Climate McCarthyism Part I: Joe Romm’s Intimidation Campaign

If you want to understand how it is that the debate over global warming policies became so shrill, consider the recent pattern of behavior by the country's second-most read climate blogger, Joe Romm.

Last month Romm emailed Stanford scientist Ken Caldeira for a quote so he could, in Romm's words, "trash" the authors of the new book, Superfreakonomics, which includes a discussion of a climate solutions that Romm hates.

"I want to trash them for this insanity and ignorance."

The reason we know this is because Caldeira forwarded the whole awkward interaction to the authors of Superfreakonomics, who had run the relevant sections of their book by Caldeira twice before publication for his approval.

Romm wanted to make sure Caldeira understood the impact his trashing of Superfreakonomics would have:

"My blog is read by everyone in this area, including the media."

Romm then added:

"I'd like a quote like, 'The authors of SuperFreakonomics have utterly misrepresented my work,' plus whatever else you want to say."

And indeed Romm's attack had great impact, resulting in scathing attacks on the book by The New Republic's Brad Plummer, Grist's David Roberts, UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong, liberal blogger Matthew Ygleisas, and Nobel Laureate and New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, who acknowledged that he had not read the book but said, "I trust Joe Romm."

He shouldn't have. What Ken Caldeira said to Romm about the misquote was the following:

[The Freakonomics authors] sent me the draft and I approved it without reading it carefully and I just missed it ... I think everyone operated in good faith, and this was just a mistake that got by my inadequate editing.

In this context, a former editor of Audubon Magazine, Keith Kloor, objected:

One of Romm's constant themes at Climate Progress is that the mainstream media is incompetent and unscrupulous when it comes to climate reporting. Well, feeding a source a quote is a serious breach of journalistic ethics.

But, Romm claimed,

It is exceedingly common in regular journalism to ask people for a quote that makes a very specific point -- I've been asked many times by reporters to do similar things.

Kloor wasn't buying it.

At NYU, where I've been an adjunct journalism professor, I couldn't imagine telling a student this was acceptable behavior. In fact, in the five years I've taught classes there, I can't recall when a student has even asked if this was acceptable behavior. I mean, it just feels wrong to do that kind of thing.

Romm stayed quiet for a week and a half. Then, last Sunday morning, Romm let it ripwith this headline:

"Meet Trash Journalist Keith Kloor"

Romm goes on:

Day in and day out, Kloor just trashes people who disagree with him.

Take a minute and pause at what is going on here. Romm, who had just asked Stanford professor Caldeira for a quote to "trash" the authors of Superfreakonomics, has just accused reporter Keith Kloor of being trashy.

You don't have to be a Jungian psychoanalyst to see the projection at work.

Romm claims Kloor has attacked Romm's parents, but Kloor does nothing of the sort. Kloor simply refers to Romm's own claim that he knows journalistic ethics because his parents were reporters at a Hudson Valley newspaper. Kloor jokes that he should call reporters at the newspaper to see if they actually do feed quotes to sources like Romm did to Caldeira.

Romm procedes to suggest that Kloor "even threatens to try to dig up some dirt on my late-father" and "this is simply beyond the pale even in the tough to-and-fro of the blogosphere."

Well, yes, if Kloor had threatened that, it would be beyond the pale. But Kloor didn't. As is customary for him, Romm is careful to never link to Kloor's post and it's clear that his loyal commenters never bothered to read it. Romm lies about Kloor's post, and then conjures fake outrage about it. Given that Romm routinely refers to his late journalist father when justifying his unethical practices, Kloor is entirely justified in asking what it is exactly that Romm learned from his father.

Romm at one point says that Kloor "brags" that he is adjunct professor at NYU's journalism program. It's just another character attack. Kloor never brags of his title, he just says what it is.

The projections just pile up. Who is it, again, that "brags" "trashes" and "threatens"?

Bullying is not just schoolyard stuff but happens in the workplace. It's not just direct physical violence, it's also indirect violence, like smearing people's reputations. Such bullying takes place with the consent of the employer, as is apparently the case with Romm's employer, the Center for American Progress:

Unlike the more physical form of school bullying, workplace bullying often takes place within the established rules and policies of the organization and society ... Particularly when perpetrated by a group, workplace bullying is sometimes known as mobbing. It can also be known as "career assassination" in political circles.

Career assassination indeed.

These days especially, journalists are an easy mark. Journalists are perhaps the most insecure professionals in America. Reporters fear for their future, and with good reason. Bureaus are closing, journalists and editors are getting laid off, and whole newspapers and magazines are going under. Reporters who are insecure for their futures are easy prey for bullies like Romm, whose attacks are aimed at having a chilling effect on the entire national press corps.

What are the warning signs that one is dealing with a bully? Wiki names, "Quickness to anger and use of force, addiction to aggressive behaviors, mistaking others' actions as hostile, concern with preserving self image, and engaging in obsessive or rigid actions." Bullies, Wiki notes, "will even create blogs to intimidate victims worldwide."

The character assassination, the bullying, the psychological projection -- it all adds up to Climate McCarthyism, and Joe Romm is Climate McCarthyite-in-chief. Joe Romm's "Global Warming Deniers and Delayers" play the same role as Joe McCarthy's "Communists and Communist sympathizers." While Romm built a loyal liberal and environmentalist following for attacking right-wing "global warming deniers" -- a designation meant to invoke "Holocaust denier" -- he spends much of his time attacking well-meaning journalists (eg here, here, and here), academics (hereand here) and activists (here, here and here) who take the issue of global warming seriously, accept climate science, and support immediate action to address it. His aim is to intimidate and prevent increasing numbers of people from questioning climate policy orthodoxy, and especially Democratic efforts to pass cap and trade climate legislation.

And make no mistake, Joe Romm's political agenda is as mainstream among liberals today as Joe McCarthy's was among conservatives in 1953. Romm is held up by Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, UC Berkeley's Brad DeLong,The New Republic's Brad Plumer, Grist's Dave Roberts, and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as an inspiration. He works for John Podesta, Obama's transition director and head of Center for American Progress. And he is the leading spokesperson for Waxman Markey climate legislation that passed the House, and Kerry-Boxer legislation in the Senate.

Think about it: If you're an ambitious young Democratic Hill staffer, a liberal policy analyst, or a struggling young reporter, why would you ever stand up to a guy who is famous for first trashing people to their editors, employers and funders in private emails, and then, if that doesn't work, in public blogs? Why would you challenge someone who seems to have so much of the liberal establishment on his side?

Romm's McCarthyism is apparently contagious, as Krugman now seems to see it as his role acts as an enforcer of the orthodoxy, issuing this chilling warning in the wake of the Superfreakonomics controversy:

If you're going to get into issues that are both important and the subject of serious study, like the fate of the planet, you'd better be very careful not to stray over the line between being counterintuitive and being just plain, unforgivably wrong.

Get that? Not just wrong -- "unforgivably wrong." That's a pretty amazing judgment against a book suggesting an alternative strategy for dealing with global warming. When we think of unforgivably wrong, we tend to think of things like, say, getting thousands of people to drink cyanide-laced Kool-Aid. But suggesting we should consider shooting sulfur dioxide particles into the sky to cool the earth? That's unforgivable?

We take Caldeira's view:

I believe the authors to have worked in good faith. They draw different conclusions than I draw from the same facts, but as authors of the book, that is their prerogative.

Now, neither of us are fans of the idea of shooting sulfur particles into the sky. Too many risks and possible unintended consequences (some quite predictable). But we, like Caldeira, support funding for research, and are open to changing our minds.

In the end, the purpose of bullying is not simply to victimize individuals, it's to intimidate the bystanders. What most bystanders want is to not be attacked by the bully. It ruins your day and threatens your career. So if you are a reporter you hew to the climate orthodoxy because, well, after all, look at what Romm did to Keith Kloor.

This is the state of liberal debate about climate change. Those who question apocalyptic predictions are treated as global warming deniers or traitors or worse. Those who advocate solutions other than cap-and-trade have their characters assassinated. Those who stand up to Joe Romm find themselves turned into projection screens by an angry and vindictive bully.

Joe McCarthy, like Romm, was compulsive in projecting his own dark side onto others. In 1943 McCarthy defeated Senator Robert LaFollette by claiming that LaFollette was a war profiteer because he had made $47,000 in stock market profits during the war; it turned out that McCarthy himself had made $42,000 doing the same thing. McCarthy also lied about his war record in order to construct an identify for himself as a war hero.

Joe Romm, like Joe McCarthy, is full of rage -- one of the most salient characteristics of bullies. McCarthy was defended in his day as being full of passion. Likewise, Romm's excesses are often excused by his admirers as well-intentioned and a reflection of his deep passion for his cause. Both defend their bullying as necessary. "McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled," McCarthy said in 1952.

While McCarthy had a disturbingly long run, he was eventually challenged for his tactics, most famously by the Army's chief legal counsel who said, during Senate hearings, "You've done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?" at which point the audience in the hearing room broke into applause.

Another key turning point was when CBS Newsman Edward Murrow directly challenged McCarthy in a series of nationwide television broadcasts. Some now point out that Murrow waited until the worm had already turned, with many smaller reporters doing the spadework exposing McCarthy's bad deeds. But what it finally took was establishment leaders standing up to the bully.

Maybe it's already begun to happen with Romm. In response to the egregious "trashing" of Superfreakonomics by Romm, Krugman, DeLong, Plummer, Yglesias and many others, Jon Stewart finally stepped in last week, inviting the book's co-author and economist Steven Levitt, onto "The Daily Show."

Stewart opined:

I have been somewhat surprised by how angry people are. Because you don't deny global warming, or that CO2 isn't a factor, but they feel you are betraying environmentalism? The world? ... Why are people so angry about this? Why do they have to be so dogmatic?

There will always be bullies like Joe Romm -- they are not the problem. It is the the establishment figures who goad them on, and the bystanders who could speak up but do not, fearing the consequences of doing so. If we are to move to real solutions to global warming, and protect some level of basic human decency, Joe Romm and his enablers must be challenged. For Climate McCarthyism isn't just bad for climate policy, it's anathema to liberal and democratic values.

Update 2 (Nov 6, 2009 8:30 am PDT) Joe Romm has surreptitiously changed the headline to his attack on journalist Keith Kloor, from "Meet Trash Journalist Keith Kloor" to "Meet Blogger Keith Kloor." In the comments below, Brad Plumer retracts his misrepresentation of our views on geo-engineering and Superfreakonomics while continuing to downplay his role in hyping Romm's misrepresentations of the views of Stanford scientist Ken Caldeira, and refusing to acknowledge that he has done little to correct the record or rebuke Romm's McCarthyite tactics on his New Republic blog.

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone who has weighed in. It's been heartening to receive so many emails from activists and reporters thanking us for standing up to a bully. Yesterday, Center for Environmental Journalism Director Tom Yulsman affirmed our defense of journalists and weighed in on the importance of standing up against McCarthyite attacks. In the comments below, The New Republic's environment blogger, Brad Plumer distances himself from Romm's McCarthyite tactics - but then he insists that we agree with Superfreakonomics, even though we had made clear our disagreements with Levitt and Dubner in our original post below. Howard University Chemistry Professor Joshua Halpern comments below under a pseudonym, "Eli Rabbett," and claims that we are supported by a right-wing foundation and organization -- a smear we have repeatedly corrected throughout the blogosphere. Readers can decide for themselves whether the comments Plummer and Rabbett/Halpern are consistent with the pattern of behavior we describe.