A friend and reader asked me to comment on this article that appeared on National Review Online (NRO) site. Naturally, this occurred during the Great Computer Outage of 2011 and the link didn’t work correctly on my phone. When I was finally able to put all the pieces together and read the article, I found a lot of material on which to comment.
NRO is, obviously, a very conservative website and the article is largely a red meat piece incorporating a lot of unsupported assertions that don’t stand up to factual scrutiny. That being said, if we move beyond the factual problems with the piece, it does raise some interesting moral and ethical questions that do bear consideration. In a way, it’s a textbook example of how, by simply dismissing something as a right (or left) wing tirade, we may be depriving ourselves of the opportunity to explore critical issues, the grains of wheat if you will, that remain after the partisan chaff is blown away.
So…let’s get started clearing some chaff so we can work with the wheat.
Jim Lacey, the article’s author, frames his argument as a response to Former Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Al Gore presumably labeling people who don’t accept climate change science as racist. On the surface, that would be a patently absurd statement – if it is what Gore said. It’s not. Here’s the actual quote from this Salon.com article:
““There came a time when people said, ‘Hey man, why do you talk that way? That’s wrong, I don’t go for that so don’t talk that way around me. I just don’t believe that.’ That happened in millions of conversations, and slowly the conversation was won. And we still have racism, God knows, but it’s so different now and so much better. And we have to win the conversation on climate.”
Now, I want to start by saying that I don’t think this is the most brilliant thing for Gore to have said, but not because it’s not a valid statement. The problem with a statement like this is that it’s akin to throwing a fastball down the middle of the plate to a power hitter. He’s going to jump all over it and hit it out of the park. That’s what happens with a comment like this. The conservative punditry hears climate change skepticism compared to racism and they are off to the races. Add in Gore’s high profile and his track record of poor message management and you’ve got a political problem arising from a statement that, in its substance is perfectly reasonable save the one real problem that does exist with it: the implication that that those who accept climate change should shut down the skeptics. I would submit that, unlike racist humor, which should be shut down by peers, climate skepticism should be met head on with conversation and information.
Gore isn’t saying the climate change skeptics are racist. He’s not even saying that climate change skepticism is racist. He’s calling on people who are concerned about climate change to engage the skeptics and win the conversation. Why is this important? It’s important because the science of climate change is not what’s in question. How we respond to that science is, and in particular the political will to respond is. Bolstering that political will, like any other worthy cause, is aided by individuals engaging in the conversation one on one and providing a counter point to the skeptics. Gore said it in a way that was lacking in artistry, and I have a sinking feeling that the video would reveal another painful attempt at Gore trying to look or sound cool, but the basic message about the power of individual engagement to change hearts and minds is as apt when confronting climate change skepticism as it was (is) in confronting racism.
Lacey goes on to levy unspecified charges of hypocrisy at Gore. Let’s explore this for a moment because there is actually quite a bit to deal with. Here’s what I’ve heard about Gore’s hypocrisy.
1) His house uses too much energy. Here’s a Snopes article on that particular issue.
2) He increased his carbon footprint by buying a villa in California. This argument sometimes adds the element that he shouldn’t by coastal property if sea levels are rising.
3) He burns fossil fuels while traveling.
4) He makes money from Occidental Petroleum.
Now, Gore claims to buy carbon offsets to render his lifestyle carbon-neutral. This is a subject of debate between purists and pragmatists in the global warming advocacy community as described in this article.
I tend to come down on the pragmatist side. While I think it’s important to actually limit my carbon footprint through my direct activities, I can’t do everything I want to. I live in a condo, so I can’t put solar panels on the roof. I can’t afford a hybrid car right now. We used disposable diapers for the kids, and even if we hadn’t, we would have used a service which would have incurred a comparable environmental cost in the heavy use of cleaning chemicals. What I can do is try to recycle, use paperless billing when available, make green purchasing and eating decisions and drive as efficiently as possible and try to conserve energy at home. I also buy carbon offsets through my electric utility, although not enough to fully offset my lifestyle.
Now, when it comes to the houses, one could raise questions about the size of the house or whether the villa represents too much conspicuous consumption, but the latter criticism falls flat if it comes from someone who would defend the right of a conservative oil executive to own such a house. As for the travel issue, travel is still based on fossil fuels. Gore travels the world with his message, and air travel is the best way to do that. There are no solar powered airplanes, at least not in regular service. There may be some experimental ones out there, but I’m not sure. With long distance travel still dependent on fossil fuels, the question of Gore’s use goes back to carbon offsets.
The last bit of criticism has some teeth. Gore is on the board of Occidental Petroleum, a seat that he seems to have inherited (?) from his father. This article goes into some detail in describing the disconnect, or hypocrisy if you wish to so describe it, between Gore’s activism and his financial interests. What we don’t know is what kind of role he serves on that board. Could he be a voice working from the inside? There is a case for that kind of internal activism. I recall an NPR story some years back describing how faith-based investment funds were buying up stock in morally questionable industries (defense contractors and such) with the intent of holding increased sway over the boards of directors and changing their behavior. I have no reason to believe that Gore is or is not doing this. It’s pure speculation, but I am making the point that simply having dealings with a company does not automatically mean one is part of the problem.
However, for the sake of balance, let’s dismiss the possibility and assume that Gore is simply using his inherited seat on the board of Occidental to make a pile of money that he’s using for his own enrichment. That would be worthy of the charge of hypocrisy. It does not, however, invalidate his cause. The fact is that Gore could throw in the towel, stop buying carbon offsets and start driving around in a convoy of Hummers with Sarah Palin chanting “Drill baby drill,” and it would not change the reality of Human-caused Global Warming one bit. Global warming was not caused by one person. It will not be solved by one person. I believe that, on balance, Gore is an able spokesperson for the cause and has done a lot of good, but he is not a saint or a savior. He could retire from public life and the cause of trying to reverse climate change would continue.
So why am I spending so much time on Gore? Well, the attack on his “hypocrisy” points two a couple of myths that climate skeptics try to propagate. First, there’s the classic maneuver of trying to destroy a cause by making equating all the failings of a leader of spokesperson with the cause itself. The second is that by attacking Gore’s lifestyle choices, choices that his critics would have no problem making themselves (who doesn’t want a villa in Santa Barbara on a hill overlooking the ocean?), the skeptics are trying to push the myth that environmentalists are calling for a retreat of technology, for a return to a state of nature. Put another way, they are trying to make folks believe that in opposing global warming, we’re trying to make you give up your computers, cars, phones and all those other amenities that define North American life in the 21st Century.
Now, with the caveat that each item on my list does in fact have costs to go along with their benefits, I can say that most of us want technology to improve so that we tread more lightly on the Earth. Speaking for myself, I want a science fiction future of solar power and cold fusion. I want to travel to LA on solar powered high speed rail. I want to see cures for diseases and advances in medicine. That being said, scientific progress can and should take humanity to a place where we live in greater harmony with the natural world. And if nature’s way is best, we should use it.
Okay, so the anti-global warming movement is not all about Al Gore, and we’re not calling for us to give up our technology, only improve it to do less damage to the Earth. Lacey goes on to raise other, points that merit discussion. In the interest of getting the ball rolling, I’m going to leave those for another post.