“Unsettled” Climate Science: So What?
An advance look at my review of Steve Koonin's Unsettled
In a recent interview in New York Times Magazine, energy expert and polymath Vaclav Smil found himself being pressured by his interviewer to acknowledge that climate change was either a catastrophe or not a problem. The famously cantankerous Smil bristled at the framing:
“I cannot tell you that we don’t have a problem because we do have a problem. But I cannot tell you it’s the end of the world by next Monday because it is not the end of the world by next Monday. What’s the point of you pressing me to belong to one of these groups?”
For well over a decade, the American debate over climate change has largely been a battle between two extremes: those who view climate change apocalyptically, and those castigated as deniers of climate science. In institutions of science and in the mainstream media, we see the celebration of the catastrophists and the denigration of the deniers. Predictably, the categories map neatly onto the extremes of left-versus right politics. The most apt characterization of this polarized framing is as a kind of Manichean paranoia—a politics defined by the belief that the debate is really a battle of absolute good against absolute evil over the future of the world.
Manichean paranoia has a long history in America. In his famous 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” historian Richard Hofstadter argued that the paranoid person
“does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish.”
Today, the Manichean politics of climate change play out on social media, where leading scientists, journalists, and other combatants seek, to borrow from Jonathan Haidt, “to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties.” The incredibly fascinating, important, and nuanced issue of climate change has become an online team sport between the good guys (your side) and the bad guys (the other side).
The politics of Manichean paranoia, as I have elsewhere argued, have had a deeply pathological influence on the debate over climate science and policy. My own experiences—which include being attacked by the White House and investigated by Congress for publishing and communicating peer-reviewed research—are symptomatic of the pathology, but they are only small examples of how the debate seeks to force participants into one of two extreme camps. Smil is right to push back against this pressure, even if the resistance has so far been futile.
New York University physicist Steven Koonin had a fantastic opportunity to push back on the Manichean framing of the climate issue in his bestselling book Unsettled: What Climate Science Tells Us, What It Doesn’t, and Why It Matters, and to present an alternative, nuanced perspective largely missing from public debate. But after some early resistance, Koonin gives in to the Manichean politics, embracing the conventional, divisive framing. The response to the book has been predicable, with both supporters and opponents relishing the battle—combatants in a deeply polarized struggle have an existential need for their mirror image. Koonin’s book could have challenged the pathological politics of climate change. Instead, it reinforces them.
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