Over the years, a number of people have hassled me for trying to find the good in reasonable, if doubtful, voices in the climate change debate.  This was my motivation in writing the op-ed about Douthat’s column (link here, link to blog post here).  Part of my motivation is that I am a person who inherently tries to build connections between disparate points of view to see what interesting and new things emerge from the conversation.  The other part is the vitriol which I and those I work with who choose to have a public profile get to endure.  I don’t mind the vitriol, actually, but it is really hard to build a conversation with someone who is screaming at you – so I try to build connections to people that preclude shouting and lead to something productive.  This is a serious challenge.

To illustrate, let me excerpt two e-mails I received this morning, not long after the publication of my op-ed.  In doing so, I have no intention of personally humiliating anyone or personally attacking anyone (though the messages were, as you will see, a bit personal).  So, I have removed the addresses and names – though the subject lines are intact. The point here is to demonstrate what sorts of things are said to people like me on a pretty routine basis.  I’m not sure if these count as Over the Cliff moments or not, but here they are:

Subject: Pseudo Intellectualism

Scanned your comments in the State.  It is amazing to me how academia has changed over the years, but then, again, there was Ehrlic in the 70s.  He has never been right about anything but is still revered by the leftist academia.  He must be brilliant.  This is not about conservatives and liberals (NYT conservative comments?????).  It is not about green gasses, despite your beliefs.  Imagine, the whole concern is about changes of a degree over a period of a hundred years when the error of any group of instruments is not accurate to a degree and the instruments have never been standardized.  I highly recommend going to Dr. Roy Spencer’s web site.  It is about water vapor and the temperature of the oceans.  How can I recommend to you, the great specialist of humanistic global warming, while I am only a peon on the subject?  I have watched this for a number of years.  There is a much higher authority than man.   While man can cause pollution and really screw up localities, the great academics (you) have not figured out this global warming thing.  You have spent countless years on suppositions, aberrant computer models, and criticizing the political movement that you feel superior to.  Yep, you are simply a pseudointellectual democrat.  Remember, Al Gore is the intellectual leader of the left.  Bow down often.  Get a massage.  The very intellectual morons on your side are against the very technology to reduce the use of hydrocarbons–nuclear energy and the use of Yucca mountain to store the waste.  Even the French and Russians and Chinese have figured this out.  Science is science.

[Name Redacted]

[Address Redacted]

Darlington, SC

To this individual’s credit, he actually signed his e-mail with a name, address and phone number.  So he is certainly no coward.  But I am completely unsure how to address this, as it is all over the map.  More or less, this message ties a political stance (liberalism, however it is conceived here) with climate change and an implicit questioning of my religious beliefs.  But this says a lot – the assumption here is that I am anti-nuclear power (not really – it may be our best medium-term option), worship Al Gore (I’ve complained about a number of things he has said), I have no religious faith, and that I live in a world of suppositions instead of a world of evidence.  The fact is that I have not discussed any of this in the op-ed, or anywhere else – the author is resting on a lot of suppositions, some of which are a bit offensive, to say the least.

But there is something else important here – the tone of the writer when addressing me as “the great specialist of humanistic global warming, while I am only a peon on the subject” and “great academics (you)” belies a deep-seated insecurity that, to some extent, I think those of us working on this issue must acknowledge and take some responsibility for creating.  Scientists and policy-makers must take seriously the complaint that we can sound elitist and arrogant in our pronunciations – especially because this is relatively easy to address.  We need to do more community engagement, make ourselves more available, in person, to talk to people about what we do and what we know.  It’s easy to shout at a caricature of someone, as this writer did at me, than it is to shout at a real person who wants to have a real conversation with you.

Then there was this.  Even as this person was agreeing with some of my points, he gets in a rather personal shot about me being motivated by a “paycheck-pension drive”.

Subject: “DOUTHAT”  —  2 ATTACHMENTS

I tried this on you several years ago.   I can see that you have not progressed.

I probably agree more with you than Douthat, but in the end I do not fully agree with either of you.   You both stay on the surface, within the range of the tips of your noses, and do not address the underlying cause and effect, including for this issue.   Remember, you cannot fix a leaky faucet unless you first turn off the water.

The thought has occurred to me that a fundamental reason for this is that y’all are virtually completely captives of what I call the “paycheck-pension drive.”

This will take much more than nice words.   It will take action.

Don’t pout  —  forward this up your flagpole and to some problem-solvers.

A key point here – I was not pouting.  I was trying to make my colleagues and myself accountable for our failures of communication, and to encourage my colleagues to redouble their efforts as they are, in fact, starting to work.

This writer sent me two attachments promoting his ideas on population reduction, which he sees as the fundamental problem here (he is right to identify population size and growth as a major challenge).  What bothers me here is the idea that his solution is the “right” one, and mine (or anyone else’s) is therefore “wrong”.  It seems to me that these are linked challenges that could be addressed and discussed in concert – we go nowhere when we get absolutist in our thinking.  I fear that those of us in the global change community come off as absolutist ourselves, contributing to this sort of problem.

In any case, the vitriol to which my intellectual community is exposed all the time is very real, and not some made-up fantasy created to demonize the right/anti-global warming crowd/whatever.  It is something we deal with that most of our academic colleagues do not, and something we have to learn to address productively if we are to make positive change in the world.