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A sneaky new rhetoric is holding back progress on climate change

AP Photo/Romas Dabrukas
Cynics always have a ready case for doing nothing.
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

“One of the enemies we will be fighting at this conference is cynicism,” President Obama warned delegates at the Paris climate change conference on Monday. He was right—but today the big danger is not climate-change deniers but those who serve up cynicism in insidious new forms.

The environmental movement is now confronting people who admit the reality of climate change but scoff at attempts to combat it. They rely on a rhetorical tactic of raising trumped-up or downright inaccurate concerns about environmental solutions, which serves to stymie progress. These “green herrings” are gobbled up by many an op-ed page and television broadcaster—and that’s a huge problem that has to stop.

One common green herring, for example, is the argument that US efforts to address climate change are pointless unless China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, steps up. After China’s President Xi Jinping and President Obama struck a deal to curb emissions late last year, political commentator Charles Krauthammer penned a Washington Post editorial acknowledging that “pumping increasing amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere cannot be a good thing.” But he went on to argue that the U.S.-China climate deal was “a fraud” because it didn’t require enough of China.

On the face of it, this argument seems logical. But this battle cry for inaction cedes climate-change leadership to the economic planners of China. It relies on a profoundly nihilistic sentiment: “We shouldn’t help unless they help first.”

Also common are attacks on the economics or environmental shortcomings of technologies that address the long-term challenges of greenhouse gas emissions. Last week the Washington Post’s Moscow bureau chief served up one such green herring, in the form of an article called “The Dirty Secret Behind Electric Vehicles.”  I had published a book on electric vehicles in January, and wondered what the author might have found.

Some electric cars run on coal. This is about as newsworthy as the sunrise.

The dirty secret, it turned out, was not much of a secret at all: Some electric cars run on coal. This is about as newsworthy as the sunrise. And the environmental problem lies not with electric cars themselves, but with relying on coal as a source of energy. But the article’s title, logic and tone—including such sentiments as, “Amid the mixed picture for electric cars, some environmentalists say that money spent on them might be better directed elsewhere”—made it seem as if electric cars were to blame.

Or take the example of Bjorn Lomborg, a visiting professor at Copenhagen Business School and self-styled “skeptical environmentalist.” Skepticism sounds good in theory. But in practice it seems that his skepticism almost always overrides his environmental concern. In February, Lomborg argued that the data on climate change are “actually encouraging.” But his specialty lies in cherry-picking data, such as the extent of Antarctic sea ice, that misleads people who aren’t experts.

Historically, people tend to do quite poorly when it comes to seeing past such ruses. In the book Merchants of Doubt, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway detail how a small cabal of free-market fundamentalists, funded in part by the fossil fuel industry, manipulated the media into giving equal time to fringe scientific theories. Thus inaccurate information spread about environmental and health issues ranging from the link between cigarettes and cancer to the dangers of global warming and acid rain. Conveniently, the naysayers’ policy prescriptions tended to be to nothing—the cheapest and easiest solution to most problems in the short-term.

The naysayers’ policy prescriptions tended to be to nothing.

It’s not only right-wingers and fossil fuel interests that fall into the green herring trap. The environmental community’s focus on the Keystone XL pipeline was drastically out of proportion to the project’s actual environmental importance. Bill Gates’ well-intentioned harping on the fact that current clean energy technologies are inadequate to the climate challenge is too dismissive of current research and development efforts. And a few years back, Greenpeace USA’s president Annie Leonard unfairly criticized cap and trade, a policy mechanism that allows polluters to buy and sell a declining number of emissions permits in order to drive emissions reductions. Leonard claimed that the synthetic market for emissions credits was a scheme by greedy bankers from Goldman Sachs and Enron to bilk American consumers and would be useless in curbing climate change. But these types of markets have a strong track record of curbing acid rain and promoting new environmental technologies.

For decades, the media has soft-peddled both the urgency and science surrounding climate change. As we gear up for a month of climate negotiations, responsible news media, advocates and academics must forgo the temptation to indulge in contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake.

Of course, journalists have a right and duty to examine the potential effects and downsides of environmental policies, technologies, industries and business models. But they ought to responsibly communicate an evidence-based worldview. If 99 reputable scientists say that climate change is being driven by humans for every one contrarian, for example, the conversation shouldn’t be treated as a simple “he said, she said” debate. The same holds true for comments from the left.

Over the coming years and decades, a carnival of journalists, politicians, academics, think tanks, consultancies and others will serve up barrels of green herrings to news outlets and policymakers. We cannot indulge them. The time for sensationalism is long past, and the stakes are too high.

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