November 8, 2010

Should we be “climate hawks”?

Over at Climate Progress – probably the best climate focused blog out there – Joe discusses a recent move to rename those who advocate swift, decisive action on climate change as “climate hawks”.

“It’s time to be patriotic about something other than war.” John Edwards.

The term was coined by Dave Roberts from @grist and the entire post  – “Introducing Climate Hawks” – is worth reading.

Should we be "climate hawks"?

First, the term needs to be broad but shallow. That is, it needs to be broad enough to encompass everyone worried about these issues, but at the same time shallow enough that it doesn’t imply a bunch of other positions or commitments. It has to be something a business executive in Akron, Ohio, or a Navy Admiral will apply to themselves. You can’t smuggle a bunch of other stuff in; people just won’t use it.

So that pretty much rules out “planetarians” and “sustainablists” and “sky-huggers” and the like. The last thing we need is something that says, “like an environmentalist, but even more crunchy!” (It seems not to have occurred to lots of our readers that there are many Americans who don’t want to be nurturant Earth mother types.) Along the same lines, I’m somewhat fond of “transitionalist” or something else involving “transition,” but a) you’d have to stop and explain that to 99.99 percent of people, and b) once you explained that you’re talking about a ground-up re-engineering of human culture, you’re going to get a lot of, “oh, I just wanted a solar panel …”

So: broad but shallow.

Second, I’d just as soon avoid a term that has elite condescension built right in. You may have noticed that elite condescension is one thing lots of folks dislike about the left! This is why “Brights” blew up in Daniel Dennett’s face — if you call yourself Bright obviously the implication is that everyone else is dumb. Similarly, while I appreciate everyone’s wit, “sane” and “educated” and “sensible” and “realist” just won’t do. Yes, climate denialists have tried to claim “climate realists,” but to my ears they just sound defensive and pathetic. Of course whatever position you select, you think you’re right. That’s why you selected it! No need to go preening about it.

Third, if the term’s going to catch on, it has to sound natural, something an Average Jane could say in conversation and be understood without a bunch of additional explanation. This, I’m afraid, rules out most of the neologisms — “neodynamist” or “P4CE” or “energeers” or the like. It’s very, very difficult to get a brand new term like that in circulation, mainly because the first few people to try sound like total douchecanoes. Maybe a few NYT trend pieces could do it, but I’m pretty sure Grist couldn’t.

Fourth — and I didn’t get this until I read through the thread — I’d really like to avoid any “ist” or “ism.” An -ism is a tribe; an -ist is an identity. Those are substantial commitments. What’s direly needed is a way for people to be able to adopt climate and clean energy as concerns without being forced to make those additional commitments. This, I have to say, is what a lot of environmentalists don’t seem to get. Most people don’t want to be part of a tribe defined by ideological or political commitments. Environmentalism already strikes many folks as a kind of quasi-religion. We don’t want to create another -ism with similarly high barrier to entry. This, I’m sad to say, rules out “decarbonist,” which was one of my faves on purely descriptive grounds.

Now, a few things I like about “climate hawk” (which I should note was first suggested by my colleague Jon).

First and foremost, it doesn’t carry any implications about The Truth. It doesn’t say, “I’m right, you’re wrong. I’m smarter and more enlightened than you.” Instead it evokes a judgment: that the risks of climate change are sufficient to warrant a robust response. By definition, everyone must make such judgments on their own. Rather than being a Manichean choice — you get it or you’re stupid — it becomes about values, about how hard to fight and how much to sacrifice to defend America and her future. That’s the right conversation to be having.

Given the growing disaster that appears to be Obama’s White House climate policy, the visceral, evocative and proactive rhetoric behind “climate hawks” is clearly appealing.

But how appropriate is it for Australia and other non-US countries? Does it still carry the same short-hand connotations of “aggressive science-driven policy”? Are the military connotations a dead hand?

Should advocates of strong action on climate change in Australia start self-describing as “climate hawks”? Are climate activists ready to use a muscular, jingoistic and patriotic label like “climate hawk”? Are the deniers, delayers and lukewarmers “climate doves”?

Other links:


Comments

  1. Josh C - November 10, 2010 at 11:52 pm -

    It's not a very value laden term on Australia. One of the strengths of the anti-climate action crew is that they have a vocal, uncompromising, unapologetic far right that has wormed into the mainstream. It's not just climate, it's a range of issues (asylum seekers and welfare spring to mind) where there is a group of vocal crazies who shift the whole spectrum of what's reasonable. Someone needs to be saying that we should cut our emmissions completely, and now, whatever the cost. And say it over and over and with conviction and language that will sound reasonable but passionate. Scientists and hippies don't seem to cut it.

    In terms of 'patriotic environmentalism' I think it could play a role as a similar tool. It's not strong enough to be the central thrust of the climate change debate, but it can prop it up from another angle. Problem is most lefties feel icky about jingoism – myself included.

    Plus, if we're the Hawks, they are the Doves and that's not all bad as a label – and whatever we call them should be unfair and stick. :)

    • Alexander White - November 11, 2010 at 7:30 am -

      Arguably, a "Dove" label would be perceived negatively by people of a conservative political outlook. I suppose one of the things that the shorthand is trying to do is speak to apolitical people using familiar terms. Hawk and dove are fairly familiar – even in Australia – although very militaristic. However, as the American experience shows us, it can transfer. You have "deficit doves" for example, and "fiscal hawks". I'm sure you can guess what both of those categories mean.

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