Summary: Conservatives take a premature victory lap for their victory over the climate change crusade. The weather has been their irresistible ally. It will change sides, eventually.
“Its descent into social-justice identity politics is the last gasp of a cause that has lost its vitality.”
“Climate change is over. No, I’m not saying the climate will not change in the future, or that human influence on the climate is negligible. I mean simply that climate change is no longer a pre-eminent policy issue. All that remains is boilerplate rhetoric from the political class, frivolous nuisance lawsuits, and bureaucratic mandates on behalf of special-interest renewable-energy rent seekers. …
“Climate alarm is like a car alarm – a blaring noise people are tuning out. This outcome was predictable. Political scientist Anthony Downs described the downward trajectory of many political movements in an article for the Public Interest, “Up and Down With Ecology: The ‘Issue-Attention Cycle,’ ” published in 1972, long before the climate-change campaign began. Observing the movements that had arisen to address issues like crime, poverty and even the U.S.-Soviet space race, Mr. Downs discerned a five-stage cycle through which political issues pass regularly. …”
Down’s five stages are experts’ warnings, activists’ excitement, the public’s learning the costs & benefits, the public’s loss of enthusiasm, and then limbo (the issue becomes background noise with occasional bursts of interest).
Downs’ analysis of environmental issues is a mess, concluding that his model does apply. This has proven to be a false prediction. Now, 46 years later, environmental issues still rank high in the public’s priorities. For example, a recent Pew poll finds that 62% of the public consider it to be the top issue for Trump and Congress – the 7th highest issue (46% say climate change is the top issue, 18 on the list).
Hayward makes many good points, but overlooks two key factors that power public policy campaigns. First, Downs points to the fraction of the population affected as a key factor. The larger, the deeper the hold of the issue in the public’s consciousness. Issues such as feminism and pollution remain salient over generations because they affect so many of us.
The second is equally important, but ignored by Downs: how activists conduct their campaign. Some go for flash and fast impact, such as Black Lives Matters, Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party Movement. These tend to burn brightly and briefly.
Better led movements gather resources, build broad bases, and occupy the high points of society. Slow but powerful. Environmentalists and feminists have done this, becoming textbook quality case examples of effective political movements. Both are entrenched in government agencies, university faculties and administrations, corporations, and the media. Both movements have had ebb and flood tides, but steadily advanced over time. Their institutional strength allows them to outlast periods of public disinterest and then swiftly, even brutally, exploit opportunities.
Radical feminists were considered old news many times – such as after the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment and their backing of Bill Clinton over his victims (and refusal to respond when Bill’s DNA proved that one told the truth). Their attempts failed to start moral panics over the America’s “rape culture” and the “campus rape crisis.” But they succeeded with the #MeToo campaign. We cannot yet see the end of this wildfire.
Each round of successes makes lasting changes in American society. It is a ratchet.
About the failure of the climate change movement
Advocates for massive action to fight climate change occupy most of the high ground in US society. Their advocacy teams are well-funded and professional. But three decades of work has produced few results.
Polls show a slow increases since 1988 in the public’s concern about climate change. It is a partisan issue — strong among Democrats, significant among Independents, and weak among Republicans. Majorities are concerned in all age groups, but most strongly among the young (70% of those 18-34). But most people consider it a low public policy priority and have little interest in paying to fight climate change (details here).
The movement’s leaders made poor tactical choices, but their worst foe has been the weather. A political campaign needs fuel. Something vivid, like Jenkin’s Ear or a bloody shirt to wave at the crowds. A series of extremely destructive weather events might start a political wildfire – when amplified by climate advocates in key institutions. As we have seen in the past, the weather needs little relationship to CO2 or global warming. Advocates will just claim that it does, and climate scientists will give assent by their silence. They remember what happened to Professor Roger Pielke Jr. after he cited the peer-reviewed literature and IPCC’s work against the climate crusaders (see the amazing story here; he now does sports science).
The late 1990s looked promising for them, with steeply increasing temperatures. Then came the “pause” or “hiatus”, 15 years in which global temperatures increased only microscopically per year. The 2005 Atlantic hurricane season looked promising, with predictions that more and bigger hurricanes were coming. Instead we got a 12 year-long “drought” of big landfalls. Floods, droughts, tornadoes – random chance should have produced some exciting confluence of destructive weather that they could exploit. But it has not (yet).
It was climate skeptics vs. the massed power of America’s major institutions (the GOP ignored them until late in the game). This was a match like David vs. Goliath. But this time lightning struck Goliath’s sword. Now skeptics are doing fist bumps, tempting fate by attributing their good luck to skill. In WWII, the Japanese called it the “victory disease” – premature celebration of victory while one’s foe remains powerful and determined.
To be clear about this – There was opposition to the climate advocates by apolitical scientists, such as Roger Pielke Sr., Roger Pielke Jr., and Judith Curry. There were people publicizing work that contradicted advocates’ claims, such as meteorologist Anthony Watts. And many others working against the climate crusade in many ways. But their effort probably would have been in vain if the weather had given advocates some support.
The war is not over
Skeptics’ euphoria is not just undeserved. It is premature. The institutional support for the climate change movement has not been damaged. Public support continues to slowly rise (with the usual fluctuations from year to year).
Modern Americans are easily panicked, like sheep. A spell of destructive weather (most effective if in the US, but not necessarily so) might create a call for climate policy action that politicians would find irresistible. The odds are good that the weather eventually will give them dramatic action before their support fades.
It is almost impossible to roll back policy changes in matters supported by the public. The climate advocates need to win only once.
For More Information
Ideas! For shopping ideas, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.
- My proposal: Climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.
- Important: Why skeptics will lose the US climate policy debate.
- There will be little public policy action by the US to fight climate change – until the weather decides the debate.
- We can end the climate policy wars: demand a test of the models.
- Imagine the horrific fate of the losers after the climate policy debate ends.
- Ignoring science to convince the public that we’re doomed by climate change.
- Focusing on worst case climate futures doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work.
- Manichean paranoia has poisoned the climate debate.
- Paul Krugman shows why the climate campaign failed.
- A new paper shows why the climate policy debate is broken.