Climate Silence: It’s the Right, Stupid

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Grist.org

Climate Silence: It’s the Right, Stupid

Watch this absolutely extraordinary video from the 1988 vice presidential debate, dug up by Brad Johnson of Forecast the Facts:

 

This is from 1988 — 24 years ago. The questioner doesn’t mamby-pamby around with he-said she-said, he states flatly that “most scientists” agree and that future generations are at risk.

And neither candidate bothers with dissembling or dodging. Both acknowledge the problem and promise to address it.

In 1988! In the ensuing 24 years, U.S. politics has moved backward on this issue.

There’s lots being written these days about “climate silence.” There’s a grassroots protest underway. Coral Davenport has a piece on it at National Journal. Mike Grunwald touches on it at Time. Eugene Robinson has editorialized on it at The Washington Post. Tom Zeller Jr. has covered it, and so have ClimateWire and the L.A. Times. But by far the smartest take I’ve seen yet is from the only person in the cable news universe who takes this issue seriously, Chris Hayes:

In particular, I endorse his conclusion (as it mirrors something I’ve said many times):

And so we have this asymmetry of passion: on one side of the ledger a concentrated set of interests and voters who care, in a near life and death way, about the continued exploitation of dirty energy, and on the other side, a public with a weak, nonchalant preference for us to “do something” about that whole climate change thing. Barack Obama isn’t going to rectify this imbalance. The only way to get a sane climate debate in our national conversation is to create a cadre of activists and citizens and voters who will balance the ledger, who care as passionately about saving the planet from ruin as those on the other side do about their industry … because they see and understand just as viscerally as the other side, that, yes, this really is a life or death issue, not for one industry or one region of one state, but for the planet and every single person we love who lives on it.

The only thing I’d add to all this climate-silence talk — because I haven’t seen it mentioned much — is that the retreat of climate from U.S. politics is not something that happened slowly and gradually. It was a fairly sharp break.

Throughout the decade from 1998 to 2008, Democrats swung around more solidly behind climate concern, but Republican sentiment stayed roughly steady. Right around 2008, however, there was a sharp uptick in skepticism about climate change, almost exclusively among far-right conservatives.

Now, what happened in 2008 that might have turned conservatives against climate? Hm … thinking … wait, wasn’t there an election that year? Why yes, I believe there was. Black Democrat took office, as I recall.

The sharp conservative turn against climate was part and parcel of the Tea Party phenomenon. When Obama and congressional Democrats championed legislation to address climate change — legislation not that different from what McCain championed in 2008 — the right immediately aligned against it, like a school of fish. Once cap-and-trade failed spectacularly, the issue went underground. The right is united in implacable opposition to all solutions. Burdened with so many coal states, the Dem coalition doesn’t have the votes to overcome the right’s opposition. So there’s just nothing to say. There’s no margin in talking about it. It doesn’t get Dems any votes they don’t already have. It doesn’t — despite the festival of self-delusion going on lately — move any independent or undecided votes. And it activates furious right-wing activism. So … who has incentive to talk about it? No one. As Hayes says, Obama can’t single-handedly change this dynamic, no matter how many times he says the words “climate change.”

I’ve said all this dozens of times. But I still see analyses of climate silence that draw on grand theories about “the public.” It’s not “the public” that’s behind the shift on climate. It’s the right-wing. It’s asymmetrical polarization. Until we discuss it in those terms, we won’t understand it or be able to address it.

David Roberts

David Roberts is the senior staff writer at Grist.org, an online journal of green politics and culture. He blogs there daily, even obsessively, mainly on politics and energy.

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