Is the perfect the enemy of the good?

In his latest book, The God Species, Mark Lynas argues that the green movement has been its own worst enemy in demanding perfection in climate policy when it is unachievable and results in forgoing “good enough” or “better than nothing.”

Is this the case? Are green activists responsible for the failure of the political efforts to address global warming because they sacrificed the good for the perfect?

Indeed, the environmental movement, the green activists, seem to be Lynas’s target of opportunity. He suggests that instead of accepting “the good” — policies to address black carbon and non-CO2 greenhouse gasses, or that promote policies like cap and trade — the environmental movement / green activists got nothing. Not only did they get nothing, they actually caused harm by not even getting “good enough”.

.

I agree that some in the environmental movement are puritanical on a number of issues.They can be anti-corporate, anti-capitalist, anti-industrial, anti-technological. Even, as Lynas argues, anti-science when it suits them.

I am very critical of what I think is excessive corporate power, but I also tend to be a moderate who thinks better regulation / enforcement is the way forward in dealing with corporate power and its ills, rather than something more radical. I don’t want to go back to the farm or to some collective nor do I want those currently living in destitution to remain that way and so I tend to support technological solutions to the problems we face. In other words, I want everyone to live as well as we do in the West, but there is no reason that fossil fuels have to be the way to achieve that. I don’t see the current climate crisis as the result of bad morals, but instead, bad economics and politics. There’s where the solutions lie.

However, I am loathe to go all out and attack the green / environmental movements as if they are the “enemy” of the good and responsible for the lack of progress on climate change. I think the real enemy of the good is the bad politics and economic that have held sway.

Nor do I support this desire on the part of some former environmentalists / green activists to purge themselves of their former zeal, confess to sins, and condemn their former fellow zealots in some attempt at redemption. They remind me of neo-cons who switch one radical agenda for another. I’m not saying that Revkin and Lynas are equivalent to climate / environmental neo-cons at this point but there is a slippery slope here that I don’t want to step on.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that some of what I’ve read lately from Lynas and Revkin is like an own goal. It’s a gift to denialists. These folks are doing the denialists’ job for them and the denialists are laughing up their sleeves, rubbing their hands together with delight. Just look at the reception Lynas and Revkin get when they attack climate science and the environmental movement like Greenpeace. They become tools used by denialists to further their own agenda.

In fact, the sad thing is that in their attempts to distance themselves from the green movement / environmentalism, some writers like Lynas and Revkin seem to be doing exactly what they are charging the greens / environmentalists with. Sacrificing the good for the perfect. The greens / environmentalists may not be perfect. How could they be? They may go off the rails at times, they may be everything that Lynas and Revkin say they are at times. However, I do not think they are to blame for the place we are today in terms of lack of climate policy addressing CO2. In fact, if it wasn’t for the tireless activism of these groups, we’d likely be a lot worse off.

People can always misconstrue your words, taking them and twisting them around to serve their own agendas. It’s quite another thing to make your enemy’s argument for them, and that is what I think folks like Lynas and Revkin have done in their newly-found critique of the greens/environmental movement and laying the blame at their feet for the failure of climate policy.

So what do you think? Am I completely off-base?

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54 Responses to “Is the perfect the enemy of the good?”

  1. “In other words, I want everyone to live as well as we do in the West, but there is no reason that fossil fuels have to be the way to achieve that.”

    An other way to think about this is that fossil fuels CANNOT be the way to achieve that. It simply is not possible. World oil supplies are already strained and cannot provide the cheap fuel that the west was built on.

    Coal is more abundant and still quite cheap BUT only because most of the costs associated with burning coal are externalized. Add in all the costs of particulate air pollution and the effect of the CO2 emissions on the climate and things in many developing nations go from bad to worse.

    “So what do you think? Am I completely off-base?”

    Completely? No. I would say mostly on base, but I wouldn’t discount Lynas and Revkin just yet.

    There is value in looking at your own ‘team’ with a critical eye. Especially when your ‘team’ seems to be loosing the fight.

    I recently wrote an article explaining how some of the Green Movements more ‘puritanical’ positions (on things like Nuclear power and GMO) are actively alienating the public. It isn’t easy or fun to do this, especially when the real criticisms should be directed at the merchants of doubt who have worked tirelessly to confuse the public and delay action, but it is important.

    • The problem with critiquing your own side is that while vigorous critique is de riguer in science, in politics it can be ringing your ‘side’s’ own death knell. Revkin and Lynas are not scientists involved in the peer reviewed literature, but are part of the social discourse and the political struggle. I think it’s naive to believe you can do it and improve things. This is war.

      Attacking science is the strategy of those who want to deny policy action. It’s always possible to point out errors and mistakes and weakness in science. The problem is that these errors and weaknesses may be of no importance in the larger picture. However, the public don’t know and can’t judge that. All they see is people pointing out where scientists were wrong. They have no context for understanding the errors. It’s just wrong to them and that is that. Score one for the denialists. When those who support climate science do this publicly as part of the political discourse, they are helping their enemies rather than improving science. Focus on the real threat — not a small error in a list of temperatures that makes no difference to the end result — focus on the money trail leading from the fossil fuel industry to the election coffers and greenwashing and astroturfing organizations.

      Buy the politicians and confuse the public – that’s the tactics of the denialist industry and that should be our focus.

      So this is what happens when Revkin and Lynas, well meaning that they may be, call out Greenpeace and their role in the IPCC WGIII, which in turn is held out by skeptics as proof that they were right all along — it’s just a big hoax perpetrated by those commie environmentalists. Read at WUWT and CA and Air Vent.

      That specious argument gets propagated around the intertubes and in the whacko press and Faux News and hey, the public eat it up. That’s why Americans are much less likely to accept the scientific consensus than other developed nations like Canada, Great Britain etc.

      As I say, well-intentioned but misguided.

      I say that this notion of sacrificing the good for the perfect is once again presenting us with a false alternative. We don’t have to do one or the other. Why not both?

      • I think it is useful to distinguish between the green movement (like Greenpeace) and science (like the IPPC).

        Pointing out the errors in the science can be useful but generally one can count on scientists themselves to point them out and explain their significance.

        However pointing out errors in the Green movement is different. They are not nearly as critical of themselves and are prone to more serious errors in judgement which can prevent progress.

        • As you and I discussed on Twitter, some of these hare-brained stunts of those who call themselves environmentalists and are part of the larger broader consensus, do alienate the more moderates in the movement and in society in general. I think it’s fine to make a statement that you do not support a stunt, but then it’s critical to get back on point and not make the stunt the focus.

          Re-frame, re-frame…

          This is politics, not science.

    • how some of the Green Movements more ‘puritanical’ positions (on things like Nuclear power and GMO) are actively alienating the public

      Dan, with due respect, but I think you are projecting here. These more extreme positions may alienate the likes of you (and me), but for all I see ‘the public’ largely agrees with them. There is a widespread fear of these technologies, much of it irrational; but if your interest is in the public support for ‘green’ ideas or policies rather than in getting it right for its own sake, not to worry :-)

      • I hope you are right. But that is not the impression I have (but as that might be me projecting). But it isn’t so much that I think the public is in favour of nuclear and GMOs, but rather that they see the contradiction of blind opposition to those technologies in the face of massive challenges.

        It is the contradiction that is alienating, I think.

  2. One of the difficulties I have with Lynas, Revkin – and the piece your wrote, Dan, as well – is that it treats the ‘green movement’ as a single entity. It’s like saying all climate deniers are all the same and all have the same motives. It leads to stereotyping and people feeling forced into a position of picking sides.

    The vandals who wrecked the GMO wheat trials are not the same people who are working for earth’s welfare. There are lots of anti-science types who are on the fringes of political organisations such as Green Parties, but that doesn’t mean everyone who is concerned about trying to restore the health of earth is anti-science.

    Many climate deniers are keen to protect the environment as well – and a lot of them are not anti-science Observing some climate change deniers it seems to me there is something is wrong with their brain that makes them unable to accept realities they don’t like. I think it’s the same with some of the anti-science people who are also anti-vaccinations and anti-GMO etc. The anti-science phenomenon crosses political and ideological boundaries.

    That doesn’t mean that formal organisations shouldn’t work to educate their members. They shouldn’t let themselves be taken over by unreasoning ideologues.

    I agree with Susan that it’s ludicrous to put the blame for the destruction of the environment on the very people who are working so hard to look after the earth. (During the huge bushfires of the past decade here in Australia we had people blaming ‘greenies’ for the bushfires – instead of recognising that the fires were worse and more frequent because of the drought, which was in turn worse because of global warming, which in turn was because of burning fossil fuels.)

    I’m all in favour of strongly condemning actions such as the destruction of GMO field trials. I’m also in favour of calling Greenpeace to account and urging it to get its house in order. But it has to be done in a way that doesn’t imply that every ‘environmentalist’, ‘conservationist, or ‘greenie’ is anti-science or a raving sociopath. There are a lot of people of all political persuasions who work to protect the world from deforestation, who want to stop the burning of fossil fuels, who take steps to protect precious areas of biodiversity etc. It does no good to lump them all in together.

    • Yes, Sou — thanks for pointing out that there are “greens” and then there are “greens” and they are not all of the same species. Fight from within, I always say. Change from within. Critique from without towards groups that are your political brothers and sisters just ends up being fodder for your real enemy. There seems to be this need on the part of the left and of progressives and of the people with ethics to do self-critique in public as if it is some kind of religious cleansing or purging. I say that can be as damaging as if the other side was doing it.

      I’m not saying that people should not be self-critical. Just keep your eye on the prize — and on the real enemy. It’s not us, contra Revkin and Lynas.

    • I agree that painting all greens with a broad brush is the weakest part of my argument, and that there are greens (sometimes called the bright green movement) that do not fall into my characterisation of greens.

      But when someone like myself (who is deeply concerned about the health the the planet) feels alienated by much of the mainstream green movement and when the green movement seems unable to accomplish much these days I think there is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. It is unfortunate that some people will twist this around for political gain (or even as ‘proof’ that the AGW is bunk) but if we don’t address the problem I doubt that greens will convince enough people that action is needed.

      • Dan, you and I should not be fighting about this matter. We should be working together to fight the bigger threat, no? When we spend time fighting each other, we do take energy away from the broader battle. Yes, there are nutters in the environmental movement and green parties, just as there are nutters in every other part of human societies, but if we spend our time throwing rocks at them and dodging the ones they throw, we lose sight of the really big ugly troll who is bearing down on us both. I’m just saying that our rocks are best thrown at the troll, not each other.

        Re-frame. It’s fine to disagree with nutters and to do so in public but immediately, reframe. Re-direct. Do not let the trolls take control of the discourse and divert attention away from the real battle.

        Don’t make the errors on our side your new focus. Don’t make it a cause celeb because the deniers are only too happy to focus on us eating our own because then nothing happens.

        • Don’t worry this isn’t going to be something dwell on. I think it needed to be said. But now I have said it. I hope it caused people to think a little. If not, too bad.

          But either way it is time to move on.

  3. You seem to be asking Lynas, Revkin and others to button their lips and to fall in line with the traditional Green movement but are not expecting, let’s say, Greenpeace to moderate its views; for example, by reconsidering nuclear power, GMO’s, or carbon capture and storage. Essentially you are advocating something like what is happening in the Republican Party, identifying the purist wing as the keepers of the core values and expecting everyone else to shut up and fall in line with them in the name of solidarity.

    As a Green Party member myself, I am concerned about recent pandering to anti-science people in the organization who are opposed to the installation of smart electricity meters in BC, for example. If we can’t get past an issue like this, how can we possibly hope to re-engineer the world’s energy system?

    • (Edited for clarity)

      Essentially you are advocating something like what is happening in the Republican Party, identifying the purist wing as the keepers of the core values and expecting everyone else to shut up and fall in line with them in the name of solidarity.

      No. I think this critique of Greenpeace and environmentalism and support for the likes of McIntyre is part of a ridiculously naive “confession is good for the soul” BS that only hurts the very fight we need to support. I’m just saying be smart in your criticism.

      Eye—>Prize…

      ETA:

      Think of it this way — Revkin and Lynas are doing exactly what they say the environmental movement has done with climate policy. They sacrifice the good — the environmentalist movement as a whole — as Sou points out there is no nuance in the critique — the greens/environs are painted as a group and condemned as a group — for the perfect.

      This is not science we’re dealing with here. This is politics. Science may be about the search for objective knowledge, truth, but there is no way politics is. Politics is the play of power and truth may or may not serve it, depending on the goal. Too often I think people mix the two up, naively seeing groups like Greenpeace or various green parties or the movement as a whole as doing what scientists do. No. They want to see their agenda in place, period. They may or may not use science to achieve that end. And in this realm, self-critique is an own goal, especially if it is done out in the open without nuance and without moving the battle forward.

      I realize people don’t like my militant language. But instead of aligning one’s discourse with that of the enemy, one should always focus on the real threat and battle and minimize their attempts to divert. The real threat to the climate, outside of CO2 and other GHGs and land use strategies, comes from this divide and conquer strategy of the denialists. The real threat to climate change policy emerging and succeeding comes not from greens and environmentalists but from those who muddy the waters with pseudo-science and smears, who weaken public support for science by impugning the morals and careers and work of scientists. Undermining science itself in the process.

      What Revkin and Lynas and others should do when fringe elements of the greens or enviros do wacky things is re-frame the debate back towards these real threats and not get caught up in this annoyingly puritanical self-critique folly.

      Winning a self-focused battle, inflicting own wounds, whilst losing the war, seems, well, you fill in the blanks.

      • What Revkin and Lynas and others should do when fringe elements of the greens or enviros do wacky things is re-frame the debate back towards these real threats and not get caught up in this annoyingly puritanical self-critique folly.

        Again, you are telling Lynas (also Revkin, Monbiot and Brand) to suck it up when the fringe say wacky things, while the green fringe itself is not expected to restrain itself. There’s an implication here that Lynas et al should behave like adults, whereas the purists should be indulged like children, without ever being scolded.

        The real battleground over climate is not with the denialist nutters (although I admit I enjoy scrapping with them as much as any other LWM–liberal white man). The territory we have to capture in this war is the apathetic and confused centre. Who do you think is more likely to win those hearts and minds, pragmatists or the sometimes anti-science and frequently anti-capitalist green fringe?

        • It’s simple. When the fringe say wacky things, point out that they are the fringe and then move on to the real issue. Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

          • When the fringe say wacky things, point out that they are the fringe and then move on to the real issue.

            But Susan, isn’t that what you should be pointing out re: Revkin, Lynas, Monbiot?

            So yes, they are prolific (and often good) writers; yes they get the science largely right; and yes they have large followings (but then, so does Anthony Watts). That still doesn’t exclude the possibility that they be idiots, and indeed that is the position I take.

            Rather than complaining about their lack of tactical savvy or gamesmanship, point out what idiots*) they are — very smart idiots but idiots nevertheless. I never understood why anybody took Andy Revkin seriously; he’s such a… journalist. And the way Monbiot goofed Climategate — for which he never properly owned up — makes for me all the right things he ever said (and there are many, like his takedown of Brand) things I cannot be bothered to refer to as having any authority.

            Okay?

            *) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiot_%28Athenian_democracy%29

            • Hmm. I do think they are wrong which is why I wrote this post. I have this sense that they are positioning themselves as a result of climategate and the various gates that arose in its wake. This attack on the greens and environmentalists is part of a kind of purging and public self-critique which I detest so much. It must be because they misread climategate, for why else would they be so prone to self-goals?

              Writers like Lynas and Revkin and Monbiot have big platforms and a lot of influence compared with others.

              I want to highlight how I think they are wrong and argue that instead of focusing on the errors of the fringe, we should be focused on the real issues — the soundness of the science, the strength of the consensus, the need for mitigation and adaptation.

              Frankly, I find Gavin Schmidt to be a far more reasonable public voice than these three and he’s a frickin scientist. He always seems to stay on message. I know people in the skeptic community don’t like him but he’s really good at this. IMO.

              • Yes, Gavin is very, very good, as I know from personal interaction with him — he has been through a harsh school. Guess where my handle comes from. Mike Mann is getting good too. ‘Skeptics’ dislike them because of this.

                • We need scientists to communicate the science.

                  Surely one of the roles for a scientist is to communicate their findings to the public. Science is an extremely highly specialized pursuit that requires a long apprenticeship and even longer tenure. The average citizen just can’t hope to have the chops to comprehend every branch of it well enough to judge it. However, citizens must use their democratic powers to decide how to live their lives and IMO they need confidence in science to provide them with knowledge that can inform their decisions.

                  Thus, scientists must take the time to communicate as clearly and as objectively as they can. Not every scientist is suited to this, so only those comfortable doing so should. I think Schmidt is an example. Neil de Grasse-Tyson is going to be hosting a remake of “Cosmos”. If only we had a climate scientist who was as approachable as dGT to do a “Climate”, breaking it down into easily digested parts that are comprehendible to the average viewer. Look at how people have responded to “Wonders of the Solar System” and “Wonders of the Universe”. It beat out a Colin Farrell movie rerun. :) We need something similar on climate targeted to the American public. They’re the ones needing to be informed with the best science.

                  • Why should scientists be expected to neglect their actual work of doing science to try to learn to communicate when there are good science communicators to be found? You need good communicators, but they need not be scientists themselves as long as they understand enough to be able to explain it to the public and to interview scientists.

                    Bob McDonald for instance is not a scientist but is an excellent host of Quirks and Quarks:

                    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bob_McDonald_(journalist)

                    http://www.cbc.ca/quirks/

                    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quirks_%26_Quarks

                    David Suzuki was trained as a geneticist but has effectively presented a huge range of scientific ideas and stories to the public on radio and TV and in books. He was also the first host of Quirks & Quarks.

                    Of course the good communicators like Suzuki and Al Gore are demonized by the deniers. Now that the deniers are learning some of the scientists’ names, they of course demonize them as well.

                  • > We need something similar on climate targeted to the American
                    > public.

                    Can you say Richard Alley?

                    Actually scientists with these skills are not all that rare. And if you can master a hard science, then that’s a pretty good starting point. It just takes dedication and work, work, work.

  4. Given that the environment (including climate) will not be fooled by half measures (closer to one hundredth measures so far), there need to be consistent voices calling for full measures; we have no shortage of voices calling for ‘no regrets’ only policies or ‘let’s wait and see’ as well as calling for no measures at all so I’d be very disturbed that the clearest calls for full measure become muted.

    Sure, there are elements of ‘the’ Green movement that aren’t entirely logical or agreeable but we really shouldn’t be dependent upon political activism outside of mainstream politics; surely this is more revealing of the illogical disconnection between mainstream politics and science and their unwillingness to face these issues head on with genuine commitment. The greens may have their problems but underplaying the seriousness of the problem isn’t one. It’s one characteristic that the rest of politics would do better emulating than criticising.

    • I’ve read a number of scientists who feel the IPCC projections for temperature increase in the next century underestimate the risk from BAU. I’ve also read those who say it is an over-estimate. But if the former are right, woe to us for spinning our wheels with own goals, whether they be by a group of law-breaking greenies alienating the public or sympathetic journalists making the greenies the issue, giving credibility to the deniers, and not focusing on global warming.

      The only thing that will ensure climate policy is enacted is political will. Political will comes from facing voters at the election booth and from corporations realizing that regulation is coming because of the united voice calling for it, and decide they better just get on with the program. We supporters of AGW and action on climate change squabbling amongst ourselves like schoolyard children fighting over dodge ball is not going to do the trick.

      • If we accept that climate science is essentially correct then we really, truly won’t like what’s in store by choosing to do the least we can get away with rather than the minimum required. Too many people don’t get how serious or how urgent and their ignorance is being encouraged by a barrage of fierce campaigning that relies on the commodification of public opinion via tankthink, pr, lobbying, shock jock ‘cash for comment’ and direct advertising to skew voting patterns in ‘democracies’.

        Here in Australia the unexpected introduction of interim carbon pricing has seen a huge surge in the use of advertising from the fossil fuel industry to buy public opinion – and big media has this tendency to avoid editorially attacking major customers. If they are big enough spenders editorial opinion shifts – ( as a result of a purely market based mechanism) to reflect their views and objectives. With an emerging unity of message from big media here that it’s all pain without gain and pointless besides, Carbon pricing looks certain be dismantled here come the next election.

        It’s not ‘radical greens’ who are letting us down by being unwilling to compromise, it’s mainstream politics that’s letting us down by being deeply compromised. They are delivering compromised and inadequate policy as a
        consequence.

        • I agree Ken — good points. The problem, as I have said many times on this blog, is with politics, not science or with the ‘greens’. It’s with the policy process that has been compromised due to the problem with politics. Too much big $$ buying access to policy makers and muddying the waters in order to confuse the public.

  5. Interesting post. It’s the micro view of personalities that are playing on the macro field. Each one of these people have their pet “solutions” for the the “problem”. But some are politically foolish moves. For instance, Lynas’ pet is nuclear. He’s taken it upon himself to create political will for nuclear because, as he sees it, and I agree, it needs to be a major part of the “solution”. So when he saw a chink in the armor of the IPCC report for renewables, he used McIntyre’s post for ammo against what he saw as a report that would put too much faith in renewables and therefore fail in properly using nuclear. He may be right about that. Of course by promoting McIntyre as a trustworthy source, he helps part of McIntyre’s “solution”. McIntyre’s been trying to take down scientists involved with the IPCC for almost a decade based on attacking 1) paleoclimatologists (chapter 6 IPCC) and 2) institutions involved with the collection and distribution of data. What is his endgame? Who knows? Does Lynas give a crap about that stuff? Doubtful.

    Watching Revkin versus Romm is similar. Revkin has his pet energy menu plan thing. Romm is all about renewables. Each will try and make the other look like an extremist, but only looking at the political spectrum from their own point of view, instead of looking at the larger picture. So Revkin runs to the center and says dumb things like he’s not worried about the Arctic. Romm blasts him. Why? Is it really a big deal? Or does Romm know that Revkikn doesn’t like his pet? Revkin hits back, and brings up his pet arguments about how god awful carbon targets are, then sites Romm’s preferences. This is to make Romm look extreme. They don’t realize that they are really arguing about solutions, but love their proxy battles. If they agreed on solutions, these battles wouldn’t happen so often.

    Here’s the takehome, as far as I see it. We get along with those who want to fight for own solution. If not, we’ll find ways to minimize them, and therefore their views. micro-personalities fighting macro-wars.

    • Good points. Yes, it’s clear to see the duelling agendas coming into play and see how they duke it out in very public fora to see who can make the most noise and have the most impact. Like they need to take a tape measure out…

      I guess I just think they are needlessly inflicting wounds on the entire movement for personal reasons. And siding with McIntyre?

      Sacrilege! JK. (except not.)

      • “I guess I just think they are needlessly inflicting wounds on the entire movement for personal reasons.”

        I agree. I think a better way to put this is discuss building coalitions. In fact we here a lot about that from people like Revkin. And for his type of solutions, he may not need to have the green movement on his side. Unfortunately the “green” is loosely defined as crazy environmentalists when this is very far from the truth. Lynas, OTOH, probably does need the greens. He wants to keep CO2 at 350 ppm, making his constant assault counterproductive.

        Another example. At Collide-a-scape, Tom Fuller says this:

        They choose to stay stuck in the mud, wallowing and whining and reading animal entrails for the next prophecy of doom. They literally cannot conceive of a solution to anthropogenic contributions to climate change other than one that is centrally directed and universally mandated.

        I don’t want to be like them.

        This thread was all about the differences between the “camps”. Tom sees that he doesn’t need a certain group. The group is based on their solutions, not science, not temperament, not other important commonalities, etc. So Tom’s coalition is only built upon groups who don’t want to have “top-down” solutions.

        I think what bothers people like myself and Susan about the climate movement’s inter-battles, is the realization that all the groups need to work together to create the political will to beat the large problem we face. At the same time, we need to garner support from the confused center (as Andy S points out). But Lynas’ moves were counter productive to that. We can only hope that those promoting little to no solutions remain as divided as we are. And then get our act together.

        That’s the importance recognizing the big picture.

      • > tape measure

        Nah, a ruler. A short one.

  6. I think that what a lot of the commenters above, who give Greenpeace a rough ride for advocacy that is not completely based on peer reviewed bullet proof science, forget is that Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth etc. have been going for a long time before most contemporary pundits ever realised there was a problem. They have been warning about the many environmentally threatening human behaviours for decades before most had even heard of climate change. They know that informing the general public of the situation, risks and potential solutions is very important and things should not be left to a bunch of quarrelling scientists, policy wonks and industrial forces to decide the public’s very own future.

    Greenpeace et al do not just campaign about climate change, whereas the Lynas’s seem over concentrated on spreading their views of their solutions to the relatively one-dimensional problem of carbon emissions. Crucially, the major environmental organisations also campaign for changes in the other aspects some of which are highlighted by such as Roger Pielke (land use changes etc.) – and many others not related to climate change too. Long campaigning experience has shown that simply pointing out the threats and consequences does not result in the threatening behaviours being stopped or modified but usually unleashes a barrage of countering propaganda, misdirection and defensiveness from the “threatened” powerful industries and political factions.

    Long ago Greenpeace et al realised that real changes only come about when the political environment is conducive to them. That demands that a significant number of ordinary people democratically accept the necessity for change; unfortunately the democratic majority simply do not have the detailed expertise or knowledge, nor are ever likely to, to figure out which “side” in any debate is right, yet they also have a democratic right to vote on things that will affect their lives, their family’s lives and their children’s lives.

    The message from Greenpeace and some of the larger NGOs is necessarily simplified so that ordinary people can have a say in what powerful forces sometimes wish to impose on them. No ordinary person would plough through a thousand page report to get a grip on what’s what. A simplified approach is necessary for meaningful communication. As a consequence, it is trivially easy to nitpick and split hairs in what Greenpeace say and do but it is unfair and irresponsible because they don’t really pretend that their views are exclusively peer reviewed science with all the i’s dotted and t’s crossed.. They are a people’s organisation with people centred values, although I think their chief campaigners still have to have at least a relevant degree in the subjects they pontificate on.

    Simplified, the NGO type case for action on climate change for the general public can be boiled down to this. CO2 has a measured greenhouse effect which no credible “sceptic” should deny. The only difference between the IPCC position and the fairly credible sceptic scientists, such as Lindzen, Spencer, Christy et al is in estimates of the climate sensitivity, whether the feedbacks are positive or negative, strong or weak and how they change over the short to long term. If climate sensitivity is high, then we’re screwed… 6 degrees plus. If it’s low, then we’re not. If it’s somewhere in the middle, then things MIGHT be all right but, then again they MIGHT not be. Do you feel lucky, punks? Getting the general public to appreciate the spectrum of risks that they are under, not just from climate change but from all the rest of the problems that a growing population with ever-growing demands is creating, is what Greenpeace is probably better at than all the high falutin’ pundits, scientists and think tanks.

    Stripped down, the Lynas approach is that he only appears to write about a necessity to decarbonise energy supply, whilst simultaneously attempting to protect industrial civilisation as it is currently constituted. Given that set of limited parameters, then the Lynas approach of supporting a gung-ho dash to nuclear makes sense. If one is concerned about the much wider and deeper problems that an unsustainably run planet faces, then a simple bolt-on sticking plaster solution like expanding nuclear is probably counter-productive to soling all the problems and the Greenpeace approach is closer to the optimum.

    • Yes, agreed and great comment. Agree on so many of your points.

      I do like Lynas’s book, The God Species, precisely because it focuses on planetary boundaries and reinforces that if we are going to be the main shaper of the planet and forcer of climate, if we are going to be “gods” then we better get a grip on what that entails and start taking the long view. The debt limit BS between the Republicans and the Democrats / President reminds me of the challenges we face managing our planet. It is a microcosm of the larger problem we face – we must be gods, but we can’t seem to rise above being big-brained primates squabbling over bananas. On the Kardashev scale we are only a level 0, (0.72) but are approaching level 1 and if we want to survive the transition, we have to live up to our name and show some sapience.

      • It’s strange that Lynas who, in his book, seemed to “get it” (the bigger picture) doesn’t seem to see that the major environmental NGOs take a different less elitist approach to communicating answers, whether they are THE answers or just common or garden ones, to the public. He seems to resent a different approach to his tech heavy ideas, that rely on experts being clever and innovative.

        IF they can do it without hidden drawbacks then fine but relying on technological rabbits being pulled out of hats to save us at the last minute like the US cavalry coming over the hill in a cowboys and indians movie (love mixing metaphors…) seems like a risky strategy to many ordinary people who, quite rightly, have a rather jaundiced view of the gap between what technologists promise and what usually ensues.

        For example, as a former FoE coordinator, I still have reservations about the practical consequences of expanding nuclear energy. I am just about as old as the first nuclear power station in Britain and my whole life I have heard engineers confidently saying, after leaks etc., that this time things are safe and reliable, in order to counter worries – that this time things are different (like we used to hear about the economy!).

        I feel sure that, after 50 years, nuclear technology could be genuinely pretty safe now if, and it’s a huge if, they will be run by nerdy boy scouts. Nerdy, so they know what they’re doing, and boy scouts, so they always DO what NEEDs to be done. In reality this does not happen; complacency and corner cutting will always set in.

    • Nick Palmer: Stripped down, the Lynas approach is that he only appears to write about a necessity to decarbonise energy supply, whilst simultaneously attempting to protect industrial civilisation as it is currently constituted.

      In The God Species Lynas devotes whole chapters to biodiversity, land use, nitrogen, water, toxics, aerosols, ocean acidification and ozone. This hardly reflects an exclusive obsession with decarbonizing energy or protecting “industrial civilisation as it is currently constituted”.

      And to characterize his position as advocating “a simple bolt-on sticking plaster solution like expanding nuclear” to solve all problems is misleading.

      • Andy S I agree that Lynas is much more nuanced that Nick is portraying him. However, I do agree with Nick that this attack on the environmental movement is just plain wrong.

        I think Lynas, like Monbiot, has had an epiphany about nuclear and is trying to get up to speed with it, perhaps promoting it now but he clearly supports other tech to replace FFs.

        Lynas’s support of nuclear won’t please many in the green / environmental movement, many of whom are holdovers from the arms race era and the whole fear of nuclear power. Although I’m not entirely happy about nuclear, I think it, like other sources of non-fossil fuel energy, suffered because of our access to cheap FFs. Technology needs to improve, become less expensive and safer, but it seems ridiculous to me that we don’t pursue nuclear / fusion / anti-matter/matter etc. along with solar and other renewables.

        I guess I am just too much of a futurist to write off nuclear. I think it — fusion and AM — are our destiny. I won’t write off nuclear because I think the problems with it are surmountable, given political will.

        • I won’t write off nuclear
          because I think the problems with it are surmountable, given political will.

          Perhaps… if you are referring to oversight, you have the beginning of a valid point IMO.
          Yes, fusion would be great… with fission you have the problem, that won’t go away, that you are converting fuel 100% into highly active waste, and near all of the engineering revolves around preventing that muck from getting out.
          Behind political solutions are engineering solutions, and nuclear fission safety (and that includes the proliferation issue) is actively engineered in, with all that implies in terms of human weaknesses. Whereas for renewables, safety is part of the base package, so to say, and the worst that could happen when the dumb and/or evil get hold of it, is that the lights go out :-)

          I am reminded of Microsoft Windows software, where it also seems that security is an afterthought/add-on ;-)

  7. >Can you say Richard Alley?

    He did have a show on PBS.

    Interesting discussion. I hope everyone saw Scott Denning’s talk (link at Bart’s place) at the Heartland Conference. In wondering how to get the message across, Denning takes a step into the lion’s den making some excellent points that may resonate among those not in attendance. It would be nice if his thesis that we know enough to take action and that we need all stakeholders to get involved to reach a solution reaches a wider audience.

    • I think you added a few words that are oh-so right (but which people like Keith Kloor will clearly never understand):
      “that may resonate among those not in attendance”.

      Those in attendance will have heard Scott Denning say something completely different…

  8. My comment was, of course, in response to GP, whose post was way up there in the tread.

  9. Susan :
    Surely one of the roles for a scientist is to communicate their findings to the public.

    I recently read somewhere that that disappeared after World War 2, when, having realised the importance of science during the war, governments sought to fund and support science more, in return for more control of the communication. The Cold War wouldn’t have helped, either. Hence, scientists today prefer to keep their heads down, by and large, as it became the norm in academia. Prior to WW2 scientists would be shouting their opinions from the rooftops and nobody really cared that they did it.

  10. Nick Palmer

    I agree with your comments about nuclear power and human nature. Advocates talk about how safe the latest technology is, but I worry more about human hubris, errors, terrorists, stupidity, underestimating nature and so on.
    IMO, Fukishima happened, in part, because of underestimating nature. How rare is that type of natural event? About once every 12 years, at least over the past 60 years. There have been 5 earthquakes over magnitude 9.0 in that time frame and all of them produced large tsunamis.

    The oil industry has adequately demonstrated how many things can go wrong, with “safe technology”.

    I would welcome nuclear as part of the solution, if it can be done safely.
    Would liquid floride thorium reactors be a better and safer alternative? And if so, why doesn’t the nuclear industry seem interested in that route?

    more on topic:
    A good example of internal squabbling is how some environmentalists are at loggerheads with those who want to build solar in the desert. I believe we need to use the enormous potential there, so I hope everyone can learn to work together on this.

    Regarding informing the public, I have been recommending the movie “Home”, at YouTube. Not that it gives a thorough telling of climate science, but it covers the overall impact of humans on the planet, and is beautifully done.

    • I am a long term environmentalist but I happen to love technology. The only problem is that my hopes for it have usually been let down by how it actually performs relative to how it was promised to perform. GMO as a concept had enormous promise but the reality is so much less, to the point that it is not at all clear if the overall effects of what we have done so far are a benefit or whether the negative aspects outweigh them.

      My generalised point supporting the apparently “fuzzy” Greenpeace view on science is that often the scientific or engineering viewpoint only considers relatively few parameters at any one time when speculating about a solution to a problem and discounts or ignores the rest. There is a form of geek ego issue here. For example, tell a scientist that we are putting out too much CO2 and they will work on one-dimensional ways to supply the amount of energy we currently demand without emitting as many greenhouse gases. Tell them that their solutions are one-dimensional and they would get offended that their “smarts” are being challenged.

      An environmentalist would think about a lot more aspects because they consider that the amount of energy we use is a symptom of the problem of overconsumption, whether of materials, ecosystem services, land or whatever. Plug in widespread nuclear and the CO2 problem reduces but all the others don’t, indeed may get yet worse, faster. Geopolitics would also come into the mix with environmentalists being concerned about the political stability of a world largely run by nukes. There are relatively few nations who would have a stranglehold on fissionable material resources in such a future world – look at the problems that OPEC’s dominance caused… Also despite the alleged resistance to proliferation of newer designs, that bushy tailed optimism kind of depends on the plants being run according to the optimum spec for an electricity generating reactor.

      In a world largely fuelled by nuclear consider that Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Syria, China, Israel, Chechnya, Palestine, Burma, any number of unstable African states etc would all have many reactors, not all of which would be guaranteed to be run according to the optimum spec to create power rather than fissionables, unless one was naive like the nuclear advocates.

      • I don’t know whether I’d call it environmentalist or feminist or just idiosyncratic, but I’ll always have problems with nuclear. Why? Because it’s an old-fashioned, 19th century approach to engineering with big machines and big buildings. (I also put big holes in the ground and big, bigger, biggest dams in this category.)

        Digging stuff up, to ship it elsewhere, to burn it, is at its heart the caveman approach – just making fire more exciting with bigger, shinier machines as a fascinating bonus. And it’s still got that frisson of danger that comes with all fire-making.

        • It’s splitting the atom and using the energy released by manipulation of a natural process. I don’t think it’s old fashioned — yet. The problems with nuclear are manifold, but a lot of it is due to the fact that nuclear has not been developed the way it could have been — cheap fossil fuel did that to every form of alternative energy. I think it could have been made much safer, cheaper and better had we invested in it, but I’m not an expert. I think that solar is a no-brainer and also needs more R&D as does fusion, etc.

  11. Try this experiment:

    1. Go there:

    http://www.marklynas.org/

    2. Answer this question:

    What do you notice first and foremost?

  12. Chris Mooney describes the problem:

    “…for the most part liberals-slash-envirionmentalists are not going to be as opinion intense or as unified as conservatives. They are going to disagree and squabble more amongst themselves. They are going to focus not on being the same as one another and being unified, but on being different and unique–disunified, and disorganized…”

    http://www.desmogblog.com/become-what-you-despise-why-beating-conservative-white-male-climate-deniers-may-mean-joining-them

    • I’d have to disagree. I’m a lot more libertarian/ to the Right than most posting on the climate blogs, and I can say without hesitation that the Right is as disorganized and divided as the Left. I speak from experience. From foreign policy, to abortion, to gay rights, to immigration and so on. That goes for science as well. There are certainly enough creationist/ID’ers on the Right for instance, but I know for a fact that there are a LOT of people on the Right who have no problem with evolution, or science in general. Climate science is a little different, and that really upsets me. I know people who can see through every little idiotic creationist argument (and have demolished creationists on sites like Free Republic, where we were one by one banned for being *Marxist Trolls*, of all things. Good riddance to that cesspool) and who nonetheless buy into a great deal of the denialist BS. I don’t get it (well I *do*; I was one of them up to about 5 years ago, until I actually looked up the claims myself). A number of these people I know are quite intelligent, with P.h.D’s in the hard sciences. Most are atheists/agnostic. You would be amazed how easy it is to block out something you don’t want to see. Truth be told, most on the Right view the Left as being *exactly* as Chris Mooney described the Right: extremely opinionated, united in their hatred for liberty (however defined), a homogenous mass of emotionally driven puppets, easily controlled by the media, with Soros and the MSM replacing the Koch brothers and Murdoch as the Big Bad Bogeyman.

      I feel kinda stuck without a center. I don’t fit anywhere very nicely. Maybe that’s a good thing? I’m a bit less confident in most of the things I took for granted, though I won’t get into anything here point by point. I know people on the political Left who *accept* AGW but if you ask them for details they really don’t know the basics of the scientific arguments. They know that “the corporations are bad”, and that is all they need to know. Certainly not everybody is like that, but in my experience enough are. It’s not enough to have the right knowledge/opinions; it should be because you reasoned it out logically and rationally. I don’t personally see a lot of people of whatever political leaning being really that motivated to look into the roots of their beliefs. It’s easy to become comfortable with your own ideas, so much so you forget there are others.

      /coffee-less early morning ramble

      • > it should be because you reasoned it out logically and
        > rationally

        …and because you looked at the evidence :-)

        • Well, yeah, I meant it should be based on empirical evidence + logical/rational arguments. ;) Descartes-style arm chair pondering has very limited utility.

          • > Descartes-style arm chair
            > pondering has very limited
            > utility

            Indeed… and specifically if done socially and adversarily, AKA “debate”.

  13. Will Rogers: I belong to no organized party. I am a Democrat.

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