To get a grip on the Jagadish Shukla Barbara Streisand Own-goal Backfire Effect, you should start with Paul Matthews’ summary. Briefly, a bunch of scientists headed by Shukla decided to jump on the climate-tobacco bandwagon with a letter (to none less the American president) seeking persecution of ‘corporations and other organizations’ under the US RICO Act. The bunch then hastily fled the field, taking the letter down, when it was shown Shukla’s own various organizations were less than squeaky clean with federal funding.
These show the contradictory mish-mash that climate scientists seem to pass off as their understanding of the climate debate. To a fault, none of it seems to extend beyond the latest New York Times or Washington Post article and faithfully incorporates every trope and cliché sold by climate activists and PR hacks.
The first underlying mythical assumption of Klinger et al is a common one: the work of climate scientists greatly threatens the fossil fuel industry, which is scared of them. Fossil fuel companies provide a convenient, cartoonish ‘evil corporation‘ target for climate activists, and those in climate science with a world-justifying fuzzy feeling from imagining themselves ranged against powerful, unbeatable opponents.
In sociologic terms, fossil fuel companies are the folk-devil. But beyond this, there is little substance to the fantasy. Fossil fuel companies and their products are tightly interwoven with the fabric of modern life. Writing bad things about them is no more a ‘threat’ to them than cataloguing the evils of water (drowning, sweating) is a threat to the local water board. At best you make what they sell expensive. Forcibly making coal more expensive hurts consumers of coal power more than it does coal companies.
Klinger is all innocent about the second point in the RICO letter: We didn’t want to shut down speech, he says, only bring a few ‘giant corporations’ to court for fraud. Even there he admits the ‘standard for finding fraud is quite high’, is not sure whether a case would clear the bar, all while hoping such a case would be ‘a relatively limited affair’. Furthermore, after signing the letter, Klinger is suddenly concerned that there might be ‘squelching’ of ‘the free speech of scientists’ themselves.
As Paul Matthews notes, with this degree of confusion it is evident Klinger should not have signed the letter at all.
The tobacco master settlement agreement and the course of actions that led to it serve as an inspiration and a template to the climate movement. In anticapitalist discourse, advertising creates unnatural demand for nonessential goods (like the shiny Yellow Hummers whose sole purpose is to consume more of the oil industry products). When fighting against it, an activist can only rail against greed, consumerism and ‘consumption’ (and look foolish). In puritannical abolitionist discourse, ‘addiction’ serves in the same role. But ‘addiction’ has a special edge—you can ignore the buyer (he’s helpless, ‘addicted’) and go after the dealer, in a legal setting.
Second is the power of the ‘internal documents’. Tobacco executives appeared before the US Senate to declare openly they did not think nicotine was addictive. Internal tobacco company memos and documents were later used to show that executives ‘knew’ about the addicting properties of tobacco. This was one of the reasons behind the abolitionists’ ‘they knew!’ success.
Climate activists presently attempt to follow both templates: the world is ‘addicted’ to fossil fuel – meaning not that it wants, desires or craves oil (which it does) but that it is not responsible for its state. Who are responsible? Companies that sell these products. As for the ‘secret internal documents’, a couple of newly minted ‘science journalists’ from the Tom Levenson school of science journalism have attempted to establish Exxon ‘knew’ the dangers of CO2 but chose to keep mum about it, using a tranche of old typewritten documents.
For climate activist zealots, it is immaterial that the square peg of CO2 does not fit in the round hole of tobacco. Any new rhetorical toy is a welcome addition for the exhausted, intellectually threadbare lot of arguments so jam it in they will. All the better if the toy has a proven track record of ‘success’ in a morality play.
But what about climate scientists themselves? They should see through that people use oil and coal products not from ‘addiction’ but because they are indispensible to normal daily life. The type and nature of their benefits are unlike tobacco’s. What about the absurd argument that Exxon ‘knew’ how bad climate change would in 1977? One hates to admit it but yes, Wikipedia’s William Connelley is right—Exxon knew as much as anyone else about the climate and what they ‘knew’ internally is what they declared externally. There is no ‘gotcha’.
Nor can there be one either. The very question of what is ‘known’ vis a vis anthropogenic climate change, i.e, set beyond reasonable doubt, remains in contest to date. What can said to be known when the IPCC has yet to say what it truly ‘knows’ with any rigor beyond appeals to ‘consensus’ and ‘expert judgment’?
Klinger himself admits to the latter. He lays out, though not explicitly, how the case for the consensus is riddled with holes. To prove he’s no alarmist, he points out he and his boss Shukla wrote papers pointing out the contribution of natural factors in 20th century climate change. Klinger says the paper is an example of their scientific equanimity. It is absurd to think he and Shukla should be considered unbiased for publishing such papers whereas Exxon should be thrown in jail were they to have referenced it.
Though Klinger inadvertently admits several points and caveats he refuses to cave in fully. What he does insist is being allowed to score points against ‘corporations’ by bringing civil suits against them, even if only briefly and futilely, simply because they just deserve their day in court. This is extrarordinarily political, activist, and short-sighted. Surely this sort of bottled-up political yearning and frustation in scientists is … dangerous?
However, it doesn’t end there. In a last gasp, as he realises the turn the letter his signed has taken Klinger argues his critics, being the advocates for free speech that they are, ought not restrict his freedom to shut down his critics from speaking freely. A fitting colophon to the RICO debacle indeed.