Exiting the ‘Realm of Facts’: A Plea for Climate Agonism

Our disagreement with the right lies not in whether the crisis exists, but in whether and how we should respond.

Photo by  Paweł Czerwiński  .

Last fall the New York Times published the text of a speech given by their columnist Bret Stephens, entitled “The Dying Art of Disagreement.” Hitting all of the reasonable anti-Trump conservative talking points, Stephens implores us to “understand well” [emphasis his] the arguments of ideological opponents before contesting them. Citizens fit for a democracy, he continues, must “read deeply, listen carefully, [and] watch closely” their neighbor whose perspective grates against one’s own emotional instincts, granting them “the intellectual benefit of the doubt…sympathy for [their] motives and participating emphatically with [their] line of reasoning.” Above all, he stresses, “You need to allow for the possibility that you might be persuaded of what [one] has to say.”

All of this is laughable coming from Stephens, a man who has made a career out of writing columns that do none of these things. While his hypocrisies range widely—accusing Arabs of having a “disease of the mind” and feminists of fudging peer-reviewed campus rape statistics both come to mind—nowhere have they been so frequent than on climate change. He has accused those who support emissions cuts of harboring a “totalitarian impulse” and “worshipping a religion without God”; declared the problem to be effectively nonexistent, arguing that four decades of climate science have been “discredited”; asserted against all evidence that global temperatures will remain unchanged one hundred years from now; falsely insisted that activists claim to possess zero uncertainty about the climatic situation ahead; refused to acknowledge any of the thousands of studies supporting the economic efficiency of emissions cuts, and so on. For a man who prizes “disagreement arising from perfect comprehension” [emphasis his], the logical fallacies, factual inaccuracies, and elephantine straw men that litter his columns are astonishing.

Readers familiar with Stephens will know my criticisms are not new; his penchant for bullshitting has, fortunately, by now been well-diagnosed and arraigned. David Roberts at Vox and Joe Romm at ThinkProgress have dug through reams of Stephens’ old Wall Street Journal columns to reveal a history of extremism and fact-aversion, wiping away his “façade of reasonableness.” Will Oremus at Slate categorizes Stephens as a “concern troll,” someone who “appears to be sympathetic to the topic being discussed but who, in reality, wishes to sow doubt in the minds of readers.” To illustrate this point, Oremus gestures to another Stephens doozy, one where he opposes a carbon tax on the grounds it might disproportionately burden the poor. In doing so, Oremus points out, “the motivation behind Stephens’ criticism of the carbon tax becomes clear.” As an avowed conservative, anti-redistribution supply-sider, Stephens “doesn’t actually care that it would be regressive, but he knows that liberal Times readers will—so he shrewdly adopts this concern.”

These expositions continue to circulate every time Stephens publishes something trollish or obscene—see, for example, Jedidiah Purdy’s excellent polemic against Stephens’ equation of social democracy with Stalinism, or Osita Nwanevu’s critique of his reactionary tendencies. Such diagnoses provide a moment of catharsis for those who rightfully find him maddening. They may even, with enough promulgation, yet act as a bulwark against his siren song of sensible contrarianism that ensnares so many. But there is a deeper, more instructive lesson unearthed by Stephens’ columns, one untouched by his critics and provoked by the question perpetually stumping liberals: Why would anyone make an argument based on premises they themselves do not hold?

Providing the answer is Chantal Mouffe, a Belgian political theorist largely credited with helping foster the intellectual renaissance currently taking place on the European left. Carving a path distinct from both Marxism and social democracy, Mouffe is perhaps best known for her critiques of deliberative democracy, a theory of democracy as comprised of individuals that engage in rational debate in order to reach complete and unanimous consensus on the rules that should govern them, setting aside their own ‘personal interests’ in the process. On the contrary, Mouffe argues, individuals who agree on the facts of a situation may still disagree deeply over what their institutions should be and do. These agreements arise not from one’s own personal “biases,” acting to cloud one’s view of the objective public good, but rather from differences in values not resolvable through the exercise of universal reason; we cannot “circumscrib[e] a domain that would not be subject to the pluralism of values.” Democracy, therefore, should not be thought of as a place to permanently resolve disagreements. Instead, Mouffe suggests, the ideal of democracy is agonistic pluralism, or a suitable arena for recognizing and facilitating perpetual competition between parties with conflicting ideals.

In practice, as Mouffe and others have pointed out, strict adherence to the deliberative democratic worldview can lead to a kind of technocratic obsession with facts, the consequence of understanding disagreement as a function of ignorance or irrationality. “Alternative facts” and “fake news” become an unprecedented existential threat to democracy, never mind the West’s long, storied history of yellow journalism and propaganda. Trumpism becomes an inability to grasp the incorrectness of nativism or autarky. Poor Mississipians “vote against their own interests” not because they value social conservatism over improvements in living conditions, but because they simply don’t know better. GOP senators don’t cut Medicaid because they think poor people should be allowed die in lieu of redistribution, but merely employ flawed policy reasoning. The solution for liberals, then, is to educate people and “restore sanity,” to “make facts matter again”—paired with the idea that successfully doing so will yield mass conversions to the Democratic Party. “Reality,” the cringey neologism goes, “has a well-known liberal bias.”

This mindset harms the left across the board. It is particularly dangerous when employed to understand someone like Bret Stephens, doing everything he can to sow doubt and keep carbon pumping into the atmosphere. It is not that Stephens doesn’t believe in climate change, or even the consequences of our current emissions trajectory. Concern trolls don’t simply misunderstand the arguments of their opponents; the term “troll” itself implies an intent to deceive or upset. Rather, Stephens tries to question the scientific consensus on climate change because he recognizes accepting it would expose a clash of values between himself and his audience, the clash that motivates all organized denial.

What degree of warming, given the tradeoffs, is morally desirable? For most, the answer is fairly uniform: “Not much.” Climate science suggests that even the moderate amount of warming we’ve already locked in imperils hundreds of millions around the world, bringing into question the long-term viability of civilization if current emissions trends continue. The Facts, in other words, suggest that the vast majority of humanity, both present and future generations, will be drastically worse off if emissions are not curtailed. Billions will die for the sake of short-term profit. People across wide array of ideologies and value systems, therefore—eco-socialists to free-marketeers, evangelical Christians to militant atheists—see such an outcome as reprehensible.

But not Bret Stephens. Nor the architects of organized climate denial. Exxon Mobil, the movement’s poster child, spent decades founding and funding think-tanks, press groups, and political organizations aimed at sowing public doubt towards climate science and defeating mitigation legislation. At the same time, its executives knew of anthropogenic warming as early as the 1970s. They learned of the staggering human costs posed by climate change, and lobbied to make sure it happened anyway. This wasn’t a reasoning error. It was the long, sustained application of a horrific value judgement.

There has recently been an effort to redraw the battle lines and recognize this divergence of desired ends; see, for example, the fossil fuel divestment movement, or the effort by New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood to prosecute Exxon for lying to its shareholders about climate risks. Yet many still resist the narrative that fossil fuel interests are a foe. Former Obama Administration Secretary of Energy and climate policy expert Steven Chu, when asked to explain his opposition to fossil fuel divestment, offered, “I’m trying to not paint oil and gas into a bad-guy corner. If you do, you set the battleground, and I’m trying to give them ideas. If there’s a chance to bring them on board, let’s do it.” For Chu, the idea that these companies favored apocalypse over abandoning their business model was untenable, despite all the evidence supporting this proposition. It’s easy to see why. When you believe everyone shares generally the same idea of the good, but merely disagrees on how to get there, the idea that oil companies are bad guys is hard to fathom. More plausible is that they merely “lack ideas” of how to remain incredibly profitable in a post-carbon world, and will come “on board” once they’re shown. And even if it’s ultimately not possible to keep their margins quite as fat—hey, who’d be willing to mortgage humanity over that, right?

The consensus mentality can even blinker one’s own moral judgements. A senior climate policy analyst in DC recently confided to me she didn’t understand what the #ExxonKnew campaign was getting at. “Of course Exxon knew,” she scoffed. “Scientists have known since the 1800s that carbon dioxide traps heat. The oil companies didn’t know anything we didn’t!” Never had it occurred to her that Exxon lied, let alone that this mendacity revealed heinous motives. The only wrongdoing considered was the notion that Exxon had neglected to dump privately-held information into the public pool to be earnestly considered by all parties working together to solve social problems.

The reduction of politics to a positivist exercise is not restricted to Beltway technocrats—and no other issue in American political life has been more infected by this reduction than climate change. Asking politicians whether they believe in it—rather than what they’ll do about it—is the critical litmus test administered by the news media on the issue. Do you believe that the Earth is warming? asked every major correspondent of President Trump after he decided to pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement, despite the best efforts of the Marchers for Science. Okay, but do you believe it’s primarily the result of human activity?  Behind this line of questioning, delivered over and over, seemed to lurk a belief that just getting Trump or Scott Pruitt to admit their acceptance or denial of anthropogenic warming would usurp their power. This is typical; liberal incredulity towards conservatives on climate begins and ends with admonishment for not “accepting the facts,” or the even pithier declaration that “science is real!” One of my friends expressed his disbelief over the Paris withdrawal in similar terms. “How can they be so stupid?” he exclaimed. “There’s no rational argument for getting out. People will lose, the economy will lose. It’s fucking science. Scott Pruitt has a JD! How is he not exposed to this stuff?”

My friend, like many others, is stuck in the Realm of Facts. It’s awfully comfortable in there; your opinions, wrapped in the cloak of unimpeachable truth, seem much stronger, almost self-evident. Consensus, or at least majority support, seems merely a calm, well-informed explanation away. In the Realm of Values, by contrast, one seems entirely impeachable: shot through with uncertainty, sloppy moralism and extraneous emotions. Enforcing the Realm of Facts are people like Harvard professor Robert Stavins, who made news in the climate movement by coming out against divestment in a New York Times op-ed. “Climate change is fundamentally a scientific, economic, and political challenge,” he thundered. “Viewing it as a moral crusade, I fear, will only play into and exacerbate the terrible political polarization that is already paralyzing Washington.”

The response to Stavins that a reading of Mouffe might deliver—polarization is a function of clashing values themselves, not their appearances—provides a tactical lesson as well. Climate trolls like Stephens love that climate advocates stay in the Realm of Facts. They keep the conversation fixated on the proxy war of science because they, unlike their opponents, understand the public would beeline for carbon cuts if they internalized the crisis’s moral stakes. Professional deniers are not “choosing to be dumb,” as climate scientist Christopher Field recently suggested. They are choosing to be evil.

Stephens, for his part, understands the effectiveness of moral appeals. He employs them to advance a particularly ingenious form of evil: co-opting moral language to frame climate activists as heartless and tyrannical, obsessed with imaginary monsters and indifferent towards the victims of terrorism. As liberals cede the opportunity to seize the moral high ground—portraying denier-pundits as ignorant and harmful but still acting in good faith towards the public—charlatans like Stephens happily supplant them.

The necessity of naming evil can also be found in Mouffe. Liberals, Mouffe argues, are not just wrong in that they confuse values for facts. Going further, she challenges the very conception of consensus that liberals idealize: that “provided that the procedures of the deliberation secure impartiality, equality, openness and lack of coercion, they will guide the deliberation towards generalizable interests, which can be agreed upon by all participants thereby producing legitimate outcomes.”

In other words, it’s not just that we waste time when we mock deniers. It’s that we assign value to the idea of consensus when a majority will do, and wait in perpetuity for those with heinous values to trade them for our own. The anti-mitigation faction of our society—the fossil fuel lobby and its Stephensian sophists—are actively and vigorously pursuing their goals without regard for consensus. As Marx alluded to, material interests have a moral dimension: they cause groups of people to perceive their interests as righteous. The fossil lobby will not concede their profits any sooner than we’d give up valuing a safe and stable world. This makes them evil, in the most honest sense of the word. In order for the public to mobilize, they will need to come to rightfully see their values—survival, kinship, flourishing —as opposed to the lobby’s malevolence.

None of this is to say that Kentucky coal miners or your climate-denying cousin are secret misanthropists. There are crucial differences between the epistemic agency that these people possess, and that of professional deniers. Values are strongly influenced by material interests, yes. For those further from fossil capital’s pay trough, however, the linkages between their values, beliefs, and carbon ideology is likely to be more negotiable. Citizens exist in various social positions with differing kinds of information and sources of authority, ones that structure how they translate their values into beliefs and public decisions. It is precisely this structure that ordinary people employ when deciding whether or not they believe in climate change—hence the term “motivated reasoning”—and the structure within which climate activists should seek to intervene. There are also people at the top of the social structure, like Pruitt and Stevens, who who are different: they simply act in bad faith. But they ought to know better. Most of them do know better. And as our atmosphere continues to thicken with carbon, the good intentions of those down the hierarchy slowly fail to exculpate.

This is a plea for climate agonism, a call to recognize and act upon the notion that our biggest disagreement truly lies not in whether the crisis exists, but in whether and how we should respond. I am not the first person to point out the liberal tendency to conflate the fact-value distinction, nor even how this has hurt them on climate specifically. Yet those of us who do recognize agonism still often lack the resolve to practice it. This is understandable; labeling seemingly anodyne people in positions of power as reprehensible never makes for polite company, and carries with it the stench of radicalism, even lunacy. The spectre of climate holocaust, however, impels us to fundamentally reconsider what is proportional and what is reasonable.

Modern history–from antislavery movements to the anti-tobacco public health wars—has provided an astoundingly successful track record for those who have embraced agonism by foregrounding morality. By taking up this mantle, we risk the chance that some people we considered good may still support heinous choices, having fully accepted their consequences. To think that we could have ever otherwise moved them, however, would be a fatal mistake.

Johnathan Guy is a graduate student at UC Berkeley studying wealth inequality, social relations, and decarbonization. He is active in Sunrise Movement and the Democratic Socialists of America. He tweets @johnathanjguy.

Congratulations! You’ve made it to the end of a delightful article, if we may say so. You can help make more of these by donating a small amount to The Trouble. Most of your money goes directly to paying authors. None of it goes to profit or advertisers, because we are a non-profit and we don’t believe in that shit.