Climate McCarthyism Part 3: The Hyper-Partisan Mind

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What gave rise to Joe Romm and Climate McCarthyism? In a word: hyper-partisanship. America is more polarized politically today than it has been in 130 years. The fracturing of traditional media has political partisans looking for people who will filter news, analysis, and opinions for them. Democrats who care about the environment have been turning to Joe Romm. They wished for somebody tough to stand up to the bad guys on climate change. They wished for somebody to simplify complicated questions. In "The Hyper-Partisan Mind," we see why they should be careful what they wish for.

November 11, 2009 | Ted Nordhaus, Michael Shellenberger,

America is more polarized today than at any time since Reconstruction. A major quantitative analysis by social scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal found today to be the most polarized period in 130 years.

Little wonder then that Romm's strength lies in his appeals to Democratic partisan identity. He writes for a Democratic audience and mobilizes liberal and environmentalist readers to attack reporters, activists, and policymakers who diverge, literally, from the Party line.

Today's fractured and polarized media environment has allowed Joe Romm to become the most influential liberal climate activist in the country, largely because he has convinced liberals and Democrats that he is an energy and climate science expert. This explains why Nobel Prize Winner and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman says "I trust Joe Romm," Thomas Friedman calls ClimateProgress.org "the indispensable blog," Al Gore relies on him for technical analysis, and the Center for American Progress makes him the organization's chief spokesperson on climate and energy issues.

In this post we will see how Romm helps Democrats make mental short-cuts about who to trust and distrust, which technologies are promising and which are chimeras, and which policies to advocate and which to oppose. We will document how Romm does this by inventing associations between people he disagrees with and various Republicans, particularly George W. Bush.

And we will argue – against those who pooh-pooh his influence – that Joe Romm is, in fact, far more influential today than Joe McCarthy was in the 1950s, a fact that, unfortunately, has proven poisonous to creating the consensus needed for serious action on climate.

Partisan Identity as a Mental Short-Cut

It's no coincidence that America's Climate McCarthyite-in-chief is a blogger at the largest liberal think tank and not a US senator. Busy fundraising and campaigning, members of Congress have largely outsourced the deliberative process of legislating to partisan interest groups and think tanks.

Meanwhile, the explosion of new media and the resulting flood of information means that educated partisans – including beat reporters and national columnists – are looking for partisan specialists to filter their news, analysis, and media commentary.

"We may believe intellectually in the clash of opinions," Times' columnist Nicholas Kristof noted, "but in practice we like to embed ourselves in the reassuring womb of an echo chamber."

Much has been written about the ideological echo chamber conservatives like Sen. James Inhofe, Rush Limbaugh, and Glen Beck have created to enforce anti-environmental orthodoxy on the Right. Less remarked upon has been the creation of its analog on the Left – an accomplishment in which Romm has taken a leading role. Romm has mastered the echo chamber in its liberal expression and creates a reassuring green womb for his growing cadre of loyal readers. Every day of the week he dutifully filters the news, telling readers the good news of yet another McKinsey report on how energy efficiency more than pays for itself, and the bad news of yet another outrageous declaration by the dastardly Sen. Inhofe. In one post Romm serves up news stories of natural disasters as evidence of the imminent apocalypse, while in the next he touts new studies showing how cheap solar power is and how expensive nuclear is.

Most importantly Romm functions to inform his readers of the partisan identity of any given thing, whether it be a new technology, policy, or analysis. Thus, when it came time for Romm to criticize a rather technical piece on the rising carbon intensity of the global economy that appeared in the journal Nature -- which we discussed in our last post -- he attacked it, not as inaccurate or incorrect, but rather as Republican.

"It will be no surprise to learn the central point of their essay, ironically titled 'Dangerous Assumptions' is 'Enormous advances in energy technology will be needed to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations at acceptable levels,' which is otherwise known as the technology trap or the standard 'Technology, technology, blah, blah, blah' delayer message developed by Frank Luntz and perfected by Bush/Lomborg/Gingrich."

In other words, the Nature article was not what it claimed to be. It wasn't an analysis suggesting that the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should revisit its assumptions about decarbonization. It wasn't an argument for stronger technology policies. No, it was a devious Republican message - one designed by Republican pollster Frank Luntz during the Bush years – to delay action.

How then did Romm become convinced that, rather than being genuine, the "Dangerous Assumptions" analysis was, in fact, Republican propaganda? Because Romm's Climate McCarthyism is, in large measure, the product of his Hyper-Partisan mind, one which sees everything through the gaze of Republican or Democratic, "climate denier" or "climate science advocate," and "climate destroyer" or climate savior.

Earlier this year Romm attacked two of the world's leading environmental economists, Richard Tol and William Nordhaus (the co-author's uncle). Their crime? They were thanked in the acknowledgements of a study by economists from MIT, Northwestern and the National Bureau of Economic Research, which was subsequently touted by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

In another post attacking Tol, Romm wrote:

Tol's work is a beloved of the right wing global warming deniers.

Enough said -- at least for Romm's liberal readers. Having made this mental (and tribal) short cut, Romm's readers were freed by Romm to chuck the entire corpus of Tol's work.

Elsewhere Romm attacked Robert Mendelsohn, another leading environmental economist:

When the global warming deniers and delayers at right wing think tanks like the Hoover Institute agree with your analysis, you should start to ask yourself whether you really know what you're talking about. [Bold in the original]

Get it? The economists in question should rethink their work not because their assumptions are wrong, or their findings invalid, but rather because a conservative think tank agrees with them.

Now, the two of us have very substantial disagreements with these environmental economists and most neoclassical economists, many of which we laid out in our on-line debate hosted by Cato, which included participation from Joe Romm. That said, we've never felt the need to fabricate some association with the "right wing," Republicans, or "global warming deniers." The environmental economists have an argument, one that is robust and powerfully made, if ultimately wrong and misleading, in our view. But their work merits an argument, not an attack by association.

If You Do Not Agree Then You Must Be A Republican

Romm does not simply enforce the existing Democratic discourse, he also seeks to narrow it, effectively reducing its appeal by making it more hysterical, shrill, and apocalyptic. Again, readers would be mistaken in imagining that the blogger's work isn't effective: Romm has convinced elites, including Thomas Friedman in his book, Hot Flat and Crowded, that global warming will be much worse than the UN IPCC is telling us.

Little surprise, then, that Romm felt the need to attack the views of environment writer Gregg Easterbrook for writing a critical review of Friedman's book, which relied heavily on Romm's apocalyptic interpretation of the climate science. Here's Easterbrook:

Why does the cocktail-party circuit embrace claims about a pending climate doomsday? Partly owing to our nation's shaky grasp of science--many Americans lack basic understanding of chemicals, biology, and natural systems. Another reason is the belief that only exaggerated cries of crisis engage the public's attention; but this makes greenhouse concern seem like just another wolf cry.

Romm responded by calling Easterbrook – wait for it – Republican.

Thanks to the Gregg Easterbrooks of the country -- otherwise known as Reagan, Gingrich, Bush and McCain -- the United States became only a bit player in a global industry it helped create and once dominated, a bit player in what will certainly be one of the largest job-creating industries in the world.

Reading Romm, one would be hard pressed to conclude that Easterbrook was anything other than an opponent of action to reduce carbon emissions. In fact, Easterbrook is an advocate of the dominant Democratic and environmental approach to climate change, cap and trade. "Government should regulate greenhouse emissions," he wrote in his review, "then let the free market sort out the details, including by funding the research."

Easterbrook's policy agenda turns out to be closer to most national environmental groups than to Bush's, Gingrich's, or Luntz's. If Easterbrook is recycling partisan talking points, they are mostly Democratic, not Republican ones, save for his view that global warming's threat is real but not apocalyptic.

Greenhouse gases are an air-pollution problem. Smog and acid rain, the two previous serious air-pollution problems, once were viewed as emergency threats. Then federal standards were imposed, and inventions and new business models were devised; now smog and acid rain are way down in the United States and declining in much of the rest of the world.

This position is nearly identical to Romm's.

We do not share Romm's and Easterbrook's confidence that new regulations will result in the technological revolution we need to massively reduce emissions by mid-century. Acid rain and smog regulations worked because we already had cheap scrubbers, low-sulfur coal, and catalytic converters. By contrast, we do not have cheap low-carbon power sources, and new regulations will not make expensive renewables cheap. We did not get computers through a cap and trade program on typewriters, nor the Internet through a tax on telegraphs. We got them through government procurement and investment, the same way we got railroads, highways, solar panel, pharmaceutical drugs, cheap food, and many other wonders that we take for granted.

Long story short, our policy agenda is radically different from Easterbrook's. No matter. For Romm, if it's not his agenda, it's Republican.

What do Michael Crichton, Bjorn Lomborg, Frank Luntz, George W. Bush (and his climate/energy advisors) have in common with Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus?

Romm went on to misrepresent our position, but he need not have bothered. Most of his readers had already heard enough to make up their minds.

McCarthyism in a Hyperpartisan Era

Some readers have complained to us that Joe Romm is no Joe McCarthy. They are right. Joe Romm is far more influential. Others wonder why we criticize Romm, who believes passionately that global warming is occurring and that we must take action to address it, rather than Limbaugh or Inhofe, who reject climate science and oppose action.

And yes, to be fair, McCarthy had the ability to get people fired and put on blacklists. In this way he was more powerful. But Romm shapes how a whole generation of Democratic leaders, liberals, and greens think about the most serious environmental problem in the world, climate change, and about the master resource, energy, in the most powerful economy humankind has ever created. In this way Romm is more influential.

Thomas Friedman believes Romm when Romm says that new regulations and a price on carbon will not only save the world from apocalypse but also make us all rich in the process. Paul Krugman said he didn't even have to read Superfreakonomics to know it was "unforgivably wrong" because "I trust Joe Romm." And everyone from Nobelist Al Gore to Nancy Pelosi to Barbara Boxer relies on Joe Romm to support their claims that "we have all the tools we need" - efficiency, conservation, and renewables -- to solve global warming.

Joe McCarthy could not have dreamt of Joe Romm's power. While McCarthy used his power to partisan ends, his era was, surprisingly enough, one of the least polarized periods over the last 130 years. McCarthy was hated by Senators from his own party and he had little to no impact on the larger political agenda, which was already firmly anti-Communist, among both Republicans and Democrats. McCarthy was a power-hungry opportunist whose anti-Communist witch hunts worked for him personally for a few years until he was taken out by CBS' Edward Murrow, and others establishment figures.

By contrast Joe Romm advises the Democratic Party establishment and helps set and enforce the political agenda on two of the most important issues facing the United States and the world: energy and climate. Those who wave away Romm's influence are disconnected from our new hyper-partisan and fractured media reality.

"The nation grows more politically segregated," Nicholas Kristof quoted Bill Bishop, the author of the Big Sort, saying, "and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups."

Think of it: Romm's influence is so great that he can get Thomas Friedman to accept and recite a fairy tale about the past -- regulations created the personal computer and the Internet! -- and a nightmare about the future. Romm can get Paul Krugman to call an economics book by a fellow New York Times blogger "unforgivably wrong" without even reading it. And Joe Romm can shape much of what educated American liberals, environmentalists and Democrats think about any given energy and climate news event, scientific article, book, or policy proposal.

Joe Romm has the trust of liberals and Democrats, but not on the force of his arguments, the weight of his evidence, or the success of his agenda, for all are spectacular failures As terrible as it may turn out to be, global warming is not "apocalypse now." Efficiency that is supposedly quick and easy -- but for some reason doesn't happen -- is neither quick nor easy. Today's renewables are simply too expensive and too unreliable to quickly and cheaply replace coal plants and power the world. And repeating the old and comforting green nostrums, day-after-day, in ever-louder decibels, does not change the political economies of Ohio and Montana much less China and India.

No, Joe Romm has won the trust of partisans because he tells them the story they want to hear better than anyone else. Unfortunately, hyper-partisans like Joe Romm are part of the problem, not the solution. Effective solutions to global warming cannot be be enacted in our extremely divided political environment.

Democratic partisans, liberals and greens have spent much of the last eight years tearing out our hair about all the ways the hyper-partisan it's-all-a-hoax! Republicans have blocked action on climate. These complaints may have been cathartic, but they have not been productive. We have not had and cannot have any impact on Republicans, and our partisan apocalypse talk and our sacrifice-now agenda are obviously alienating the vast, moderate middle.

The work of holding Republican obstructionists, anti-government extremists, and right-wing conspiracy mongers to task is work for principled conservatives, not liberals. The work of greens and liberals is to challenge the Democratic demagogues, the left-wing bullies, and the Climate McCarthyites who narrow and polarize the debate in ways that make effective policy action all but impossible. If we can hold our own hyper-partisans to account then fair-minded conservatives might do the same. For until the establishment and the grassroots on both left and right learn to say no to Joe Romm and to Glenn Beck, hyper-partisanship is here to stay.


Further reading:

Climate McCarthyism, Part I: Joe Romm's Intimidation Campaign

Climate McCarthyism Part 2: Equate Your Political Opponents with Holocaust Deniers

Climate McCarthyism Part 4: The Headquarters in Washington

The Green Politics of Personal Destruction