Climate Desk Live: A Conversation With Climate Scientist Michael Mann

“Real skeptics are swayed by evidence.”

climatenexus on Broadcast Live Free

One of the chief scientists behind the famous “hockey stick” graph, Michael Mann is among the most influential climate researchers in the United States.

He’s also, perhaps, the most regularly attacked.

It started with swipes at the hockey stick—the graph seemed to show global warming so unequivocally that skeptics made it their number one target. The furor became even more intense when some of Mann’s emails were exposed in the “ClimateGate” pseudo-scandal. Now, Mann receives regular threats and has found his personal emails pursued by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.

And all of this has only made Michael Mann more outspoken.

At the next Climate Desk Live event, Mann and host Chris Mooney will discuss new research that reaffirms the validity of the hockey stick. They’ll also talk about public opinion on climate change—and why Mann believes it’s changing.

Please join us:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013, 6:30 p.m. at the University of California Washington Center, 1608 Rhode Island Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036. To attend, please RSVP to

The Most Controversial Chart in History, Explained

Climate deniers threw all their might at disproving the famous “hockey stick” climate change graph. Here’s why they failed.

Back in 1998, a little known  climate scientist named Michael Mann and two colleagues published a paper that sought to reconstruct the planet’s past temperatures going back half a millennium before the era of thermometers—thereby showing just how out of whack recent warming has been. The finding: Recent northern hemisphere temperatures had been “warmer than any other year since (at least) AD 1400.” The graph depicting this result looked rather like a hockey stick: After a long period of relatively minor temperature variations (the “shaft”), it showed a sharp mercury upswing during the last century or so (“the blade”).

The report moved quickly through climate science circles. Mann and a colleague soon lengthened the shaft of the hockey stick back to the year 1000 AD—and then, in 2001, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change prominently featured the hockey stick in its Third Assessment Report. Based on this evidence, the IPCC proclaimed that “the increase in temperature in the 20th century is likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years.”

And then all hell broke loose.

IPCC Third Assessment Report / Wikipedia

IPCC Third Assessment Report / Wikipedia

Mann tells the full story of the hockey stick—and the myriad unsuccessful attacks on it—in his 2012 book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines; Mann will appear at a Climate Desk Live event on May 15 to discuss this saga. But to summarize a very complex history of scientific and political skirmishes in a few paragraphs:

The hockey stick was repeatedly attacked, and so was Mann himself. Congress got involved, with demands for Mann’s data and other information, including a computer code used in his research. Then the National Academy of Sciences weighed in in 2006, vindicating the hockey stick as good science and noting:

“The basic conclusion of Mann et al. (1998, 1999) was that the late 20th century warmth in the Northern Hemisphere was unprecedented during at least the last 1,000 years. This conclusion has subsequently been supported by an array of evidence that includes both additional large-scale surface temperature reconstructions and pronounced changes in a variety of local proxy indicators, such as melting on ice caps and the retreat of glaciers around the world.”

It didn’t change the minds of the deniers, though—and soon Mann and his colleagues were drawn into the 2009 “Climategate” pseudo-scandal, which purported to reveal internal emails that (among other things) seemingly undermined the hockey stick. Only, they didn’t.

In the meantime, those wacky scientists kept doing what they do best—finding out what’s true. As Mann relates, over the years other researchers were able to test his work using “more extensive datasets, and more sophisticated methods. And the bottom line conclusion doesn’t change.” Thus the single hockey stick gradually became what Mann calls a “hockey team.” “If you look at all the different groups, there are literally about two dozen” hockey sticks now, he says.

Mother Jones‘ Jaeah Lee traced the strange evolution of the hockey stick story in this video:

Indeed, two just-published studies support the hockey stick more powerfully than ever. One, just out in Nature Geoscience, featuring more than 80 authors, showed with extensive global data on past temperatures that the hockey stick’s shaft seems to extend back reliably for at least 1,400 years. Recently in Science, meanwhile, Shaun Marcott of Oregon State University and his colleagues extended the original hockey stick shaft back 11,000 years. “There’s now at least tentative evidence that the warming is unprecedented over the entire period of the Holocene, the entire period since the last ice age,” says Mann.

So what does it all mean? Well, here’s the millennial scale irony: Climate deniers threw everything they had at the hockey stick. They focused immense resources on what they thought was the Achilles Heel of global warming research—and even then, they couldn’t hobble it. (Though they certainly sowed plenty of doubt in the mind of the public.)

What’s more, even if they’d succeeded, in a scientific sense it wouldn’t have even mattered.

“Climate deniers like to make it seem like the entire weight of evidence for climate change rests on the hockey stick,” explains Mann. “And that’s not the case. We could get rid of all these reconstructions, and we could still know that climate change is a threat, and that we’re causing it.” The basic case for global warming caused by humans rests on basic physics—and, basic thermometer readings from around the globe. The hockey stick, in contrast, is the result of a field of research called paleoclimatology (the study of past climates) that, while fascinating, only provides one thread of evidence among many for what we’re doing to the planet.

Center for American Progress

Center for American Progress

Meanwhile, the hockey stick’s blade doesn’t just stop rising of its own accord. It’s just going to go up, and up, and up, as the image above, combining the Marcott hockey stick with projections of where temperatures are headed by 2100, plainly shows.

When he shows that graph to audiences, says Mann, “I often hear an audible gasp.” In this sense, the hockey stick does indeed matter—for it dramatizes just how much human irresponsibility, in a relatively short period of time, can devastate the only home we have.

Climate Desk Live 06/06/13: The Alarming Science Behind Climate Change’s Increasingly Wild Weather

Mike Kane/San Antonio Express-News via ZUMAPress

Mike Kane/San Antonio Express-News via ZUMAPress

Join us for a joint Climate Desk Live and World Wildlife Fund (WWF) event moderated by Chris Mooney discussing the alarming science behind climate change’s increasingly wild weather featuring senior Weather Channel meteorologist Stu Ostro and top climate researcher Jennifer Francis.

  • Date and Time: Thursday, June 6, 2013, 4:30 p.m.
  • Location: WWF Building, 1250 24th St., NW, Washington, DC 20037.
  • To attend, please RSVP here.

Stu Ostro is a senior meteorologist at the Weather Channel, and was a longtime climate change skeptic—until the devastating 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, when he started documenting hundreds of cases of extreme and unusual weather and the patterns associated with them, and became convinced that something is very off about the atmosphere.

Jennifer Francis is a top climate researcher focused on the Arctic, whose work has drawn dramatic attention in the context of the very warm U.S. winter of 2012 (and attendant droughts and wildfires), the Russian heat wave and Pakistan floods of 2010, and other extreme weather events.

Both are now leading voices in diagnosing the wild weather that the world has seen of late—most recently, an intense winter in the UK that threatens to last throughout April.

For Ostro and Francis, the explanation for what we’re seeing is simple. More heat in the Earth’s system due to global warming is felt everywhere, and that includes the massive-scale patterns of atmospheric circulation that give us our weather.

Ostro’s observations suggest that global warming is increasing the atmosphere’s thickness, leading to stronger and more persistent ridges of high pressure, which in turn are a key to temperature, rainfall, and snowfall extremes and topsy-turvy weather patterns like we’ve had in recent years.

Francis’s scientific story is complementary. She sees the rapid warming of the Arctic weakening the northern hemisphere jet stream, and thus, once again, slowing down the weather, leaving a given pattern stuck in place for longer (making any event potentially more disruptive and extreme).

We don’t know—yet—what the next extreme manifestations of these large-scale changes in weather patterns will be. But as Ostro and Francis warn, we had better be getting ready for them—because this isn’t your grandparent’s Planet Earth any longer.

We hope you can join us for Climate Desk Live on June 6th, 2013, as we discuss this important subject.

VIDEO: What Does the Keystone XL Fight Mean for Environmentalism?

The latest Climate Desk Live asked if pipeline opponents picked the wrong battle—and if that even matters.

If you’re a liberal or centrist, generally inclined to bash those “hippies” to the left of you—well, perhaps you should stop and think about it for a moment, and not resume bashing until you at least understand the best case activists can make for what they’re trying to achieve, and the particular strategy they’ve chosen.

That was one upshot of the latest Climate Desk Live briefing in Washington, DC, a collaboration between the Climate Desk and one of its key partners, Grist. The event focused on what the Keystone XL Pipeline protest movement means to the future of environmentalism, and featured a panel that spanned from activist to centrist, uniting representatives of the climate grassroots group and the Council on Foreign Relations. (Mega archive of event Tweets here.)

The protestors and organizers surrounding Keystone XL have often been criticized for picking the wrong fight by focusing on a pipeline that is unlikely to be defeated and, some claim, won’t significantly increase global carbon emissions. The activists argue back that the fight is important as a galvanizing battle, and that when it comes to wanton burning of fossil fuels, it’s simply time to take a stand.

Against this backdrop, the panel took up the question of what the impact this movement could have on the broader push for limiting carbon emissions. On that, everyone agreed that the notion that the Keystone XL protests will have any one clear effect, whether good or bad, is far too simplistic. The movement’s impact echo in complex ways—perhaps backfiring in some respects yet promoting progress in others. Caught up in the moment as we all are, we can’t fully say—but for that very reason, how sure are we that we can criticize?

May Boeve, who as a student activist worked with Bill McKibben and went on to co-found (and is now its executive director), spoke first, and frankly, about the anti-Keystone movement. “Is it the perfect political battle?” she asked. “Are we sure we’re gonna win? No.” But Boeve argued that the movement has mobilized a new constituency, and that itself is an achievement that will extend beyond this specific fight. “No matter what the president decides, we have a climate movement now that is stronger than we’ve ever had, and it is going to keep growing,” she said.

Boeve was followed by two journalists who have struggled with the Keystone issue and, ultimately, come out on the side of the activists. For Grist‘s David Roberts, the reason was simple: “Aside from whether Keystone XL is the right target, or how much effect on carbon emissions Keystone may or may not have, the fact that forty thousand people uprooted themselves and went to DC on a freezing cold day, and stood there chanting, is a signal.” For Roberts, it’s silly to say that we know precisely what will draw attention to the climate crisis. Rather, “we don’t know what’s going to make change, so just need to pull every lever that’s available.”

Indeed, Roberts suggested that by making climate dissent visible, and by showing that a lot of people care about our burning of fossil fuels, activists may make…a lot of people care. Sociologists talk about the concept of “social proof”: People shift their behavior to match what they see others doing, because that’s a cue that helps them to determine what is and isn’t accepted. This logic suggests people should see more protesters causing a ruckus over climate change.

Michael Grunwald, the bestselling author of The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era, was in surprise agreement with Roberts on this. While Grunwald considered himself more of a centrist than other panelists, his view on Keystone and climate change was that sometimes, you just have to take a stand. ”If we think it’s a war, sometimes you’ve got to show that you’re willing to fight,” he said. And if we are now met on a great battlefield called Keystone—well, so be it, said Grunwald. Criticizing activists at this point, he remarked—to much laughter—is like saying, “Hey Rosa Parks, it’s not about the bus system!”

The event also offered an appropriately cautionary note. Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations, author of the new book The Power Surge: Energy, Opportunity, and the Battle for America’s Future, outlined possible negative side-effects from the Keystone protests. For instance: If President Obama blocks the pipeline, enraging Republicans and also a number of congressional Democrats, there’s a risk that Congress might “take away his Clean Air Act authority,” Levi suggested. “I think that’s a big deal.” Then there’s the broader political problem: A lot of people in “depressed communities that are struggling economically” look to energy development projects, like the pipeline, for jobs. Those people aren’t the enemy, and could be alienated if they see climate protestors as threatening local economic growth. “What I worry about is the hollowing out of the middle on climate change,” Levi said.

So what’s the ultimate answer? As the Keystone saga unfolds, nobody can really say what all of its ramifications will be. Meanwhile, the activists are busy and, just maybe, scaring the center a little. Pressure on moderate politicians, Roberts explained, “only works if there’s genuine fear of what the crazy hippies might do.” Like make history, for instance. Or as Roberts put it: “In conclusion: ‘Yay, activism!’”

How Science Can Predict Where You Stand on Keystone XL

Want to make sense of the feud between pipeline activists and “hippie-punching” moderates? Talk to the researchers.

The anti-Keystone “Forward on Climate” rally in Washington DC, February 17th, 2013. Jay Mallin/ZUMA Press

On February 17, more than 40,000 climate change activists—many of them quite young—rallied in Washington, DC, to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which will transport dirty tar sands oil from Canada across the heartland. The scornful response from media centrists was predictable. Joe Nocera of the New York Times, for one, quickly went on the attack. In a column titled “How Not to Fix Climate Change,” he wrote that the strategy of activists “who have made the Keystone pipeline their line in the sand is utterly boneheaded.”

Nocera, who accepts the science of climate change, made a string of familiar arguments: The tar sands will be exploited anyway, the total climate contribution of the oil that would be transported by Keystone XL is minimal, and so on. Perhaps inspired by Nocera-style thinking, a group of 17 Democratic senators would later cast a symbolic vote in favor of the pipeline, signaling that opposing industrial projects is not the brand of environmentalism that they, at least, have in mind.

The Keystone activists, not surprisingly, were livid. Not only did they challenge Nocera’s facts, they utterly rejected his claims as to the efficacy of their strategy: Opponents of the pipeline have often argued that it is vital to push the limits of the possible—in particular, to put unrelenting pressure on President Obama to lead on climate change. Van Jones, the onetime Obama clean-energy adviser and a close supporter of founder and Keystone protest leader Bill McKibben, has put it like this: “I think activism works…The lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender movement kept pushing on the question of marriage equality, and the president came out for marriage equality, which then had a positive effect on public opinion and helped that movement win at the ballot box and in a number of states, within months.”

This article is about the emotionally charged dispute between climate activists and environmental moderates, despite their common acceptance of the science of climate change. Why does this sort of rift exist on so many issues dividing the center from the left? And what can we actually say about which side is, you know, right?

Does Joe Nocera really have a sound basis for calling the pipeline opponents’ strategy boneheaded—or is that just his gut feeling as a centrist? Does Van Jones have any basis for claiming that activism works—or is it just his gut feeling as someone favorably disposed towards activism?

It’s high time we considered the science on these questions. There is, after all, considerable scholarly work on whether activists, by pushing the boundaries of what seems acceptable, create the conditions for progress or, instead, bring about backlashes that can complicate the jobs of sympathetic policymakers.

There’s also data that may shed light on why these rifts between “moderates” and “activists” are more the rule than the exception—across the ideological spectrum. “I can’t really think of any movement where there isn’t some internal dissent about goals and tactics,” says Carleton College political scientist Devashree Gupta, who studies social movements. The recurrence of this pattern on issues from civil rights to gun control to abortion suggests that there is something here that’s well worth understanding, preferably before the next rhetorical bloodbath around Keystone.

A chief benefit of this line of inquiry: It should prove duly humbling to activists and moderates alike—and thus might help to unite them.

FROM THE OUTSET, I think we can agree on one fundamental point: Over the past several years, driven by the failure of cap and trade and a worsening climate crisis, America’s environmental movement has become considerably more activist in nature—some might even say “radical.” Exhibit A is the successful attempt by inspirer-in-chief McKibben (who has written extensively about climate for Mother Jones) to create a grassroots protest movement rather than simply to work within the corridors of power.

“What Bill is doing is actually quite impressive—he’s the first one to create a social movement around climate change, and he’s done it by creating a common enemy, the oil industry, and a salient target, which is Keystone,” says Andrew Hoffman, a professor at the University of Michigan who studies environmental politics.

One crucial aspect of this shift is a growing reluctance by environmentalists to work hand in hand with big polluters. The latter was a central feature of the US Climate Action Partnership, the industry-environmental collaboration that led an unsuccessful cap-and-trade push a few years back. Nowadays, the environmental movement is moving toward a more oppositional relationship with industry, as evidenced by its attempts to block a major industrial project (Keystone) and to get universities and cities to drop their investments in fossil fuel companies (another of McKibben’s goals).

The rival environmental factions are sometimes described as “dark greens” (the purists who want to force radical change) and “bright greens” (those who seek compromise and accept tradeoffs). There’s really little doubt that dark greens are on the ascendant. “He’s pulling the flank out,” Hoffman says of McKibben. “I do think he has a valuable role in creating a space where others can create a more moderate role.”

It’s also fair to say that McKibben—the charismatic journalist-turned-organizer—lies a good way to the political left. Its centrist biases notwithstanding, a recent paper by American University communications professor Matthew Nisbet does capture McKibben’s “romantic” ideology: Like most people, he’s unhappy about environmental degradation, but he also seems opposed, in a significant sense, to the economic growth engine that drives it. He believes in living smaller, in going back to nature, in consuming less—not a position many politicians would be willing to espouse. (Indeed, President Obama’s comments about climate change often contain an explicit rejection of the idea that environmental and economic progress are mutually exclusive.)

So environmentalists are moving left and becoming more activist in response to political gridlock and scary planetary rumblings. Then along come the moderates, unleashing flurries of what Grist‘s David Roberts calls “hippie punching” under the guise of being more rational and reasoned than those they are criticizing. For example, Nisbet writes: “McKibben’s line-in-the-sand opposition to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, his skepticism of technology, and his romantic vision of a future consisting of small-scale, agrarian communities reflects his own values and priorities, rather than a pragmatic set of choices designed to effectively and realistically address the problem of climate change.”

You can see how an activist might find this just a tad irritating. For what is Nisbet’s statement if not a reflection of his own values and priorities? Words like “pragmatic” and “realistic” give away the game.

THE TRUTH IS, ​there is every reason to suspect that both groups are driven by divergent emotions, passions, and personality dispositions—or at least, so says the body of research (admittedly, still in an early phase) that exists on the matter.

We live in an era in which politics seems less and less comprehensible without turning to psychology. In particular, there is a growing realization that today’s Democrats and Republicans simply don’t understand one another, and are trapped in a kind of unending political Mars and Venus saga due to their divergent personalities, psychologies, and emotionally rooted moral systems.

Yet anyone who has hung around the environmental movement long enough may have noticed an eerily similar version of this phenomenon in the divide between moderates and activists. And there are at least some researchers out there helping us to make sense of this divide.

First, let’s consider the personalities of so-called moderates: Research by Yale political scientist Alan Gerber and his colleagues suggests that people who score high on the personality trait “openness to experience” are not only more likely to lean liberal (a long-standing finding in political psychology) but, more surprisingly, are more likely to insist on remaining politically unaffiliated—in which case they tend to identify themselves as centrist, moderate, or independent.

It appears that openness to experience, beyond its literal meaning, signals a desire to stand out from the crowd. These people are not joiners, or team players. So it would not be out of character for them to criticize people on their side of the aisle in order to distinguish themselves from their presumed allies. In this camp, we might expect to see plenty of instinctive contrarians, like the pundits and journalists who enjoy declaring a pox on both houses.

So, are moderates like Nocera really more rational or reasonable than activists? Gerber’s results suggest that there may simply be a “moderate” personality for whom this contrarian hippie-punching instinct simply feels right.

Beyond the personality studies, there is a growing body of research on the deep-seated emotions that underlie our personal politics. Dubbed “moral foundations theory,” it consists largely of work done by New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt, Jesse Graham of the University of Southern California, and their colleagues and collaborators. Their approach is to measure the five (sometimes six) moral “foundations” that seem to drive our responses. (They are: “care/harm,” “fairness/cheating,” “loyalty/betrayal,” “authority/subversion,” and “sanctity/degradation.”) In short, they have been able to demonstrate that people’s views on right and wrong, and the intensity with which we respond to moral and political situations, have more to do with our gut instincts than rational consideration of the facts before us; our moral “reasoning” is actually a form of post hoc rationalization.

What can moral-foundations theory tell us about the chasm between environmental moderates and activists? Ravi Iyer of USC, a collaborator of Haidt and Graham, agreed to run some data for me, based on a sample of 15,552 individuals who responded to the researchers’ moral-foundations questionnaire, as well as a separate questionnaire that included a question about environmental attitudes.

Click here to read Ravi Iyer’s explanation of the data.

The result was revealing: People who had professed that it is important to “protect the environment” not only tended to be liberal (no surprise), but they also exhibited a considerably higher sensitivity to moral considerations about “care/harm.” In other words, when they weighed the right and wrong of a given situation, these respondents were more concerned than their fellow citizens about “whether or not someone suffered emotionally” and “whether or not someone cared for someone weak or vulnerable.”

Iyer suggests that environmentalists’ care/harm considerations extend far beyond the immediate and the local—they also apply to distant peoples, animals, habitats, and future generations. (This finding is consistent with a recent study on the “moral roots” of environmentalism by Matthew Feinberg of Stanford and Robb Willer of the University of California-Berkeley.)

Iyer then ran a second analysis. He compared the moral responses of liberals who scored highest in their desire to protect the environment with those of liberals who scored lower, yet still said they cared about the environment. This analysis, a proxy for the differences between the environmental purists and moderates, turned up relatively small but still noteworthy differences. The purists, or activists, tended to be more sensitive to three of the five moral foundations: “care/harm,” “fairness/cheating,” and “sanctity/degradation.” This suggests that if you want to engage an environmentalist activist on an emotional level, you should try a moralizing narrative: A corporation with too much power (unfair) is causing devastating damage (care/harm), defiling (sanctity/degradation) the environment and jeopardizing the planet for future generations (care/harm). Sound familiar?
Environmental activists, who associate nature with purity, may be viscerally offended by perceived abuses of its sanctity.

Perhaps most revealing, though, was the center-vs.-left difference in the realm of “sanctity/degradation,” a moral sensibility associated with disgust that is usually much stronger on the political right than on the left. It is measured by asking people how much they factor in “whether or not someone violated standards of purity and decency” and “whether or not someone did something disgusting” when deciding what is moral or immoral. Iyer’s analysis suggests that environmental activists, more so than the moderates, associate the environment with purity and feel revulsion when it is defiled. This may leave them viscerally offended by perceived abuses of the sanctity of nature—and less willing to compromise on their ideals.

The moderates, who are less driven by pure “care/harm” concerns, may tend to be less emotional about preserving the environment in a pristine state, and are thus more willing to endorse trade-offs. “The more moderate you are, the less extreme you are in any of the moral foundational domains,” says Stanford’s Matthew Feinberg. “So you probably are more utilitarian or consequentialist in the way you perceive the world.”

Does this mean that moderates are more rational? Insofar as they are less moralistic, they have something of a claim. But it is offset by their tendency towards knee-jerk centrism, which can be just another reflex.

The bottom line is that the activists and moderates respond and feel differently when faced with the same moral and political situation. And both factions are likely biased by their initial, emotional responses. Thus, a moderate can be just as reactionary as an activist—especially if he or she never moves beyond that first instinct and simply splits the difference between the opposing sides in every situation.

The moderate (MLK Jr.) and the radical (Malcolm X): Who was more effective? Wikipedia Commons

LET US NOW return to the Keystone debate. If you’ll recall, the moderates’ instincts tell them that activists create backlash that interferes with the movement’s wider goals, whereas the activists believe their protests create space for, at minimum, the achievement of more moderate goals. So which side is correct?

To answer that question, we have to turn to a different body of research: the study of “radical flank effects” in social movements. Perhaps the most seminal work on the matter was Black Radicals and the Civil Rights Mainstream, 1954-1970, a book published in 1988 by Herbert Haines, a scholar at the State University of New York-Cortland. Haines argued, provocatively, that radical groups like the Black Panthers and individuals like Malcolm X actually helped make space for a series of moderate successes (led by Martin Luther King Jr.) that culminated in the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Haines called this a “positive radical flank effect” because it led to a beneficial outcome for civil rights. But he also raised the possibility of “negative radical flank effects”—indeed, a delayed civil rights backlash had kicked in by the early 1970s. But overall, he argued, the presence of the radicals and their growing prominence helped create favorable conditions for the moderates to push important legislation.

The radical flank concept now “has a lot of credibility among social-movement scholars,” says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who studies climate change (and the people who claim it isn’t real). The concept has since been applied to political movements and moments ranging from women’s rights to the New Deal.

Some of Haines’ observations sound entirely relevant to today’s environmental moment. For instance: “Radicals specialize in generating crises which elites must deal with”—Keystone anyone?—”while moderates specialize in offering relatively unthreatening avenues of escape.” In other words, it’s a symbiotic relationship: The moderates are more attractive for the power brokers to negotiate with, Haines writes, “but all the more so when more militant activists are applying pressure.”

The sad irony here is that the activists don’t get what they want. In the end, they merely get to help out the moderates. But that’s the nature of the positive radical flank effect.

For this article, I asked several sociologists and specialists on movements—Haines included—how one might apply the radical flank theory to the current environmental movement. Short answer: It’s tough without the benefit of hindsight. “It’s easy to do when you look over the course of history, but when it’s right in the moment, it’s really complex,” explains Jules Boykoff, a specialist on social movements at Pacific University in Oregon.

The definition of “radical” hinges entirely on what society considers mainstream—and that’s a moving target.

First, it is important to acknowledge, as Haines did, that the definition of “radical” hinges entirely on what society considers mainstream—and that’s a moving target. The tactics of radicals vary greatly, too—in this context, the peaceful anti-Keystone movement hardly counts as extreme.

But certain scholarly considerations may prove illuminating. For instance, one of the critical factors in determining whether a radical flank effect will be positive or negative is the way moderates and activists relate to one another. “How clearly are the moderates and radicals differentiating themselves?” asks Carleton College’s Devashree Gupta. This, as Gupta notes, shapes media coverage and the thinking of politicians and policymakers who may be calculating whether helping the moderates will ease the headaches the radicals create for them.

It is noteworthy that as the Keystone XL pipeline protests have heated up, environmental organizations have not differentiated themselves clearly. Indeed, the leaders of typically moderate groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund and the Natural Resources Defense Council wrote a letter to President Obama in 2011 noting that “there is not an inch of daylight between our policy position on the Keystone Pipeline and those of the very civil protesters being arrested daily outside the White House.”

A second major consideration involves policy momentum. Here, the question is whether all sides agree that change is coming anyway. If so, a positive radical flank effect is more likely, as the status quo comes to envelop and embrace moderates (and spurn radicals). “For a positive effect to happen,” Haines explains, “what you kind of have to have is things moving in the right direction politically. So around environmentalism, it would have to be that policy is already moving in a pro-environmentalist direction, like civil rights was, and the radicals come along and give it a boost.”

Are things moving that way? That’s incredibly difficult to discern at the moment. Climate progress is clearly in congressional limbo. But culturally, you could say that there is indeed momentum as the public awakens to the reality of increasingly extreme weather, and even the Wall Street Journal is publishing op-eds supporting a carbon tax. There is also positive momentum in the sense that Obama clearly wants to do something for his environmental legacy, and there is still much he can do without cooperation from Congress.

Finally, any radical-flank analysis must consider the possibility of backlash. In a sense, that backlash has already happened, as the political right has taken up Keystone XL as a case study in environmentalists wanting to kill jobs. Haines cautions: “If you’ve got a radical flank and a very polarized environment, where there’s no real concept or impulse to compromise on the other side, then not only is more-militant stuff less likely to encourage progress, but it can become a weapon that the other side uses.”

In other words, the jury is still out on whether the Keystone protests will encourage positive action on climate—so it’s awfully premature to be calling the strategy “boneheaded.” Mobilizing thousands of people, drawing massive media attention, perhaps redefining environmentalism—these are all actions that, even if they do produce some backlash, will assuredly have myriad other effects that are difficult to foresee.

But the protesters might also take a gut check from this analysis: Their success is far from certain. And most galling, from the vantage point of history, their “success” may well be defined by their failure on the specific issue they care most about. It is not hard to imagine, for instance, an outcome that would be the very definition of a positive radical flank effect: Obama approves Keystone and simultaneously announces a number of initiatives long desired by centrist environmental organizations. Chief among them: new steps by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants.

The activists would be bitterly disappointed, of course, but progress would be real and tangible. In this context, would Van Jones be wrong in saying that “activism works”?

TO SUM THINGS UP, we’ve seen that there is likely a deep seated, emotional and dispositional reason why some people wind up as activists and others as moderates. Perhaps the rift between the Noceras and the McKibbens of the world will make more sense—and even, perhaps, be diminished—if we can all accept the fact that enviros on both sides of the Keystone protests are feeling their way to their opinions.

Second, the study of social movements suggests that both outcomes—progress and backlash—can occur simultaneously, and the activists might well win by losing (or, if you prefer, lose by winning). Given all of the complexities, calling the mobilization of thousands of people around climate action “boneheaded” is, well, just that.

In the final analysis, it’s hard not to admire what McKibben and his supporters have pulled off. We don’t yet know which way the radical flank effect will go, but until fairly recently, there wasn’t even a flank to discuss. “The reality is that we’ve had no radicals so far, until Bill McKibben,” says Oklahoma State’s Riley Dunlap. McKibben has thrown the switch, and now the gears are turning, to uncertain end.

As we wait for the outcome, there’s a lesson here for the moderates: Un-jerk those knees. For moderates’ actions matter, too, and their choices may have historic consequences. “Whether it’s a positive or negative flank effect, we decide that,” says Jules Boykoff. “If you diss somebody, dismiss them, use them for your short term gain, you might sacrifice that group on the altar of missing what you actually want to happen.”

If the “bright greens” want to be known for nuanced views, sophistication, and willingness to endorse complexity and tradeoffs, then let them begin with this simple acknowledgement: Determining the historical impact of a movement like this one is anything but simple.


About Climate Desk

The Climate Desk is a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate. The partners are The Atlantic, Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Mother Jones, Slate, and Wired.