Posted by: George | July 8, 2012

Rhetoric of Global Warming

 On UP w/ Chris Hayes this morning, the panel discussed the rhetoric of global warming. Of course, some people call this climate change, but that is, in itself, part of the rhetoric of those denying global warming. Climate change sounds more warm and fuzzy, less threatening.

Hayes began the segment by mentioning the controversy surrounding Doug Kammerer, a weatherman for WRC-TV in Washington, DC, who made the mistake of tying our current heat wave to global warming on the air. He said, “If we did not have global warming, we wouldn’t see this.” He then added that we might have seen records broken with temperatures of 101, but not 103 or 104. UP, an MSNBC show asked for a clip of the segment from WRC-TV, an NBC affiliate. WRC-TV declined.

By beginning with this story, Hayes wanted to raise the interesting issue that weather men and women typically deny global warming. James Spann, television meteorologist in Birmingham, Alabama, a frequent opponent of global warming, has 98,000 likes on facebook. One of the questions Hayes raised was, “Why do so many meteorologists deny global warming?”

Rhetoric cannot be separated from issues or power. Those who have little power have to do more than find persuasive arguments. They have to find a way to get their message out. Those in power do not engage in an open, rational discussion of issues. They attempt to control the flow of information in much the same way that dysfunctional families engage in denial.

In dysfunctional families, secrets abound but pretty much everyone knows the truth. Or, they at least know that there are bad secrets. Denial doesn’t work by suppressing memories into an area of the brain we can’t access. It works by controlling the way we talk about our shared reality. In dysfunctional families, certain kind of stories are told over and over (“we’re such a happy family”) and other kinds of stories are not allowed (you know what I mean).

Television news shows are part of a great big dysfunctional family. People with power either own the media networks or buy the advertising that supports the networks. Some networks send out daily memos that tell their reporters what to say and how to say it, even down to listing certain phrases that should be repeated in every news show. But there doesn’t have to be a smoking gun like a memo from the boss to start the process of denial. The meteorologist on your local news show knows how the bills are paid.

Part of the rhetorical battle over global warming will be played out as the powerful who are benefitting from our fossil fuel economy attempt to control Old Media (newspapers, television, etc.) and those who want to shift to a green economy attempt to find an audience on New Media (facebook, Twitter, etc.). I am referring to general trends here. We will see some discussion of global warming on network news shows and some global warming denials on Twitter.

Where the debate occurs will be as important as the rhetoric itself, but we should not neglect the actual rhetoric.  What is intriguing about the rhetoric of the global warming debate is that it is not really a debate at all. The two sides seem to engage on television and in sparing newspaper columns, but they are actually speaking in different languages.

Let me explain with an example that involves Chris Hayes himself. About two years ago, Hayes appeared on Morning Joe. One of the topics he raised was global warming. What Hayes said drew from decades, if not several centuries of science. Studies of the effects of pollution in the atmosphere date at least to the 1950s. Some might argue that we began to think about the global effects of our human actions in the late eighteen century with the work of Thomas Robert Malthus and his Essay on the Principles of Population (1798) or the seventeenth century with concerns about coal pollution in the city of London. In this case, the coal pollution was not from coal power plants but rather from the coal burned in fireplaces in almost every dwelling in the city.

Hayes drew from this body of science to catalog the effects of global warming, including the problem of polar ice caps melting, which would lead to a rise in sea level. Pat Buchanan was also on the panel. He replied, “I don’t believe that. I go to the beach every summer and I haven’t seen the sea level rise.” I am quoting from memory here, but I think I have the wording fairly close to what Buchanan said.

Hayes was using the epistemology and language of science. Buchanan was using epistemology of what he considered to be immediate, unfiltered sensory experience and the language of common sense. Buchanan was essentially saying, “I believe what I see and what seems reasonable to me.” In other words, Buchanan was countering decades, maybe centuries, of science with a few trips to the beach.

To make some progress in this debate, we need to recognize this difference in epistemologies and languages. Those who want us to recognize the dangers of global warming cannot expect the other side to embrace the epistemology and language of science. I don’t advocate talking science to Pat Buchanan. He needs to be challenged within the norms of his own epistemology and language.

When Buchanan says that he hasn’t seen the sea level rise, someone needs to ask him this: “If the sea level rose three inches between your vacation last year and your vacation this year, would you have noticed?” Or, more exotically, “If you had been taking your vacations on one of the Maldives islands instead of the Jersey shore, you might have seen the island slowly disappearing each year.” Or, maybe even more fundamental, “When you put a stick into water and you see it bend, does the stick actually bend?”

So-called common sense is a little harder to refute. People who talk about common sense want to believe that all reasonable people will come to the same conclusion. They don’t want to consider that ideology, race, class, gender, or culture affect what they call common sense. Ultimately, saying that what I believe is common sense is like saying, “What I think is right because I am a reasonable person and this is what I think.” It’s hard to argue with that logic, and that’s the point. To say that something is common sense is tantamount to saying, “I am obviously right; don’t argue with me.”

So, how does one fight common sense? I am sure that trying to appear reasonable to a person who has no self-doubt will not work. Nor will science, facts, or logic. The only technique that has a chance of breaking through common sense is parody.


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