“No, Joe, We’re Not In A ‘Climate Crisis'” — A Dangerous Counter Narrative

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A counter narrative is a text that presents missing or underrepresented alternative perspectives. It can offer audiences the opportunity to challenge stereotypical assumptions and illustrate the diversity and complexity of our world. It can create spaces in which we can examine our own personal myths — about where we came from and how we got here, our internalized tales of feeling misunderstood and disenfranchised.

But counter narratives that deny or diminish the fact that our climate is changing and triggering extreme weather are extremely harmful to humans. The Conversation Australia says it well: “Those who are fixated on dodgy ideas in the face of decades of peer-reviewed science are nothing but dangerous.”

We are witnessing the planet’s shifts from the climate crisis within a relatively short span of our lifetimes. We humans are causing this, especially with our increased generation of carbon dioxide emissions. Yet, on December 22, 2020, National Review editor Rich Lowry published an article titled, “No, Joe, We’re Not in a ‘Climate Crisis.‘” At first glance, it might seem as if this is one of the many humorous articles that fill our in-boxes here at the end of the year and capture what a ludicrous year we have all just endured. (“Dave Barry’s Year in Review 2020” comes to mind — do read Barry for long and hearty laughs.)

Lowry’s counter narrative, however, is anything but funny. It is, as Rubin argues in the Washington Post of all climate deniers, a case where “ideology has won out over empirical reality” promoted by “adults who’d rather adopt some tribal identification than solve a pressing and all-too-real danger to the country.”

Lowry is a warped propagandist, a climate denier who uses twisted “scientific evidence” from experts to attack climate activists. His counter narrative that President-elect Joe Biden (please refer to our president politely by his full name, Mr. Lowry) is “creating an unwarranted sense of drama and urgency around climate change” is part of a larger effort to minimize the catastrophic effects of the climate crisis — both for the immediate future and the generations who will follow us.

A Background to the Climate Denial Counter Narrative

A 1968 study for the American Petroleum Institute by the Stanford Research Institute warned, “If the earth’s temperature increases significantly, a number of events might be expected to occur, including the melting of the Antarctic ice cap, a rise in sea levels, warming of the oceans, and an increase in photosynthesis.”

The American Petroleum Institute and other fossil fuel industry organizations have waged a vast disinformation campaign ever since — they’ve constructed a most polished, precise, and enduring climate crisis counter narrative. The result is that the world’s 5 largest publicly owned oil and gas companies have funded climate crisis denial at about $200 million each year.

Recent analysis of corporate spending on lobbying, briefing, and advertising shows a new approach to climate issues. “Oil majors’ climate branding sounds increasingly hollow and their credibility is on the line,” the report reviewed. “They publicly support climate action while lobbying against binding policy. They advocate low-carbon solutions but such investments are dwarfed by spending on expanding their fossil fuel business.”

  • US lawmakers opposing environmental protections get rewards from the oil and gas industry — to the tune of $84 million to US legislators in 2018.
  • In June, 2020, the Attorney General of Minnesota, Keith Ellison sued ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and Koch Industries for misleading the public over climate change.
  • And it happens on the local level, too — a Louisiana lawmaker has been getting paid to push a proposed 280-mile Delta Express pipeline.

While fossil fuel industry subterfuge seems blatant to many of us, persuading a climate denier is a tough task. Antagonistic discursive processes like the one that Lowry recently published contest climate knowledge and attempt to delegitimize traditional forms of expertise. Indeed, Lowry falls into the (easy) position in which he accuses Biden of being one of the climate crisis “alarmists:”  “Creating an unwarranted sense of drama and urgency around climate change is central to his (Biden’s) approach, in order to catalyze action unsupported by the facts or common sense.”

The Language of the Climate Crisis Counter Narrative

It’s important to gain systematic insights into Lowry’s network of lexical choices. We can gauge how he constructs seemingly coherent authorial subjectivities in a bid to claim expert status in spite of his limited credentials. Using a 4-part framework described by Burke in Frontiers in Communication, let’s break apart the counter narrative that Lowry uses in order to uncover its embedded messages and motivation.

  1. A collective-action frame that define problems, solutions, and motivations for sociotechnical change
  2. Discourse that describes values and norms of members of the communities of interest
  3. Sociotechnical imaginaries that describe and prescribe futures to be attained
  4. Stories that connect past, present, and future and identify specific agents and adversaries to change
counter narrative
Image retrieved from CleanTechnica archives

A collective-action frame that define problems, solutions, and motivations for sociotechnical change. 

“To maintain that increasing global temperatures are a threat to human existence itself entails believing that human beings — an endlessly adaptive species that has drastically increased its own lifespan over the past century — will be snuffed out if the planet gets a few degrees hotter.” 

Lowry’s insistence on focusing on human adaptation to the climate crisis fails to address what NASA refers to as a 2-pronged approach in which adaptation is complemented by reducing emissions of and stabilizing the levels of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, known as “mitigation.”

“If the worst comes and sea levels rise significantly, we won’t move away from the coasts and find better ways to control flooding. If summers get much hotter in places unaccustomed to it, we won’t invest more in air conditioning. If droughts markedly increase, we won’t husband our water resources more intelligently. If some areas become uninhabitable, we won’t leave for more hospitable climes.”

This is such a fascinating reverse approach as a rhetorical strategy! Lowry actually concurs with an August, 2020 New York Times article that reveals, “Using tax dollars to move whole communities out of flood zones, an idea long dismissed as radical, is swiftly becoming policy, marking a new and more disruptive phase of climate change.” Vacationing in cooler places and investing in more air conditioning, however, is a method of turning away from the crisis instead of challenging it.

“There is no doubt that human activity contributes to climate change. It is a long-term challenge that we should seek to understand better and prepare to address through adaption and innovation should the worst come decades from now.

Sprinz of the Potsdam Institute offers a different approach to this “long-term” challenge: “The chances of enlightened long-term climate policy are likely to be best when there is cumulative evidence of a worsening trend in climate parameters, sufficient time remains before catastrophic outcomes are anticipated to materialize, low-cost options exist, incremental implementation is feasible, and aid is available for those needing external help.” These solutions must be sought now — before the climate crisis is beyond human capacity to make a difference.

Discourse that describes values and norms of members of the communities of interest.

“In announcing his climate and energy team the other day, Biden declared climate change a crisis requiring a ‘unified national response.’ Going even further, he called it ‘an existential threat of our time,’ a frankly preposterous claim if taken literally, or even seriously.”

Biden’s “preposterous claim” of the climate crisis has been verified by numerous organizations, such as NASA, NOAA, and the UN, among many, many others.

“Biden spoke of ‘a feeling of dread and anxiety’ over climate change, but this isn’t a sentiment that, to the extent it exists at all, he wants to address or assuage. Instead, he seeks to stoke it, and if that requires frankly distorting the scientific consensus to paint catastrophic scenarios, so be it.”

Poking fun here disingenuously at Biden’s emotions over “catastrophic scenarios,” Lowry is a little behind the times. In 2004 Fortune Magazine broke the news of a report prepared for the Pentagon on abrupt climate change and its implications for US national security. The US EPA as early as 2013 began to work the reality of climate catastrophe into policy. The UN has been a constant harbinger of the threat of climate catastrophe.

Sociotechnical imaginaries that describe and prescribe futures to be attained.

“In a climate speech during the campaign a few months ago, Biden relied on the tried-and-true alarmist tack of attributing every adverse weather event to global warming. The flooding in the Midwest was an artifact of climate change, never mind that, as Bjorn Lomborg points out, the UN isn’t sure whether flooding overall is getting more or less frequent.”

Citing one (probably paid) climate denier isn’t persuasive — go to various peer-reviewed articles on Nature, for example, to see the research, data, and conclusions that connect recent, extreme flooding trends with the climate crisis.

“He doesn’t want to get us thinking about climate change, but rather to suspend all rational thought about the issue — especially about the downsides of costly measures to crimp the U.S. economy in the name of saving the planet.”

Because something is expensive doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Many people (not me) support an enormously expensive US military presence around the world. Spending to help unemployed persons and fragile economies during the covid-19 pandemic has been expensive but life-changing. Lowry’s position that the climate crisis is too expensive to consider generally is the topic of satirists.

Stories that connect past, present, and future and identify specific agents and adversaries to change.

“No, a humanity that is wealthier and more technologically proficient than ever will be content to expose itself to the worst depredations of nature that it has done so much to master over the past millennium.”

Along with other Western scholars, Sigmund Freud encouraged aggression against Nature. Mao insisted that “Man Must Conquer Nature,” and the link between the abuse of people and the abuse of nature became unusually stark and transparent. But more recent thinkers have turned to understanding that the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, urban air pollution, and contamination of oceans by plastic waste have dramatically increased awareness that human civilization faces an existential environmental crisis. As a result, human reluctance to take meaningful and urgent action on the climate crisis extends and deepens its dire consequences.

“This is a laughable account of how the world works. The globe has been getting warmer for decades now, with no adverse effects on human population or longevity. Heck, even polar bears, once held out as the pitiable victims of global warming, aren’t being driven to extinction.

Perhaps Lowry should visit NASA’s Climate Kids website pages. These educational explanations discuss how the burning of fossil fuels like coal and oil increase the amount of CO2 in our air and extra greenhouse gases in our atmosphere are the main reasons that Earth is getting warmer.

Final Thoughts

Deniers like Lowry continue to repeat arguments long after they have been debunked by experts. The Canadian government reviews and refutes the common denier counter narrative that Lowry celebrates.

“In the past, deniers have contended (and some continue to argue) that the world is not warming. Overwhelming amounts of data from throughout the world have made that argument so fallacious that the deniers have now shifted their contention; claiming that humans are not responsible for the warming. Because the basic physics of greenhouse gases has been well-established, along with the fact that human activity has generated billions of tons of greenhouse gases, make this argument untenable, the denier argument has shifted further. Some deniers now concede that warming will occur, but that impacts will be minimal, and some argue that even if climate change will have impacts, it will cost too much for us to do anything about it. Of course, the cost of failing to act will be much higher.”

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a Model Y as well as a Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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