It’s hard to find a better illustration of the failure of discourse in the age of Twitter than the punditocracy’s response to the second volume of the fourth National Climate Assessment produced by Donald Trump’s administration. Few news cycles have so clearly demonstrated that narrowness, narcissism, and hysterics are currency, even if that tender is all but worthless in the arena of public affairs.
Volume II of the report was released on the Friday after Thanksgiving. This was taken as a sign that the Trump administration hoped to bury the report and its findings, though few seemed to take much notice of Volume I’s October release date. The assessment’s second volume focused on the effects of climate change on the United States, which warned that unchecked warming could cost thousands of lives and 10 percent of GDP by the end of this century.
Exhuming this report from its early grave, NBC’s “Meet the Press” focused on it extensively—probing lawmakers about the issue and devoting a panel segment to the political implications of its findings. American Enterprise Institute scholar Danielle Pletka attracted an unusual amount of attention for her remarks on the subject. In a brief soliloquy, she said that she doesn’t believe “we can have any doubt” about the existence of climate change, though we can join the scientific community in speculating about the precise degree to which human activity contributes to that change.
Pletka went on to note mitigating phenomena that, in her view, don’t receive due attention. The last two years were typified by the “biggest drop in global temperatures that we have had since the 1980s,” she said. Pletka added that carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. are declining even after America pulled out of the Paris accords, and American industry has shifted away from burning so-called “dirty coal,” unlike its European counterparts.
The AEI scholar’s critics noted that extreme temperature fluctuation doesn’t tell us much about the climate, which is fair. But “dirty coal” burning in America is declining at a terminal rate despite the loosening regulatory climate, and the United States has led the world in CO2 emissions reductions even without a non-binding international treaty compelling it to do so. Pletka observed in closing that this was the work of industry, consumer preference, and capitalist innovation, and not oppressive central planning (which is entirely correct).
“We shouldn’t be hysterical” about the problem of climate change, Pletka concluded. You’d think she shot someone’s dog on live television.
On Twitter, investigative reporter Alex Kotch insisted that this “non-scientist” perspective was advanced in service to “the biggest fossil fuel polluters in the world, Koch Industries.” Attorney Max Kennerly contended that it was “inexcusable” to allow Pletka to opine at all on this subject. “This is PR for polluters, not journalism,” he barked. “This is crazy,” ABC News analyst Matt Dowd said. “Balance shouldn’t be the goal, truth should.” “People tune in to be informed not be subjected to propaganda,” former Think Progress founder Judd Legum tweeted. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz, and controversial climatologist Michael Mann all attacked the network for giving Pletka a platform to discuss climate as it relates to public policy.
There was no such outrage over the response from Pletka’s counterpart, New York Times columnist and fellow “non-scientist” Helene Cooper, which tells you all you need to know about this ginned-up controversy. “I actually think we should be hysterical,” she said. “I think anybody who has children or anybody who can imagine having children and grandchildren, how can you look at them and think this is the kind of world that through our own inaction and our inability to do something, that we’re going to leave them?”
It’s a struggle to think of a long-term public policy crisis that was mitigated by mass hysteria, which is perhaps why Pletka’s many detractors can’t explain why Cooper’s brand of lay advocacy is more acceptable than her counterpart’s. Cooper also said that it was time for the political class to “force corporate leadership” to do something about climate change, demonstrating that she either hadn’t heard a word Pletka said or couldn’t refute her claims. But none of the usual suspects have expressed so much as a hint of disapproval over the gauzy sentimentalism and histrionics expressed by Cooper. That sort of dilettantism serves their purposes.
For Pletka’s detractors, the likely source of consternation wasn’t her professional expertise but her refusal to accept a straight-line projection at face value. That is, however, the only prudent course considering how many climate-related prognostications have not panned out. In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s First Assessment Report’s predictions related to rates of warming and temperature changes were erroneous. The IPCC’s 2001 assessment that climate change would reduce the severity of snow storms did not materialize. The Arctic should be ice-free by now if climate scientists’ predictions were always accurate. As Abe Greenwald noted just last week, the scientific consensus around the rate of oceanic warming was successfully challenged not by the deliberate process of peer review but by a freelancing skeptic with time enough to critically parse the data. Given the failure of these near-term predictions to manifest, it’s only reasonable not to lend too much credence to a projection that takes us nearly 100 years into the future.
You might see now why some advocates prefer hysteria to caution and skepticism, and why those who shatter the serenity of the echo chamber are so valuable.