February 25, 2013 — The recent Washington, D.C., rally against the Keystone XL pipeline garnered a wide range of reactions — among the most notable of which was a chain begun by New York Times’ Dot Earth writer Andrew Revkin, who on Twitter discussed his long-standing critique of the protesters’ strategy. Soon after, at Grist, blogger David Roberts weighed in with a post deriding Revkin and others (including me) for what he characterized as misplaced concessions and pragmatism in the face of extremist opposition and dire stakes.
Even the actor Mark Ruffalo, best known for playing the Incredible Hulk in The Avengers, got in on the discussion with comments at Roberts’ blog post and a strongly worded tweet.
— Mark Ruffalo (@Mruff221) February 21, 2013
These kinds of reactions strike me as the type of cultural tribalism Yale University’s Dan Kahan warns about when he refers to the polluted science communication environment. Such intolerance of disagreement is something for which conservatives and Tea Party activists are often criticized, and is the type of ideological purity that has made our national politics a mess.
The reality is that multiple discourses about addressing climate change exist, even among the most visible voices working to improve public understanding and empower action. For the broad community of groups, experts and thinkers focused on combating climate change, healthy debate and disagreement about strategy and tactics could be a strength, rather than our undoing. After all, despite differences, we all want to move society forward on the problem. Respectful debate can help us recognize shared goals and craft realistic policy approaches.
The core of the issue that I worry most about, as do others, is that arguments for action on climate change that evoke only one particular vision of the future will reflect only the priorities and values of certain parties, rather than a broad, pragmatic set of choices designed to both effectively manage the problem of climate change and align a diversity of political interests in support of policy action.
On the road to climate progress, what we truly need are venues where there can be respectful, cross-cutting discussion of science, policy and politics that challenges assumptions and widens the menu of options available to policymakers rather than narrowing them.
In a recent editorial about the Keystone XL pipeline, the journal Nature argued that “the [Obama] administration should face down critics of the project, ensure that environmental standards are met and then approve it.” As the editorial argued, “the pipeline is not going to determine whether the Canadian tar sands are developed or not. Only a broader — and much more important — shift in energy policy will do that. Nor is oil produced from the Canadian tar sands as dirty from a climate perspective as many believe (some of the oil produced in California, without attention from environmentalists, is worse).”
You might not agree with this strategy, but it’s worth putting on the table for discussion and debate. After all, Nature’s editors are among those who share the goal of reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change. They just differ in their outlook and strategic approach from people like David Roberts and Bill McKibben.
To be sure, pursuit of all kinds of climate solutions can benefit from the grassroots pressure generated by 350.org (one of the organizations behind the Feb. 17 protest). Yet when such organizations and their supporters show little tolerance for political pragmatism and voice only dissatisfaction with Obama’s achievements so far on climate policy, insisting that the pipeline be removed from Obama’s list of possible negotiating tactics with Republicans and moderate Democrats in Congress, a hard line seems to be drawn in the sand.
As the movement in support of action on climate change grows in strength over the coming years — and I sincerely hope it does — the leaders of the movement would be wise to counsel supporters to respect the need for multiple perspectives and approaches to the problem. The movement will only be successful if it can balance and merge these perspectives while learning from disagreement.
On the road to climate progress, what we truly need are venues where there can be respectful, crosscutting discussion of science, policy and politics that challenges assumptions and widens the menu of options available to policymakers rather than narrowing them. Ultimately, we all share overlapping goals, even if our strategic and tactical approaches may differ. Rather than viewing dissonance as a weakness, we should use the diverse perspectives as a foundation for building a strong set of actions to combat climate change.