealistic criticism.

And the notion that we can't use nuclear because it takes fossil fuels to mine uranium -- this is such a bizarre criticism that I don't know where to begin. Perhaps this person thinks that the metal used to construct windmills or solar panels just grows on trees?

Posted by: John Doe | Feb 13, 2007 1:52:55 PM

I don't think the thirty Kyotos part is dumb. I think the "wrecking the economy" part is dumb. But of course you're not interested in how we get to thirty Kyotos without wrecking the economy. The Feasta article was by no means the first article I read on nuclear power, and you obviously didn't read it yourself because you're making apples to oranges comparisons and throwing out ridiculous objections like claiming the author thinks the problem is in using fossil fuels to mine uranium at all rather than being how much fossil fuel it takes over the life cycle of a nuclear plant. And I never, ever said we shouldn't continue to use nuclear power. I just don't think it will do most of the work in solving global warming.

Frankly, you're less interesting as an interlocutor than as an example of the AEI/trolling style of debate around global warming policy: launch as many distracting, baseless criticisms as possible to keep people busy knocking down bad arguments. It's frustrating and annoying everywhere it takes place.

As always, liberals are going to have to solve your problems for you while you whine.

Posted by: Antid Oto | Feb 13, 2007 2:30:10 PM


Care to address the waste disposal concerns of nuclear energy?

And Evan, if I may assume, doesn't think "gee, well nuclear energy won't work, so might as well put on lifejackets and wait for the worst to happen." He looks for another solution. Conservatives get to the point of dismissing particular action items and then are content with the status quo.

Posted by: verplanck colvin | Feb 13, 2007 2:34:19 PM

John Doe and others can't be convinced to debate the best way to solve the problem of antropogenic climate change until they admit that it's a problem. John Doe: I don't need to read your opening two sentences any more than once to understand that they're nothing but a dodge: "most scientists believe that humans are causing some global warming." The words "most" and "some" add nothing but the same equivocation that we've been seeing from "skeptics" for the past few decades. Most of the past "skeptics" now agree that human activity is warming the earth; even the promanent skeptics such as Pat Michaels no longer argue this point. The problem, of course, is that the public and the media are about 10 years behing the scientific community in this debate, so the view of the "skeptics" continues to get media coverage as if it is a legitimate, competing theory. The "skeptics'" view is, of course, by any standard of scientific consensus, incorrect. It doesn't matter what Inhofe or Crichton or Doe says; they're not scientists.

Of course, the "skeptics" have now moved on to other forms of obfuscation. Most now say that although there will be warming it won't be so bad, certainly not bad enough to justify changing our lifestyle, and, besides, by the time it might get bad we'll have developed technology capable of reversing the trend and correcting for any climate change. They bleat about the economy being ruined by any emissions caps, and they pontificate about the glorious market and how it will eventually provide the solution to the problem. Michaels has even suggested that we'll gain control of the temperature of our climate and will be able to "warm" certain areas and "cool" others, and so we should just stop worrying. Th absurdity, of course, is that these arguments are coming from the same people that, not a decade ago, were arguing that the climate is so complicated that we'll never be able to know whether human activity is changing it. The clear pattern from the beginning has been to continue to argue a point until the science becomes practically irrefutable and then to move on and argue the next point.

Once the science is accepted -- that warming is real, that it is not linear, and that it will, if unchecked, have catastrophic impacts -- one can no longer argue that "Stopping global warming is all fine and well, but not if it means doing something that sucks." And we don't need thirty Kyotos immediately. Most climatologists, such as James Hansan of NASA, say that we can take gradual, modest steps and avoid most of the major impacts. If you want to read a good, succinct economic analysis of the issue, go over to the Becker-Posner blog and read Judge Posner's analysis. And he's no bleeding-heart liberal.

Posted by: PW | Feb 13, 2007 3:11:59 PM

So, if I suggest that the "global warming" debate is over whether humans cause "100%" of global warming, then one respondent rakes me over the coals for erecting a straw man. ("It's the child like level of thinking on the right that requires a discussion of contribution to be 100 percent.")

If I then say that ok, it's about whether humans are causing "some" global warming, another respondent shows up to claim that this just a "dodge" and "equivocation" on my part.

I give up. I could swear on a stack of IPCC reports that I accept the consensus scientific position, and some dumbass would still call me a "skeptic."

Posted by: John Doe | Feb 13, 2007 4:17:20 PM

Anyway, back to the point: Most liberals believe in "global warming" (including potentially radical policy solutions) not because they know anything meaningful about the "science," but because of the same herd-style groupthink that led liberals in the early 20th century to accept the latest "scientific" findings as to eugenics. The fact that liberals happen to be RIGHT here only proves that sometimes "tribalism" leads to the right conclusion; it does not prove that liberals are exempt from tribalism.

Posted by: John Doe | Feb 13, 2007 4:35:09 PM

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