The Guardian reports that the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research has sent out letters to scientists and economists offering them $10,000 to “emphasise the shortcomings” of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s report last Friday.
Ben Stewart of Greenpeace said: “The AEI is more than just a thinktank, it functions as the Bush administration’s intellectual Cosa Nostra. They are White House surrogates in the last throes of their campaign of climate change denial. They lost on the science; they lost on the moral case for action. All they’ve got left is a suitcase full of cash.”
Nicely said, Ben. Meanwhile, the imaginary debate continues to rage, as average citizens are under the sincere impression that there’s something like a 50-50 split in academic opinion on climate change. In fact, that’s all that’s necessary for private interests like AEI to succeed in their goals. They want to shape policy, policy is shaped by public opinion, and regardless of what the academic concensus is, it doesn’t translate into votes unless people understand and believe it.
What’s interesting, and has been for some time, is the way that essentially lay followers take up the cause of those private interests. Because there is a pre-existing framework of “left” versus “right”, especially in social environments like the US, all someone has to do in order to prevent there being concensus on an issue is encourage voters to frame it in left-right terms. People on the left worry about climate change, people on the right think it’s bullshit.
Certainly, that’s becoming less and less true as time goes on. Plenty of people who identify with “the right” are very concerned about climate change, but in doing so they’re going against an entrenched trend – a trend that was initially established by linking climate change with the general air of polarisation in Western (and especially American) politics.
When encountering a new contentious issue, birds of a feather seek each other out. When climate change came more into the popular consciousness, those who wanted to have an opinion looked first to those they had agreed with in the past – those in favour of invading Vietnam or Iraq, those in favour of tax cuts, those in favour of “family values”. Once they learned the appropriate position, they could then get the pleasure buzz of reading articles and blogs that agreed with them, lending the support of actual arguments (dodgy or not) to their now pre-existing position on the matter.
With the Internet, and especially the Blogosphere, there is a much accelerated mimetic evolution of arguments and ideas. One person strikes across what sounds rhetorically like a convincing argument against climate change – perhaps because of its wit – and passes it on to anyone who reads his blog or his message-board posts. It spreads quickly, evolving as it encounters obstacles.
is one example. It’s very rhetorically appealing to say, “Global warming? Hah! Hell, 30 years ago we were worried about global cooling! Those climate scientists never know what’s what.” If I remember correctly, PJ O’Rourke mentioned that in one of his books. It spreads. Being debunked by academic concensus doesn’t matter, if it can spread and back up pre-existing opinions drawn down the traditional left-right divide.
What this existing framework does is make it very easy for an issue with near-consensus in the academic community to become a contentious issue of great debate in the public sphere. With the flick of a subtle association, you can cause an identification in a previously unexposed listener’s mind, where a stance on an issue is linked with socialism or with capitalism, with bleeding-heart liberals or money-hungry conservatives.
And, sadly, there’s almost no getting around it. You can’t present major issues in a way that won’t settle down into that 50/50 divide. Because whoever leaps on the topic first defines who’s going to reflexively disagree with them.