Monday, December 16, 2013

Yes, Virgina, there are simple villains in climate change

Andrew Revkin, in his continuing efforts to be the bard of inactivism, wants us to know the climate change is everyone's (and thereby no one's) fault:
We grew up in the twentieth century when everything about the environment was either “woe is me” or “shame on you.” It’s all coming undone, and it’s your fault. That is so antiquated when you look at a problem like climate change, where there’s no whodunit. It’s, ‘We all dunit.’ We’re all using energy. You can punish Exxon, but I still have to fill up my Prius once in awhile and my mini van, which I need because we have two dogs, is not the most efficient vehicle in the world. So whodunit? Me. But the old model was that it had to be someone else’s fault and the other part of the old model was we had to pass a law, which basically means the solution is someone else’s solution. It’s government, a treaty, a law that’ll solve it. Things like climate change are just so much more wicked than the kind of problem you would solve that way. We have to get comfortable with the story when there is no simple villain….
This reminds me of nothing so much as Megyn Kelly's recent rant against evil historical revisionists who question the unquestionable reality that "Santa Claus is just white": 

Prompting Jon Stewart and friends to respond along the lines of "Uh, Megyn? Santa Claus isn't real."

Similarly, it's time the internet had a talk with Mr Revkin and explained to him another of the hard truths of adulthood: simple villains aren't real. Truly, they aren't any more real than Santa Claus. Climate change is no exception to the general rule of life that most big problems implicate a large number of people to a lesser or greater degree.

Whilst the civil rights movement was making simple villains out of Bull Connor and Strom Thurmond, there was endemic racism throughout both South and North. Whites everywhere benefited from employment and housing opportunities denied to blacks and other minorities. To this day Americans continue to benefit from centuries of unpaid labor by black slaves which contributed to our economy, for which reparations have never been made, or even attempted.
You are all me!

Stories of simple villainy exist for the same reason stories about Santa Claus exist: they make people happy. Specifically, they make people happier in undertaking just what Revkin wants them to undertake; reform of a social ill to which many people are a party, which will require short-term sacrifices from a lot of people.

The campaign against Jim Crow is one example of how this can be successful. The campaign against smoking is a still more recent example. Smoking has been steadily losing its grip on the American people over the past fifty years:

Smoking rates in the US over time
The simple villains of the tobacco wars were not the individual smokers (of course) but the tobacco companies who concealed evidence of the health risks of smoking, and waged an aggressive campaign of disinformation to cast doubt on the strong scientific evidence of harm (sound familiar?)

The tobacco companies ended up paying out hundreds of billions of dollars in settlements. But were they the only, or even the primary source of the harm caused by smoking? Certainly not. Farmers had to grow the foul stuff. The government subsidized that growth with taxpayer dollars, which makes it pretty rich, one might argue, for the government to go after the tobacco companies.

Hundreds of thousands of supermarkets, corner stores, bars, smoking shops and other businesses sold (and continue to sell) these death-dealing products, to make money.

Tens of millions of Americans chose to smoke this unhealthy product, to expose other people (most damagingly, their own children) to the smoke, and continued to do so, in many cases, long after their own health had been destroyed.

Did the campaign against tobacco target these people? No it did not. Should it have? Obviously not. As targets they are too numerous, too diffuse, too varied in their level of responsibility, too weak individually to alter the course of the epidemic.

Were the tobacco companies unfairly targeted? No! They lied to the public, lied about the science, and did tremendous damage to the public health in the service of their own bottom lines. Nevertheless, making them the simple villains of the tobacco wars was a political decision by those activists working on the problem -- a very successful one. While waging a rhetorical and later legal war on the tobacco companies, they very successfully encouraged a large portion of Big Tobacco's customers to divest themselves from its product. They convinced legislators to heavily tax cigarettes and heavily restrict where you could smoke them. They did this without making the individual smokers targets. They used their simple villains, the tobacco companies, to cast them as victims.

Revkin speaks dismissively of targeting Exxon as a villain of climate change, or using the kind of legislation used against tobacco companies to restrict the activities of big polluters. But he doesn't actually give any real reason why this won't work. Yes, everyone is implicated in the release of GHGs to some extent. Just as everyone is implicated in structural racism to some extent, or in the labor conditions that produce the cheap plastic products Americans so love, or as tens millions of Americans willing participated (many still do) in the tobacco epidemic. But that is no reason why we cannot identify big, destructive actors profiting hugely and deceiving the public and go after them.

Simple villains are a story, a rhetorical choice. In real life nothing is perfectly simple. But identifying bad guys and going after them can be a spoonful of sugar to help social change go down. Action is easier when there is a villain to target; that is why the government has taken vast amounts of action (much of it ill-considered) against the threat of terrorism, and virtually none against the far more dire threat of climate change. And in the complex tale of our fossil fuel addiction, there's no shortage of serious bad guys begging to be highlighted.


  1. So how did that villain-seeking tactical fight against Big Tobacco fare? Check this investment report:

    ...Many industry analysts have been quick to write off tobacco companies. When the medical profession first revealed the damage cigarettes do to users' health, it was predicted that the developed world would stub out on mass. But fast forward two decades later - cigarette packets first carried serious warnings in the UK in 1991 - and consumers are still lighting up. In fact, global revenue streams have grown in that time, as emerging market consumers adopt the 'Western' pastime. Morningstar analyst Thomas Mullarkey said that although cigarette volumes continue to shrink throughout most of BAT’s markets, the firm’s Global Drive Brands continue to perform well and maintain their pricing power. This pricing power helped to drive up the firm’s operating margin by 100 basis points to 38.9% and to increase the company’s first-half earnings per share by 8% to 109.1p. - See more at:

    1. NIce try at misdirection. The graph shows smoking prevalence is dropping. What part of this don't you understand?

      Keep up the fence sitting Andy.

    2. Ian is exactly right. The point of going after villains is NOT to hurt and destroy them. It's to further the overall goal of achieving the desired social change -- whether that is to cut the harm done by smoking, or the harm done by AGW.

      Despite the fact that tobacco companies still exist and are profitable, I doubt very much that paying out hundreds of billions of dollars in settlements was a benign experience, or one they would like to repeat. But, far more importantly, that was money redirected away from the marketing and sale of their deadly product and towards smoking cessation and smoking prevention.

      The key point is that, to quote your source, "cigarette volumes continue to shrink throughout most of BAT’s markets."

    3. The other item missing from Revkin's "analysis" (using that term very loosely, as his position seems more similar in tone to some old guy yelling "you kids get off my lawn") is any awareness that human beings are largely WIRED TO REQUIRE VILLIANS IN ORDER TO ACT. Evolution has shaped the vast majority of humans to be motivated by concrete, immediate threats - and we humans do not respond well to incremental, insidious threats that are remote in time or place. Hence in order for actual change to occur, we usually need something that creates a concrete immediate threat which can be easily seen or visualized: a snarling pit bull, a car heading straight at us, gunshots outside our home ... or a VILLIAN. That's exactly what Bull Connor, "big tobacco", Adolph Hitler, Osama Bin Laden, et al. provided - a "face" which came to symbolize the larger, more amphorous, less tangible, more widespread danger they represented. Very few people would be motivated by a plea to "ameloriate the risk of excess mortality across a sample population resulting from a statistically higher risk of lung cancer due to smoking" - but a lot of people would be motivated by characterizing Big Tobacco as "those lying SOB's profitiing from killing us". Humans NEED such personalization and simplification in order to act against big, complicated, messy social problems, and Revkin is completely missing the boat here (possibly quite intentionally). If we're going to stand a chance of stopping the climate disaster unfolding before us, we had BETTER start talking about Big Fossil as "those lying SOBs profiting from trying to kill us". Great blog - hope you post more often!

  2. "Tobacco Companies Still Target Youth Despite Global Treaty"

    1. And what is the point of the link?

      Yep, the tobacco companies are still out there and still doing bad things. Racism is still out there, too. And lead poisoning. Polio is still hanging on by its fingernails.

      I don't know if you're adding evidence to the point that these companies are back actors (I agree,) or whether you intend to echo Mr. Revkin's point that these companies still exist and do harm. If it's the latter, I would only say that just as few important social ills are exclusively the product of a few bad actors, very few such ill are ever completely eliminated.

      Nevertheless, the progress made in the last 50 years in reducing the harm from smoking in the developed world has been staggering. I would be pleased (if not satisfied) to see half as much progress on AGW.

    2. What an odd thought: that we should judge anti-smoking efforts through the lens of tobacco company financials. That is just strange.

      How does Andy not get that the tobacco debate, like the climate one, is about outcomes: did smoking go down and will warming slow or stop? I for one want the remedy that is least impactful to any viable business: I am not out to punish anyone's shareholders. I just want the warming to stop and want us all to take the most prudent measures to make that happen.

    3. Well, I think Revkin wants to see the problem of climate change addressed, but is invested in his belief that climate change is fundamentally different from other social ills, a "wicked" problem. And he has a contemplative attitude to approaching it; let's find an ideal approach, one that does not blame anyone unduly, one that is not coarse or crude or negative, one that builds consensus and brings the bulk of "skeptics" back into the fold (I think Revkin has acknowledged that are some lunatics out there he won't get.)

      While I think this is well-meaning, I disagree with it at every point:

      1. Climate change is in no way a new kind of problem. Since the pharaohs dug irrigation systems around the Nile, there have been collective challenges to societies that required them to make efforts and sacrifices in the short term to improve their welfare in the long term.

      A lot of this stuff about everybody profiting and cheap energy being the fuel of civilization is just hot air. Coal is not the fuel of civilization any more than untreated sewage is. A cost is a cost, and sometimes you can to pay costs to improve the environment in which you live, for your own and your compatriots welfare.

      2. I do not believe we need an ideal strategy. The proper attitude to climate change is that of a person who is having the life choked out of them by a forearm on their windpipe. At that point you do not start a search for the perfect close-combat weapon; you grab whatever is in reach and at the last resort beat the attacker with your fists.

      3. I do not think that the opposition to climate change action is the result of advocates being mean or negative or unfair. I do not think it is a product of our rhetorical choices at all.

      4. There is an implicit assumption in the thinking of Revkin, Kloor et al that negative, or unfair, or oversimplified arguments cannot succeed. I think that represents extreme wishful thinking on their part. Negative, personal, sometimes abusive arguments can be highly successful. Feminism, anti-racism, environmentalism, progressivism; all these movements have made the world a better place, by means of rhetoric that was (or is) frequently negative, and made extensive use of simple villains both to rally their own supporters and, more cunningly, to encourage large swathes of the oppositional to disassociate themselves from the vilified.

  3. While I don't agree with Revkin, Kloor, et al. about the negative impact of overly-negative or oversimplified arguments - nor do I agree that they are particularly effective. The factors that enabled the successes of the civil rights movement, I don't think can be so easily simplified as to be clearly attributable to simplistic or negative rhetoric. Consider, for example, King's rhetoric - which certainly couldn't be called oversimplified, unfair, etc.

    I think that it would be better to consider general principles of conflict resolution and participatory democracy processes.

    While Revkin, Kloor, base much of their argumentation about the effectiveness or counterproductivity of rhetoric on their gut instincts rather than data, many times "realists" do the same, IMO.

    The rhetoric that "realists" use is basically irrelevant, IMO, and I think that the data show that. Those who agree with their views will continue to do so irrespective of the rhetoric they use. Those who disagree will continue to do so irrespective of the rhetoric. The factors that most strongly affect public opinion are short-term weather phenomena, the economy, and probably most importantly, political orientation. Effectively influencing public opinion in such a way as to diverge from the existing patterns and to overcome existing causal influences, requires a more sophisticated approach

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