Can The Label "Climate Hawk" Take Off?

Posted by Andrew Price

Over at Grist, Dave Roberts recently initiated a discussion about what we should call people "who care about climate change and clean energy."

After sifting through a bunch of suggestions, many of them pretty mediocre ("planetarian," "energeers," "educated"), Roberts eventually settled on the term "climate hawks." He is now trying to make it part of the vernacular.

The obvious comparison is to the common terms "foreign policy hawk" and "deficit hawk." That association is probably an advantage because it gives "climate hawk" a more no-nonsense, Daddy-party air than many other labels for environmentalists. Here's more from Roberts about why he chose the term:

It doesn't carry any implications about The Truth. It doesn't say, "I'm right, you're wrong. I'm smarter and more enlightened than you." Instead it evokes a judgment: that the risks of climate change are sufficient to warrant a robust response. By definition, everyone must make such judgments on their own. Rather than being a Manichean choice -- you get it or you're stupid -- it becomes about values, about how hard to fight and how much to sacrifice to defend America and her future. That's the right conversation to be having.

Yes, I'm well aware that "hawk" has militaristic overtones. Trust me, when it comes to matters military I'm a DFH of the old school. But lefties shouldn't be precious. The health of Mother Earth just doesn't move that many people. For better or worse, more Americans respond to evocations of toughness in the face of a threat.

Roberts gave the selection of "climate hawks" a lot of thought. If you read his analysis of the qualities a successful label should have, you won't be surprised to know he was a full-time philosopher before he became a blogger.

The term is gaining adherents. Ezra Klein, Joe Romm, and Matt Yglesias are all on board, though they're probably part of the choir. Ygesias provides a nice interpretation of the term.

Well of course much like a deficit hawk or a national security hawk or an inflation hawk, a climate hawk is tough-minded and awesome and entitled to worshipful media coverage. We’re very serious people who want to confront the major challenges of our time. Are we environmentalists? Perhaps. But many of us aren’t really “nature-lovers,” we just think it would be unfortunate if low-lying areas were flooded, while vast new regions of the earth are stricken with drought. We recognize that the particulate pollution from burning coal and the geopolitical consequences of oil dependence are both dire enough to make a compelling case for energy reform even apart from the greenhouse gas issue.

We think it’s unfortunate congress didn’t pass a comprehensive climate bill, but we’re determined to do the best we can with EPA regulation and hope responsible people recognize that it’ll be better for everyone if congress takes another bite at this.

Basically, a climate hawk is one who takes the risk of climate change seriously and wants America to get ahead of the challenge with meaningful legislation. It's as broad as that.

I have just two observations about the term. First, one of its strengths is also a weakness. Yes, there's a natural association with "deficit hawk" and "foreign policy hawk" that gives "climate hawk" a connotation of tough-minded, risk-averse conservatism. That's good to the extent that it makes climate advocates seem less wimpy.

But at the same time, in piggy-backing on these other "hawk" terms, I wonder if the term "climate hawk" might not feel a little alien to people for whom a concern about climate change is part of a whole lifestyle package (vegetarians and conservationists and the like) rather than just a wonky policy position. Those people are, after all, probably the base.

That said, I think the term's big advantage is that it is self-explanatory. I ran across the term "climate hawk" in another Roberts post, before I was even aware of the effort to find a new label, and took it in stride. No background or definition necessary.

It will be interesting to see if the label can gain broad acceptance. I'll start using it.

Photo (cc) from Flickr user foxypar4