If you were on Twitter last week, you were likely bombarded by takes on The Letter. If you weren’t on Twitter, good. Read this if you really want the context, otherwise forget about it.
Because if you’ve been paying attention to climate deniers, the whole complaint about “cancel culture” should be immediately clear as not about any sort of real debate or free speech, but about people wanting the privilege to say ridiculous things without being criticized for it. They want consequence-free speech, and want their critics to be quiet and let them get away with saying false, hateful, misleading or just plain stupid things without consequence.
No better case can be made for the value of supposed “cancel culture” than Steve Milloy, the man who has for decades used his free speech to protect powerful industries--first the tobacco industry and now the fossil fuel industry--from facing any consequences for killing its customers and the climate. On Thursday, Milloy tweeted “climate bedwetters have been trying to #cancel climate skeptics for decades.” Included is a picture, his “response circa 2007,” of a globe with the words “I’m more worried about the intellectual climate. demandDEBATE.com”
Here's the really important point: For someone like Milloy, there’s nothing more valuable than debate. Because as long as we’re debating, we’re not doing. But at some point, even the staunchest self-proclaimed champions of free speech have to recognize that a debate has been settled, because if not, what’s the point of debating in the first place?
Well, if you’re a denier, it’s to keep delaying action. And they’ve got a lot of different ways to appear to be debating in good faith, while in fact doing nothing more than buying time for the fossil fuel industry.
A new study in Global Sustainability charts a map of these “discourses of climate delay,” with four big categories of rhetorical approaches to making sure the debate never ends. The first they refer to as “redirect responsibility,” when someone invokes the free rider excuses or whataboutism that suggest that it’s always someone else’s job to take action. (“What about China’s emissions?” is a popular example right now.)
The next section lead author Dr. William Lamb describes in a Carbon Brief post as “Look Squirrel,” the sorts of pseudo-solutions that are more formally referred to as “non-transformative solutions,” like that fossil fuels will somehow play a role in reducing emissions, or that at some point technology will innovate itself into reality. These are distractions that pull focus from the real problem with fake, or half-measure attempts at solutions.
Then there’s the approach of warning that maybe the cure will be worse than the disease, where people “emphasize the downsides” by claiming that poor people need fossil fuels, or that a policy needs to be perfect and universally supported to be worth implementing. While all policies should be carefully designed, with input from all relevant stakeholders, at some point they need to actually be implemented or else all that negotiation was for nothing.
Finally there’s the darkest takes, those of surrender. Doomers argue it’s too late now, our fate is sealed, so we may as well just strap in and enjoy the ride. This sort of cynicism may be tempting to those who know the science well enough to grasp the enormity of our dilemma, but to accept climate change is inevitable is to stand by and party while millions of people, disproportionately poor people, working class people, and people of color, die. And that’s simply unacceptable.
Once you recognize these tactics, and see the quotes provided by the authors of deniers, delayers and doomers using them in action, you may start seeing them everywhere that regressive forces want to hold back policy while appearing to support it.
Sort of like if a group of people upset about being held accountable for their actions by people exercising their free speech to criticize them all got together to sign on to a letter about how important it is to protect (their own) free speech from their critics (who should stop being so mean to transphobes).