The Green Politics of Personal Destruction: Deconstructing Joe Romm

This post formerly appeared on April 8, 2008

Back in the 90s and early part of the current decade, the environmental movement embarked upon a well documented campaign to convince the news media and the American public to stop taking those who questioned the existence of climate change seriously. Environmentalists went to great lengths to demonstrate that those who doubted the existence of climate change were crackpots, paid flaks of the fossil fuels industry, or otherwise lacking in credibility. They urged media reporters to stop covering "both sides" of the debate about climate, pointing out that on one side of that debate was an overwhelming consensus within the scientific community while on the other was a motley collection of ideologues and marginal academics, most with connections to the fossil fuel industry. And they started labeling them "deniers," explicitly referencing those who deny that the Holocaust ever occurred.

Environmental groups assumed that once the debate over the science was settled, the debate over policy would be settled too. But things didn't turn out that way.

The strategy worked. News coverage today rarely, if ever, cites sources who question the existence of climate change or its anthropogenic origins. And few policymakers continue to publicly question climate change. The assumption among environmental leaders was that once the scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change was occurring was established, this consensus would translate into a consensus as to what to do about it -- a consensus that would embrace the policies long advocated by the national environmental movement, namely the Kyoto framework at the international level and cap and trade legislation at the domestic level.

But a funny thing has happened over the last several years, as opinion about the reality and urgency of the climate crisis has "tipped." The consensus that would allegedly result once broad public acceptance of anthropogenic climate change was achieved has fractured. Efforts to negotiate a successor to the Kyoto Accord at the international level have stalled, as developing economies, led by China and India, have balked at any framework that would constrain carbon emissions and slow economic development in the developing world, where most of the growth of carbon emissions over the next century will come from. The fragile coalition of businesses, some segments of the energy industry, and environmentalists that appeared ready to support a domestic cap and trade system has frayed, as the environmental movement has demanded that all carbon allowances be auctioned and business interests have balked at the increasing costs of the regulations.

And a variety of scientific and economic analysis has come out, not from opponents of action to address climate change but from supporters, suggesting that the policy framework developed by environmentalists in the early 1990s to address climate change will not be capable of achieving its objectives. These include a recent Nature commentary suggesting that the IPCC may have vastly underestimated the likely growth of carbon emissions over the next century, and thus underestimated the scale of the technology challenge necessary to stabilize carbon levels in the atmosphere, and a raft of studies and other analysis suggesting that carbon caps, regulations, and pricing, the primary policy mechanisms proposed by the environmental movement to address climate change, will not drive rapid and large scale transition from conventional energy sources to zero and low carbon energy sources.

Unfortunately, the response to these developments from some environmentalists has been to attempt to tar those who have challenged the efficacy of the dominant environmental policy framework to address climate change with the same brush that they used to discredit those who denied the existence of anthropogenic climate change back in the 90's, only this time they are attacking respected climate scientists, energy experts, and activists who have no connection to the fossil fuel industry and have long and well documented track records of advocating for strong action to address climate change.

This effort is not entirely unusual in modern American politics. Any observer of recent national elections can attest that it has become par for the course among partisans of both political parties, with the political Right having proven to be particularly adept at such tactics, and most would agree that it has not changed American democracy for the better nor aided the effort to address the great challenges that the nation today is faced with. So it is particularly unseemly for prominent environmentalists, having spent the last decade demanding that policy to address climate change conform to the reality of climate science, are now attempting to destroy, quash, and otherwise discredit good science and important scientific and policy debate because it challenges the immediate political and policy objectives of the movement.

Yet that is exactly what some environmentalists have set out to do and there is no better example than Joe Romm's recent posts on his Climate Progress blog. Romm's employer, the Center for American Progress, on its website, espouses the view that, "Real progress will be achieved only through innovative solutions borne of open collaboration," but it would appear that Romm's primary objective is to slander, intimidate, and generally shout down any deviation from the climate orthodoxy and policy proposals promoted by the national environmental movement. What follows is primer in the new climate politics of personal destruction embraced by Romm and tolerated, if not encouraged, by environmental elites -- from the Center for American Progress, which pays Romm's salary, to Grist, which has provided Romm a very regular platform from which to slander his enemies.

Consider Romm's recent attacks upon Roger Pielke Jr., a respected, if at times controversial, national expert on climate change. Pielke's recent commentary in Nature has clearly stated what many climate and energy experts have long known but been afraid to say: the IPCC's baseline scenarios projecting the likely growth of global carbon emissions over the next century probably massively understate the scale of the technology challenge we are faced with. Published in Nature, one the most respected scientific journals in the world, the commentary was accompanied by an editorial that noted the significance of the commentary and its consequences for policymakers around the world and a review of reactions by leading climate and energy experts who, while not all in agreement with Pielke's analysis, agreed that the questions raised by it have profound implications for the global fight against climate change.

Enter Romm and his now time tested routine of slander, innuendo, guilt by association and conspiracy theory, along with voluminous text and repetitive argument, mostly citing his own prior posts, all masquerading as documentary proof that the arguments of his adversaries, often grossly misrepresented, have been "debunked."

1. Imply that your opponents have an unstated objective to undermine all that the reader believes to be right and correct about the world.

Romm's routinely labels those he disagrees with "delayers" and claims to "debunk" their arguments. To call one's opponent a "delayer" accomplishes two objectives at once. First it associates those Romm attacks with climate change deniers, an intention further signaled by the frequent use of the terms denier and delayer together. Second it clearly implies that the intention of those he disagrees with is to delay action to address climate change. This is different than suggesting that the policies or ideas advocated by those you disagree with are wrong headed and will result in delaying action to address climate change. Romm's intention is to suggest that those who disagree with him, and with the present environmental strategy to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions, are intentionally attempting to delay action to address climate change.


Romm's employer defines a progressive as someone who is not "Short-sighted," "Afraid of new ideas," or "Closed-minded." And yet Romm attacks those who question the current climate policy framework as "dangerous" "delayers."

Any fair assessment of Pielke's work, or ours (we too, as many readers of this blog are no doubt aware, have been the subject of Romm's smears and misrepresentations), would lead a reasonable observer to conclude that, whatever one thinks of our analysis and proposals, we have no reason or intention to delay action to address climate change. But Romm's intent, of course, is to dissuade his readers from actually reading or reviewing the work of those he attacks. It is for this reason that Romm regularly advises his readers not to read the articles and books he criticizes and why he often acknowledges pridefully that he has not read them either.

This is also the reason that Romm so consistently uses the word "debunk" in his posts and headlines. Debunking is a word commonly used in reference to all manner of cons, scams, urban legend, and old wives tales. Romm uses the word to signal to anyone who will listen that they should not pay attention to, read, or otherwise engage the arguments of those with whom he disagrees. The intent, clearly, is to dissuade anyone who will listen from reading or considering argument and evidence that might call into question the efficacy of policies that currently define national efforts to address climate change, namely the Kyoto Accord, cap and trade legislation, and other regulatory policies like fuel efficiency legislation.

2. Guilt by association.

Romm routinely lists Pielke's name and our names alongside folks like Michael Crichton, James Inhofe, George Bush and Dick Cheney, all outspoken opponents of serious action to address climate change. Pielke has published voluminously over the last 15 years in support of action to both mitigate and adapt to climate change. We have spent most of our careers working to achieve significant action to address climate change. We cofounded the Apollo Alliance in 2003 in an effort to build a political coalition capable of achieving the policy and investment necessary to seriously address climate change. We not only have endorsed Obama's $150 billion clean energy investment plan but advocated for months that he do it. And we criticize the current policy framework advocated by the environmental movement not because it will do too much but because it will, in our view, accomplish so little as to be ecologically irrelevant.

Romm touts us as members of the "Delayer 1000," a list compiled by Inhofe in an attempt, eerily similar to Romm's, to cast any prominent figure who has criticized the current environmental view of the climate crisis as an opponent of action. This is just the beginning of the stylistic similarities between Romm and Inhofe. Inhofe invokes a left wing conspiracy while Romm invokes a right wing conspiracy. Romm "debunks" while Inhofe speaks of "hoaxes."

Even more absurdly, in a recent post about Pielke's Nature commentary, Romm claims that Pielke and his co-authors contradict themselves because their commentary suggesting that IPCC scenarios may have understated the likely growth of emissions and the technological challenge required to reduce them contradicts an American Enterprise Institute paper that suggested that the IPCC had overstated the likely growth of global carbon emissions.


Neither Pielke, nor his coauthors, was involved with the paper in question. Nor have they ever had any relationship with AEI. Nor have they ever argued that the IPCC scenarios overstated the likely growth of carbon emissions. Yet Romm implies that the authors have something to do with the AEI paper through a slight of hand in the first sentence of the first paragraph introducing the AEI paper when he writes, "For years, people like Pielke (I call them delayers, you can call them climate destroyers, or, if you like, "people who are very wrong") have been arguing that the IPCC's emissions models were too pessimistic."

So apparently, we are not talking about Pielke, but "people like Pielke." Nonetheless, Romm dedicates much of his post about Pielke's Nature commentary to a paper by the American Enterprise Institute that Pielke had nothing to do with because Romm wants his readers to think that Pielke is a conservative ideologue dedicated to delaying action to address climate change.

3. Accuse your opponent of being a member of a nefarious conspiracy.

Throughout his posts, Romm lumps people with vastly different arguments, ideas, motivations, and politics into a single class of agents intent on undermining action to address climate change, save the planet, and save humanity with it. The Pielke post is rife with such implications. Romm writes: "Since this paper doesn't define the word "innovation," it is very hard to tell what precisely the authors' point is (other than to lead us into the technology trap)." The explicit point here is that the authors are intent upon luring us into a trap that will prevent action.

After manufacturing a supposed contradiction between Pielke's Nature commentary and the aforementioned AEI paper, which Pielke and his coauthors had nothing to do with, Romm writes: "That's right, the climate deniers/delayers/destroyers have been saying that the IPCC was scaring people into unnecessary action by assuming emissions growth was higher than in fact it was. Yes, I know, if you actually read the Pielke et al piece, that seems hard to believe. They never bother pointing this out." The implication of this passage appears to be that as dues paying members of the denier/delayers/destroyers cabal, Pielke, et. al. have an intellectual obligation to point out that their commentary contradicts a paper authored by other members of said cabal. Of course the cabal exists only in the mind of Joe Romm and those who take him seriously. But the intent is clear: those who disagree with Romm, including Pielke and his coauthors, are conspiring to destroy humanity.

Finally, Romm concludes: "So tell me how Pielke et al can utterly disprove this analysis (sort of) and come to the same exact conclusion that the IPCC has overstated the urgent need for action now?" Of course Pielke and his colleagues never concluded that "the IPCC has overstated the urgent need for action now" but if you want to tar them as part of the conspiracy, even as they reach a conclusion that is diametrically the opposite of the other members of the imagined conspiracy whom you wish to connect them to, you have to suggest that they are conspiring toward the same end, namely delaying action to address climate change. So Romm literally makes up a conclusion that is not in the commentary in question and that none of the authors have ever espoused.

The reality is that Pielke and his coauthors have raised a series of important questions that serious efforts to address climate change need to deal with openly. Emissions over the next century may very well grow much faster than the IPCC has projected. The proposition that we "have all the technology we need" to achieve climate stabilization was at best dubious even under most of the existing IPCC scenarios, much less given that those scenarios probably understate the growth of global emissions by half. Moreover, it appears likely that most of the decarbonization that would ostensibly result from policies such as carbon pricing and efficiency regulations are already assumed in the IPCC baseline scenarios. This is not an argument against taking these policy actions but it does raise very serious questions about the current primary, if not singular, focus of current policy efforts upon these actions.

Romm, along with most other national environmental leaders, prioritize carbon pricing, carbon regulation, and efficiency regulations over direct public investment in clean energy technology. To the degree to which they support and advocate for the latter it is as a complementary and secondary public policy priority. Romm, in his very first attacks upon us, acknowledged as much, stating that were he a policy maker, public technology investment would not be even among his top three priorities. While most national environmental leaders have not been so blunt, a cursory review of what the national environmental movement actually prioritizes and dedicates its advocacy resources towards suggests that Romm's priorities are broadly shared by the movement.

We believe that these priorities are misguided. We strongly support carbon regulation that establishes a modest, sustainable, and consistent price for carbon. We support increasing energy efficiency standards and the establishment of renewable portfolio standards at the national level. But without immediate and exponential increases in direct public investment in the development, demonstration, and deployment of new, nascent, and mature clean energy technologies alike, pricing and regulatory policies alone will have negligible impacts upon the trajectory of global carbon emissions. This is not only our view but one which is broadly endorsed by the IPCC, the Stern Review, and most other major reviews of the present state of energy technology and the variety of market and non-market obstacles to broad deployment of low and zero carbon energy technologies.

There are many, both within the environmental movement and outside of it, who disagree with this view. We welcome their dissent and believe that an open and honest debate about the nature of the challenges we face and what will be necessary to overcome them will only make the movement to address climate change and transform the global energy economy stronger, not weaker. The Grist management, its readership, the Center for American Progress and the environmental movement more broadly ought to think long and hard about whether they want to continue to tolerate, support, or encourage Romm's destructive demagoguery or whether they are going to insist that it end.