The 'Feel Good' Approach to Climate Distortion

An article published today in the science section of the New York Times clearly demonstrates the importance of frames and narratives when discussing important political issues. John Tierney's article "Findings: 'Feel Good' vs. 'Do Good' on Climate" is currently among the most popular articles of the day. This widely read article is filled with distortions, redirections, and spin designed specifically to undermine public acceptance of one of the gravest threats we face as a global community

Several months ago, I critiqued a similar Times article by William J. Broad in my response, When Climate Message is Strong, Attack the Messenger!

Like Broad, Tierney seems intent on undermining the strong public acceptance of the significance of the climate crisis. He does this with the help of Bjorn Lomborg , a person whose expertise in statistics has been very helpful at distorting facts through the manipulation of numbers.

Set the Stage with Heroes and Villains

The persuasive power of Tierney's creation lies in the story it tells. He starts out with the line "After looking at one too many projections of global warming disasters... I was ready for a reality check." A hidden message lurks in this opening line. Here is a translation of the story implicit in his opening statement:

Alarmist environmentalists are naive children who don't really know what is going on. They are out of touch with reality. They have repeatedly bombarded us innocent victims with tales of disaster and doom.

Now we know who the villains are. All those pesky people who express concern about global warming are bad. They cannot be trusted. So who can we trust? Enter Bjorn Lomborg, an 'expert' in political science who has stood firm against environmentalists for years. He is the "scourge of environmentalist orthodoxy" - Tierney's way of painting environmentalists as religious fanatics who refuse to give up their dogmatic ways. (One could instead interpret Lomborg's steadfastness in the face of an entire community of experts as being dogmatic.)

The heroes go on a quest. But it is "not an arduous expedition." Translation: "It is easy to show that the villains are wrong." All you have to do is walk over to the Brooklyn Bridge and look at the water down below. Simple. But the story is just beginning.

Treat Future Events as "More of the Same"

A typical technique used by climate contrarians is to frame projections of likely future events as predictions and call climate scientists foolish for predicting the future. Tierney goes the other way and frames future events as reflections of the past. Check out this quote:

"Since record-keeping began in the 19th century, the sea level in New York has been rising a foot per century, which happens to be about the same increase estimated to occur over the next century by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."
(emphasis added)
He does more than claim numerical equivalence. That alone would merely be inaccurate (the average of all scenarios for sea level rise over the next century is closer to 1.5 feet, but could be as high as 3 feet). Instead, he goes further to imply that the rise in sea level over the last century didn't cause any harm. Therefore, another increase of the same amount will have the same consequence. Clever sleight-of-hand, isn't it? He does the same thing with temperature:

"The temperature has also risen as New York has been covered with asphalt and concrete...that's estimated to have raised nighttime temperatures by 7 degrees Fahrenheit. The warming that has already occurred locally is on the same scale as what's expected globally in the next century."
(emphasis added)
Tierney's understanding of global temperature would earn him a failing grade in any physical science class. The warming in a small area (a city) for a short duration (overnight) is vastly different from the warming of the entire planet averaged over several decades. We can deduce that Tierney either sucks at physics (and doesn't have the sense to ask a real expert) or he is intentionally seeking to mislead people.

He goes on to say that "the impact of these changes on Lower Manhattan isn't quite as striking as the computer graphics." This reinforces the misconceptions he has just peddled while undermining the credibility of the science. In effect, this is saying that dramatic pictures are exaggerations, in truth things aren't so bad!

Learning a Lesson

We are meant to learn that "the lesson from our expedition is not that global warming is a trivial problem." This is a classic example of negating a frame to reinforce it. It is like saying "don't think of a white horse," which immediately evokes imagery of billowy white manes and tails on four-legged beasts. Tierney has Lomborg agree that "global warming is real and will do more harm than good," thus framing global warming as having unspecified beneficial properties that are not too bad after all.

And what would these heroes have us do to address a problem that is not "trivial"? We are told that "the best strategy, he says, is to make the rest of the world as rich as New York" and "buy air conditioners." That will fix everything.

This solution emerges because the problem has been trivialized by Tierney when he pointed out a few "confounding factors" that even Al Gore couldn't see. The first is "that winter can be deadlier than summer." This frame hides the deadly truth that droughts are strongly contributing to famine, disease, and destabilization of the entire horn of Africa. The climate crisis will impact people everywhere, not just in the north where winters can be harsh. The second is "that the weather matters a lot less than how people respond to it." We could take away from this the lesson that we should respond to the climate crisis as a serious threat, but that isn't what he has in mind.

Technology to the Rescue (Only the Wealthy Need Apply)

So we should buy air conditioners. Just pretend they don't run on electricity from fossil fuels. The global warming pollution involved is not a problem. Why is this a good thing? Because it doesn't hurt the economy! (Finally, the truth creeps out.)

Tierney goes on to say that "preparing for the worst in future climate is expensive" and we shouldn't do anything about it because it will mean "less money for the most serious threats today." Unspecified threats are deemed more important than the climate crisis, implicitly undermining its significance. At the same time, the false dichotomy of environment against economy has reared its ugly head.

What's worse, we are meant to infer that only wealthy U.S. cities matter. The 'big problems' Tierney wants us to focus on are giving "urbanites a break from the hot summer" and "reducing the urban-heat-island effect." We should just ignore the impacts of global warming on all those starving Africans. Or that we can't protect 17 million people who live at sea level in Bangladesh. He completely misses the fact that the climate crisis is a moral issue. The world's poor and disenfranchised will be hit hardest by global warming, not the wealthy cities of the United States.

A Peaceful Ending to a Simple Quest

How does the story end? Lomborg and Tierney are "sitting safely dry and cool inside the Bridge CafAf(c)." All is well and there is nothing to worry about. In this little comfort zone, Lomborg reminds us that we should think of the children:

"I don't think our descendants will thank us for leaving them poorer and less healthy just so we could do a little bit to slow global warming. I'd rather we were remembered for solving the other problems first."
By presenting past change as equivalent to what is in store, coupled with simplistic solutions to the wrong problems, we should solve 'real' problems that have not been specified.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of this nonsense. Six months ago I wrote this:

"Each day we fail to take responsibility for the mess we are in compromises our communities. Each day we fail to empathize with all creatures great and small we damage the health of our planet. Each day we fail to recognize our common good reduces the common wealth we have to share with each other. Why isn't this message printed in the New York Times today? That's what I want to know.

Isn't it finally time to transcend this kind of madness?"

That pretty much sums it up for me.

Joe Brewer is a fellow at The Rockridge Institute

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