Over the weekend, 350.org founder Bill McKibben penned an op-ed in the New York Times, which is nothing new, but what WAS new, is that the op-ed was about WUWT, but more specifically, about a couple of ugly comments left on WUWT. This is my response.
The article is Let’s Agree Not to Kill One Another
In the article, Mr. McKibben says:”I was used to social media abuse. Then someone suggested shooting me.”
The Los Angeles Times published an op-ed article of minedescribing a trial in Minnesota where some protesters — acting peacefully, threatening no one and informing the company they were protesting against — engaged the emergency shut-off valves on two pipelines and forced the company to temporarily shut off the flow of oil from Canada’s tar sands into the United States. The case against the protesters had been dismissed on the grounds that they’d done no damage; I was trying in my essay to explain why nonviolent civil disobedience helped in the fight for a workable climate.
Not everyone agreed. Indeed, a few hours after my essay appeared, a website called Watts Up With That? published an attack on my article. This enterprise — which bills itself as the most widely read website about the climate, and claims about three million to four million visitors a month— is devoted to proving we have nothing to fear from climate change. The author of the blog post, David Middleton, called me a misfit and made reference to my “sunken chest.” Sure, whatever. Sadly, this just seems to be how politics unfolds in the age of Trump.
But then the commenters went at it. One said: “Anybody got Bill McKibben’s home address? Let’s see how he really feels about ‘civil disobedience’ if it shows up at his front door.” Another added, “Give him a smack for me.” One or two tried to calm people down. But there was also this comment, from someone named “gnomish:” “There is a protocol worth observing: S.S.S. It stands for shoot, shovel and S.T.F.U. Hope that saves you some trouble.”
This “protocol” was left over from the right-wing fight against endangered species laws. If, say, a protected woodpecker was on your land, the “Three S’s” doctrine held that you should kill it, bury it and keep your mouth shut about it. It was, in this case, a public call for someone to murder me, and not long afterward another commenter, “Carbon Bigfoot,” supplied my home address.
All of which stopped me cold.
I was shocked these comments somehow slipped through moderation. Had I known about it, I would have immediately deleted them. All of the commenters, “gnomish”, “Gary Ashe”, and “Carbon Bigfoot,” are now banned for this unacceptable behavior.
This problem was all news to me, and while the article appeared Saturday, I didn’t find out about it until late Sunday afternoon Pacific Time, when I got a tip from a regular reader and a regular contributor.
I immediately found and removed the body of the comment where his home address was posted, and then sent this note to Bill McKibben via Twitter, using direct messaging:
Hello Bill, I’ve been notified of your NYT article, and I’m just as shocked as you. Had you notified me of the comments in question, I would have immediately removed them. They don’t speak for me. My spam and banned words filter looks for the usual 4 letter words, and some other key phrases, but these went though. I never saw them, had I, they would never have been approved.
We disagree, sometimes vehemently, and of course we’d never wish violence on each other. I’m truly sorry this happened. What would you like me to do with the comments?
While removing the doxxing comment where his home address was exposed was the sensible thing to do, I asked about the other comments because they were now in full public view, and removing them would look like I’m trying to hide something in the face of broader exposure and criticism. I’ve opted to make inline notes with each comment, saying they were unacceptable. Example here.
This morning, Bill replied to my message Sunday afternoon, with this:
Hey, just saw this. I think taking down the comments would be appropriate. Thank you.
Interesting though, that his first response was to remove them. Hold that thought.. I replied:
I already removed the one with your address prior to writing and I’ll deal with the others today. Look for a post. Who would I talk to at the NYT about a right of reply?
He replied with the letters to the editor department, and after some prodding, gave me his contact there but said he’s “on the way out to the LA Times” implying the contact was not good. I got the impression Bill really didn’t want to see me reply in the NYT and that once again “right of reply” was not something to be afforded to “climate deniers”.
I also asked him this, twice, 4 hours apart:
No problem, and again sorry it happened. Why did you not contact me, leaving those up for days?
No reply to my question? I see you’ve posted on Twitter since and you received the message.
Several hours have passed, and still no response, but Bill has been active on Twitter since. I’ve asked a third time, an hour before publishing this essay, and still there is no response to my question:
Hi Bill, last chance for you to answer my question. “Why did you not contact me, and ask for those comments to be removed, instead of leaving them up for days?” If you don’t answer, than I’ll supply my own, based on what I think your motive was.
He’s had about 9 hours to answer as of this writing, and he’s been active on Twitter during that time.
When I first saw the article written by McKibben, I thought his complaint was about something recent, perhaps in the last couple of days, but surprisingly, the article by David Middleton (and the comments) was from ten days ago: Bill McKibben calls for civil disobedience… Because climate change.
What do I think Bill’s motive was? Remember when I said before “Interesting though, that his first response was to remove them.” yet he allowed them all to sit for 10 days. He has my email address, he has direct access to me on Twitter. Not a peep from him.
I think Bill was more interested in getting the NYT op-ed than he was concerned about the comments, or the publication of his home address. Otherwise, he would have asked for the removal immediately, and I certainly would have removed it had I known about it, even without his prodding via his NYT article.
I think Bill just wanted to take the opportunity to make climate skeptics in general look bad because a couple of errant commenters went off the rails, and we didn’t catch it in moderation.
Andrew Revkin mentioned the issue over the article, saying there was “no excuse”, and I replied:
Andrew, we have 2.5 million comments in the same span, and I employ 4 letter word filters, in addition to keyword filters. Unfortunately, I never saw these comments, and they didn't trigger any filter. They don't speak for me, I don't condone this. if seen, it would be removed
— Watts Up With That (@wattsupwiththat) October 22, 2018
Despite the ridiculous and regular claims that I’m funded by “big oil” or on the payroll of the Heartland Institute (I’m not), the simple fact of the matter is that I don’t have any money to have staff, and volunteer moderators tend to burn out and disappear after awhile.
There’s no easy solution, as Revkin noted in his reply on that thread:
Scale issue is a real impediment to fostering constructive online discourse. One of the key challenges in moving from theoretical #noosphere to an actualized #knowosphere. There's an algorithm for civilizing global fisheries (@GlobalFishWatch). Maybe for civilizing commentary?
— Andrew Revkin 🌎 ✍🏼 🪕 ☮️ (@Revkin) October 22, 2018
He’s right, at the scale we operate at, handling the volume of comments is difficult. We can’t catch everything. That said, the buck stops here, and it’s my responsibility. Mea Culpa.
So where does that leave me? I have some ideas, and I’ll let people know what I plan to do about it in a future post.
On the plus side, Bill mentioned our previous personal interaction:
In the case of Watts Up With That, I’d made the effort at de-escalation myself. A few years ago, I was scheduled to give an organizing talk in the small California town where the website’s proprietor, Anthony Watts, lived. So I contacted him and invited him out for a beer. I knew I wouldn’t change his mind on climate change, and he knew I would continue to think his work involved wrecking the planet. But it always seems like a human idea to reach out.
And it was fine. We had a couple of beers, he wrote up an account of our conversation for his website, and even most of the commenters saluted us for sitting down and talking.
Yes, it was a good meeting, but Bill was correct, no minds were changed, neither his nor mine. He graciously added:
I don’t want this website shut down; I don’t want the people who write on it prosecuted. I definitely don’t want them murdered. I just want — as the very beginning of some kind of return to the gentler old normalcy — for people to stop making death threats. That seems to me the least we can ask of one another.
Thanks for that Bill, we have reciprocal ideas there.
But here’s where Bill runs off the rails in his thinking. He wants “some kind of return to the gentler old normalcy” but at the same time he promotes civil disobedience rather than constructive debate to get his way. While he acts gentlemanly, his promotion of civil disobedience is simply mendacious, in my opinion.
In the era of the ugly Antifa, street riots, punches and death threats to Trump Supporters, and harassment of conservatives in general, among many other ugly things we’ve witnessed recently, Bill’s call for “some kind of return to the gentler old normalcy” while at the same time promoting “civil disobedience” which often turns into a spark for violent confrontations, is simply laughable.
And where was Bill when these sorts of ugly things against climate skeptics happened?
- Beyond bizarre: University of Graz music professor calls for skeptic death sentences
- Another call to arrest climate “deniers”
- Calls to punish skeptics rise with links to climate change, hurricanes
- Canadian environmentalist David Suzuki called for government leaders skeptical of global warming to be “thrown in jail”
- One climate activist predicted that skeptics will be lynched. “As climate impacts continue to become clearer to the general populace, fossil fuel executives, and climate misinformers who have played a part in this catastrophe, may some time soon prefer a safe jail cell to the torches and pitchforks that are coming their way,” wrote Peter Sinclair of the climate fear–promoting website Climate Denial Crock of the Week.
- On June 5, 2009, former Clinton administration official Joe Romm of Climate Progress defended a posting on his website warning that climate skeptics would be strangled in bed for rejecting the view that we face a man-made climate crisis. “An entire generation will soon be ready to strangle you and your kind while you sleep in your beds,” he warned.
- More about those ugly claims here.
Bill rightfully worries somebody will show up at his house, well it’s already happened to me thanks to a climate crusader.
If Bill really wants “some kind of return to the gentler old normalcy” he could start by using his influence to condemn the type of behavior listed above and work to calm some of these people.
But, I don’t think Bill McKibben really wants to embrace that. I think he simply wants to win his Don Quixotesque climate battle by any means possible.
Note: a couple of minor typos and spelling errors were corrected about 5 minutes after publication – Anthony
UPDATE: I had forgotten about this mendacious episode that Bill McKibben promoted:
It seems the well deserved ridicule of these cowards has had an effect, they have disappeared that photo from their website. See here: http://www.tarsandsblockade.org/enbridge-home-demo/
Fortunately, I have a copy of the entire web page before that disappearing act took place.
See the PDF: Tar Sands Blockade – Enbridge
No apology, just down the memory hole. What a bunch of cowardly and pathetic people they are. That goes for Bill McKibben too who thought this was a good enough idea to promote with a tweet rather than condemn it.