agreement · Climate communication · climate science · Empathy · Information · Moral Distance · Negotiation

Activism – Or, How to Turn People Off and Stall Progress

I long ago concluded that activists, in general, suck.  When there are two sides to an issue, the people who stand in the way of accomplishing anything substantial are the activists.

In many ways, this is counterintuitive. One would think that an activist has a greater understanding of the issue.  One would think that the activists are needed to push through an agenda and effectuate a societal change.  We have a list of Nobel Laureates – people who won the Nobel Peace Prize due to their activism.

They are the exception. Not the rule. Sometimes even the activists get a Nobel Prize. Which I think sucks.

Because activists, by their very nature, hold one issue to be more important than any other issue.  Activists are tunnel-visioned – that is why they are activists. Time and again, activists will try to foist a single issue into consideration to the exclusion of others.

This usually has the effect of pissing people people off and turning people away. This also leads to a lack of a deal because they are generally focused solely on the issue about which they are passionate and nothing else matters.

If Climate Scientists Could Ask Presidential Candidates a Question

Last month, Mother Jones had an article written by Mark Terrill, the associate producer of the Climate Desk. The article was titled, “The Country’s Top Scientists Have Some Questions for Tonight’s Debate.” Then the article lamented the lack of climate questions in the GOP debates.  In fact, it had a bar graph that listed two categories: “Non-Substantive Questions” and “Climate-Related Questions.”

So the author then sought to ask “the biggest names in climate science and environmental activism” what questions they would ask at the Presidential debates. A pull back off of the headlines. When it got to the questions these folks would ask, do you think questions related to the following:
(1) The threat of domestic terrorism;
(2) Shrinking middle class;
(3) Looming deficits with pensions, Medicare and Social Security; or
(4) Climate change.

With one exception (who happens to be a general practitioner astrophysicist) they all wanted to ask about climate related subjects.  Which is not shocking.

Activists Care About the Source of Their Activism and Everything Else is “Non-Substantive”

To the author of the article, there were only two types of questions.  Either the questions were “Climate-Related” or they were “Non-Substantive.”  This is exactly what is wrong with activism: nothing else matters except what is important to the activist. The problem this presents to the activist is that while the climate activist may be excited at the shuttering of coal mines, the miners and communities will certainly view the loss of employment as a “substantive” issue.

The activist, therefore, by virtue of his own activism, has insulated his viewpoint from others in society, and will already find the work of convincing others to see things his or her way.

Political Activists Are Perceived as Irritating

There can be plenty of people out there who recognize the need for change. Environmental issues are seen worldwide as an issue such as this. The vast majority of people prefer clean air and water and would like to see these goal accomplished.

A study was published a couple of years ago in the European Journal of Psychology. The study found that activists themselves have negative stereotypes associated with them. The more visible an activist is, the more militant they are regarded to be. The more militant the activist appears, the less a member of the public will identify with the activist.

Negative stereotypes are both those dealing with outward appearance.  From the stereotypical hippie and the feminist to the white separatist, they all have the tendency, it is assumed, to look a certain way. At the very least, one can form a mental picture of all of the above.

vegan guy
No, you aren’t going to attract large numbers of people who want to be like you

Not only do such images and perceptions play a role in people’s resistance to activist changes, those who are more zealous with their advocacy actually drives people away.

“Unfortunately, the very nature of activism leads to negative stereotyping. By aggressively promoting change and advocating unconventional practices, activists become associated with hostile militancy and unconventionality or eccentricity.”

Same with climate activists. “Dear climate activists. Your policies, if enacted, would destroy much of the economy of West Virginia and put brakes on development for much of the world.” They would think, of course, that this is not a substantive concern.

Political Activists Are Condescending

Previously, I had written about the building of a “moral distance” in order to justify actions. This is part and parcel to activism. If a person is an activist against abortion, for example, that person cannot allow the consideration that there are good people who have had abortions.  Or even that there are good reasons for abortions, i.e., ectopic pregnancy.

Thus, an activist will always speak down to a person. The activist is a moral authority and those who disagree are immoral and must be destroyed. How is it that a self-described Pro-Lifer can murder someone? Because that person being destroyed is so immoral, so disgusting, that the ends justify the means.

It is therefore justified, in their minds, to kill a physician. It is justifiable to burn a lab where vivisection is performed. It is justifiable to set a dairy ablaze. Because the moral distance built requires an act to be avenged.

If you do not agree, you are immoral.  Or ignorant. Uninformed. And it is up to the activist, of course, to educate you on your erroneous ways.

Political Activists and Puffery Go Hand in Hand

This is where activism really comes in. And this is where you see  even science being betrayed.

Climate change is the doozy. However, the best quote I’ve seen about it was by Judith Curry, wherein she described that climate science and climate politics have become adjuncts for each other.

And right she is.

What is happening is that, almost unique among fields of science, that the scientists themselves are becoming and have become political advocates. In this way, scientists become the lab-coated actors on commercials. We trust scientists. We believe what scientists tell us, right?


This is dangerous. Politicians do not belong in the lab. Science is apolitical. While many things in science are subject to interpretation, some truths do come out. Economics, for example, is a science that is inherently political. Sure, there are mathematical formulas and equations and peer reviewed matters. Nevertheless, there are different camps of economists. You’ve got Keynesians and Monetarists who have competing philosophical ideals.

When it comes to climate science, however, it has become a world of politics. I would submit that the public face of climate science is the flame war. Activists – including scientists – have actually gotten to the point where they are arguing that members of the opposition be prosecuted under RICO.

Does any other scientific endeavor engage in flame wars?  When was the last time a physicist or a geologist argued that someone who disagrees should be imprisoned?

Whenever I see a person invoke science as a foundation for policy demands, I have to look the other way. Sure, the climate is warming. Science does not say something should be done. Science doesn’t care.

Activists Prevent Progress

This is where activists go most wrong. Should the earth’s temperature be kept within 2 degrees C of the preindustrial level?  Sure. I don’t see why not. Should the third world stay third world to accomplish it?  Whoa, now. It’s moving into something entirely different.

An activist would suggest that other considerations are non-substantive. Which is why activists have prevented anything of substance from occurring at worldwide climate conferences.  Anything less than full steps taken is unacceptable. Hence, massive failures occur at every worldwide climate conference.  Because the activist does not care about other considerations.

Take a look.  Is there any enforceable mechanism for keeping the earth’s temperature change below 2 degrees?  No!  There isn’t even an enforceable mechanism for keeping a change of any amount.  Why?

Because activists don’t want a 3 degree change.  To them, there is either all or nothing. So no enforceable mechanism for keeping any warming at all from occurring has been agreed upon.  Why?  Because activists won’t let it happen. Baby steps are inexcusable.

Activists Hate Other Activists

You’d think think, for example, that environmentalists would have the same interests. They don’t.  Each activist has his or her own niche.

California has been looking to develop solar power.  Some of it from large solar projects. One would think that this pro-environment type of development would be agreed upon by all who seek to preserve. But nope. Enter those activists who seek to save the desert tortoise.

This causes some serious battles.  It causes delays. Any time a zealot runs into another and opposing zealot, the moral distance has already been built.

Don’t be an Activist

Activists don’t want to understand other considerations. They discount even the motives of the opposition. Activists like Helen Caldicott will take to the press during events around Fukushima and warn of the great humanitarian crisis that could occur if the reactor melts down. As an anti-nuclear activist, she cannot even consider the actual humanitarian crisis that resulted from a massive earthquake and tsunami that killed thousands and displaced many more.

An activist is tunnel-visioned. An activist impedes progress, prevents deals from being made, and offends the sensibilities of everyone else – particularly other activists.  The further we get away from activism and the closer we get to deliberation, the more progress we will make.


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