Listening to what can’t be said
Judith Curry’s characterization of last week’s PBS report “Climate of Doubt” as “predictable” pretty much captures it. It takes a pretty short memory to think that in 2007 the forces of climate good were on the verge of political victory, snatched from them only by the might of the evil Koch brothers supplemented by the covert work of a host of political operatives (who, by the way, interviewed rather well). I was sorry that the counter-narrative Matt Nisbet’s group put forward in the Climate Shift report hasn’t gotten any traction.
There was one interesting moment, though: something that wasn’t said.
A reporter told the story of her attempt to interview Republican Congressional representatives on (1) the existence of, (2) the attribution of, and (3) policy options for, climate change. She was met by refusals to answer, including by escape attempts involving elevators. This was interpreted as yet another sign of the domination of the Republican party by special interests.
I’d take it a bit differently.
Public talk by responsible political actors is accountable: if the system is working well, people will get in trouble for saying something that turns out to be wrong.
The exchange of arguments in policy deliberations isn’t meant to persuade, as much as to change the terrain of what is sayable. For example, the long work of the civil rights movement did not eliminate racism, but it made openly racist arguments unsayable in mainstream political discourse. That makes it harder to defend racist policies, and in the long run can result in the eventual extinction of beliefs that cannot receive public acknowledgement. Thus many of my students don’t believe that racism exists any longer, because they’ve never heard legitimized racist talk.
It’s not particularly surprising that Republic representatives, responsible to their base, aren’t going to respond with a vigorous “Yes! Yes! Yes!” when asked about climate change. (See entry for Political Suicide, subcategory Bob Inglis.) But notice that they didn’t take the easy alternative route of just saying “No.” Instead, they ran away.
So: In the halls of Congress, representatives refuse to question the existence of climate change. Both presidential candidates acknowledge the existence of climate change. In the blogosphere as a whole, my impression is that the more responsible voices are disputing only the C in CAGW–a big change over the last few years. In sum, skepticism about the existence of climate change seems to be inching into the category of the unsayable.
This should open opportunities for collaboration on policies aimed at adaptation to climate change, since a whole range of arguments against adaptation now can’t be said. Not surprisingly, well-funded interests on the right will try to block the deliberations. But progress can equally be blocked if the forces of climate good refuse to move forward until their opponents grovel before them, repent their errors, and publicly confess the full climate catechism. We’d all be better off if we didn’t force each other to agree, but instead listened for what isn’t being said.
P.S. Good to be back to blogging! Maybe this time I’ll keep it up.