Hollywood Trash: How skeptics distort the climate change debate to be about anything but science
Yesterday afternoon, over 300,000 people gathered in midtown Manhattan for the "People's Climate March," which organizers claim was the "largest ever" climate change rally. Politicos like Al Gore rubbed elbows with Hollywood stars like Leonardo DiCaprio amid a sea of homemade signs demanding policy changes to help curb rising temperatures -- which the majority of climate scientists agree are manmade and may lead to a host of dangerous (and expensive) consequences for both animal and human habitats.
But while the discussion over climate change, an inherently scientific problem, should thus be rooted in scientific inquiry, the issue has become immensely politicized over the past decade. That's largely because the industries responsible for creating the emissions (that, again, the majority of climate scientists agree are abetting global temperature surges beyond what human communities, particularly those located at low sea levels, can likely tolerate) have a huge financial stake in downplaying scientists' concerns. These industries, most loudly represented by the libertarian-leaning Koch Brothers, have put their large cash stores to work manipulating both public opinion and elected officials on these points. They've even roped in some of Silicon Valley's most prominent firms like Facebook and Google, as Pando has previously reported. And following the Supreme Court ruling in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Committee, which struck down campaign contribution limits by individuals, it's now easier than ever for "climate skeptics" to influence elections.
But even with all the money in the world, without science on your side how do industry groups like the Kochs distort the debate in their favor?
Today, all of the techniques of the disingenuous "climate skeptic" were on display in the New York Post's write-up of the People's Climate Rally. Post writer Sophia Rosenbaum quoted no scientists and linked to no academic articles on the topic. Instead she focused on the rich celebrity attendees and the trash that was left on the street during the rally. Sadly, garbage that fails to reach the proper receptacle is not an uncommon occurrence in New York. But while one photo did show a Greenpeace-themed cup sitting atop a mailbox where it clearly doesn't belong, the article offered little evidence that the climate demonstrators were responsible for the litter. Rosenbaum also casually references "gentrifying hipsters" that crowded the streets and made it difficult for traffic to move through the area. (I'd hardly call this attendee who helped get the first recycling center built in her Brooklyn neighborhood in the 60s a "gentrifying hipster").
But the fact that Rosenbaum makes wild ad hominem generalizations is not the problem. I don't care if every last marcher was a littering, McDonald's eating, private-jet-setting youth practicing armchair activism on their rich parents' dime. Why not? Because even if that was true, it still wouldn't change the scientific evidence that strongly suggests there will be huge consequences on human life, particularly on the coasts, if industries don't take steps to cut emissions, which is the only thing that matters in this debate. (Yes, I understand that the concerns of industry leaders and the consumers who buy their products must be weighed here, but a debate can only move forward if both sides are dealing with the same facts).
Again, Rosenbaum doesn't bother to talk to scientists. Instead, the "expert" on her story is David Kreutzer of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that has received millions in funding from groups associated with the oil and gas magnates the Koch Brothers. He is not a climate scientist, he is an economist, and a heavily-compromised one at that, considering who pays his salary. Of course, that doesn't stop him from using some clever rhetoric to downplay climate concerns.
“It is phenomenally arrogant to think that 14 years into this century that we already know the greatest crisis we will face,” he told the Post. Kreutzer also makes sure to get in a jab in about the Hollywood elites and their private jets. “The hypocrisy varies from person to person. The ones that fly in on private jets are the most hypocritical.”
And making sure not to miss any opportunity to distort the debate, Rosenbaum talks to a cabbie about the traffic in the area yesterday afternoon, taking pains to call him a "hard working hack."
So there you have it -- if you're a hard working real American who can't afford a private jet, then what are you doing paying attention to a bunch of elitist scientists? After all, the only people dumb enough to believe them are rich Hollywood stars and lazy socialist hipsters!
You could argue that average New York Post readers have already made up their mind about climate change, and so criticizing the paper's rhetorical techniques is as pointless as getting mad at Fox News' freshest faux-outrage. But climate change should not be so easily politicized. Or rather, the divide should not be about whether or not it's happening (it is) but about the best way to combat it, whether through private investment in alternative energies or more rigid, federally-mandated emissions standards.
But that debate isn't sexy enough for the New York Post which, like many other conservative-leaning publications, is satisfied to turn the debate into a chance to divide the country between "real Americans" and "granola-crunching hipsters," while scientists are left out completely.
As usual, the only way to reject science is to pretend it doesn't exist.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]