Amidst the rock concert mania surrounding a post-July 4th global warming consciousness raising, it is important for citizens to understand the difference between reasoned debate about public policy and the verbal pyrotechnics of a crusade. The politics of policy formation typically involve cost-benefit analyses, reviews of trade-offs, implications for other policies, possible unintended effects, long-term consequences—those sorts of things. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the whole process isn’t attended by artery-bursting passion and demagoguery, since both are inextricably entwined with how bills wiggle their way through the thicket of rules in the House and Senate. The old adage about how the making of sausage and legislation inspires nausea will remain as long as Oscar Meyer and Congress stay in business. Still, manufacturers and consumers of such products have managed over the decades to stifle their impulse to upchuck and get on with the next item on the agenda.
The real problem arises if that next item deals with a proposal that ignites the crusading impulse of zealots who, in Winston Churchill’s phrase, will never change their minds and refuse to change the subject. In this case, treatment of the issue in question is very different. Prosaic inquiries about costs, benefits, trade-offs and the like are cast aside with derision, and often with a chorus of denunciations about the moral turpitude of the questioners. After all, how dare anyone raise points about such irrelevancies when the fate of the world is at stake?
Such has been the case with arguments about global warming, which for the most part have had frightening overtones. Since its inception about two decades ago, global warming rhetoric has been bursting with apocalyptic warnings and accusations of evil motives lurking in the hearts of those who disagree with what has developed as a media consensus, which is that the planet is going to the devil, temperature-wise, that is, and we had better do something about it. Thus, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.V.) once suggested that opponents to global warming enthusiasts be silenced. President Bush’s “sincerity” about his position has been questioned by sanctimonious Europeans. Indeed, the most frequently heard phrase about global warming issues from the secular-messianic fervor of its adherents: Do you believe in global warming?
Aye, belief! That’s the rub, mate. The problem is that the media circus-atmosphere on this issue has distorted reasoned public discourse. There are scary precedents for this sort of politics, the worst coming from totalitarian countries—Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union and today’s North Korea come to mind. Though understood largely in military terms, these regimes and others like them are known for orchestrating parades, celebrations and pageantries in grotesque proportions, often to generate regime support or to ignite public frenzy against the rulers’ enemies. We now recognize what a sham all this is.
But inhabitants of such countries have no reason to believe otherwise. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in her nonpareil study of totalitarianism 50 years ago, PR-induced fantasies have their uses. Ordinary citizens who are assaulted constantly with reports screeching about a witch’s Sabbath of nefarious schemes against their country or, in this case, apocalyptic consequences of not “Acting right now!” have every right to conclude that there must be something to all the excitement.
Now America is not Hitler’s Reich or the USSR, and the New York Times is not run by Josef Goebbels or Pravda apparatchiks. But the propaganda deluge launched on a daily basis by those in public symbol producing institutions—filmmakers, journalists, celebrities, single-issue groups—seems motivated by a desire to produce a similar effect, which is generally to stifle debate. Americans have every right to be suspicious of claims made by global warming scaremongers, because the last few versions from an apocalypse-now frenzy turned out to be outrageous hoaxes—fears of global cooling and the population bomb come to mind.
In short, when global warming crusaders resort to tactics resembling the Nuremburg Rallies, the point is to create hysteria, not advance reasoned debate; have you ever tried to think at a rock concert? And where hysteria rules, reason is silenced. This is the real danger of the current turmoil about global warming.