Understanding blame in lost climate debates

intersectionby Syntopia

Climate Policy Failure, and Laying Blame
[Via The Intersection]

My latest DeSmogBlog item continues the discussion of the whole Romm-Nisbet brouhaha, which is of course mostly about how to engage in accurate finger-pointing in the wake of what all perceive as a failure of climate policy.

Romm has now given some actual rough percents for how he sees the blame-o-meter, and I comment on those–I’m guessing I’m somewhere between Romm and Nisbet, probably closer to Romm:

I would never downplay (as Nisbet did) all the attacks on science that have occurred. But I also would not exonerate environmental organizations. God knows they have their problems, and personally, I’ve felt that the inward firing squad is the biggest—and the lack of unity and common cause.

Nor would I completely exonerate scientists—and they’re not letting themselves off the hook either. They know they need to communicate better. The introspection and reflection going on in that world at the moment is a really impressive thing to see.

But Romm is right that science denial and the media (combined) have been the biggest problem. I don’t know about 90 percent, but surely in the 60-90 percent range.


The article is one of the reasons I often agree with Mooney more than Nesbit in the area of science communication. Nisbets frames sometimes ignore large swaths of factual information. This may be more useful in changing some minds but is very repugnant to those who follow a reality-based world view.

Mooney, on the other hand, frames this debate in a way that I find much more understandable and useful – who has power  and what they did with it.

How do you calculate these percents, anyway? To me, the main factors in attributing “blame” (and I don’t think this is especially novel) are power and responsibility.

Thus, those who deny or attack climate science have a lot of power (through political influence, largesse, etc), and have done the wrong thing (responsibility) by undermining knowledge, disseminating misinformation, etc.

The media, meanwhile, also has vast power, and have done the wrong thing by not covering adequately the story of the century, and thus not living up to their societal responsibility.

Hence both deserve a lot of blame.

And of course here’s why scientists and environmentalists (and the Obama administration) are different: They didn’t misinform, and they wanted to do the right thing. Did they go about it the right way? Surely not, at least in many respects. And they do have power (especially Obama), so they are hardly blameless. But are they as blameworthy as those who have misled us, or those who ignored the problem? You see my point.

This may also explain why there was such a strong reaction to Nisbet’s report. While he might be willing to admit that much blame should  fall on the denial machine, the media, etc., his report was framed in such a way that it appeared to neglect them, while casting aspersions elsewhere. Thus, it seemed to shunt this power/responsibility dimension of laying blame.

By not showing outrage, it sparked outrage.

Nisbet put the blame for failure not only on those with the least amount of power – such as scientists –  but those who were trying to be the most responsible. Ignoring the powerful who irresponsibly misled the public is not a fair way to discuss balance.

Postulating that the researcher’s positions somehow made the powerful act irresponsibly does not help find a solution without recognizing that the powerful had in fact acted irresponsible. Blame should then fall on both parties, not mostly on the least powerful group trying to use facts to responsibly find useful public policy.

That was my main disagreement with Nisbet and something I wish had been discussed to a greater extent. It would have made his report much more important to all of us.