climate: point-counterpoint

by Hugh

With my renewed attention to the climate debate, I’ve been noticing a number of rhetorical tactics in the debate on the Other Side. Here are three of my favourites, offered as point-context-counterpoint:

1. The Political Scientists
Point:
“Scientists like David Suzuki are political propagandists” … or: “Al Gore, who is a politician and not a scientist would have you believe …” etc.

Context:
David Suzuki has a PhD (in Genetics), but he is not an active scientist, certainly not a climate scientist. He is a journalist and a commentator, with a political agenda. Al Gore is not a scientist, his agenda is purely political. However, both of those people (as non-scientists) are quoting the mainstream scientific consensus. The debate is not about what Suzuki or Gore think – and they are irrelevant. The relevant question is: what do actual scientists think? And the answer, the famous consensus is:
1. climate change is happening
2. climate change is happening at an increased rate as a result of human actions
3. this is bad news
4. we should take action to a) stop the change and/or b) adapt to it

Counterpoint:
Forget Suzuki and Gore (they are just messengers). Forget, even, the United Nations (which is an considered with distrust by the right in any case). Instead focus on the joint statement signed in June 2005 by the National Academies of Science of the eleven most powerful countries in the world, which says:

The scientific understanding of climate change is now sufficiently clear to justify nations taking prompt action.

Here is the full text (pdf). Forget the messengers, listen to the scientists.

2. There are still skeptics
Point:
There are still skeptics within the scientific community about climate change, and we should wait until the science is “settled” before we undertake any dramatic action.

Context:
The details of climate science are complex. Disagreements about one issue or another will always exist, in the same way that it does in any scientific area. But that there are disagreements about some areas of the science, does not mean that the fundamental principles are not agreed. The vast majority of scientists working in the field agree with the consensus view described above. And of course there are skeptics. There will always be skeptics, in any field of inquiry, especially one as complex as climate science. But the question is: how should you make your policy? I would suggest that you make policy on “best available evidence.” The best available evidence is reflected by the consensus view.

Counterpoint:
There is no such thing as 100% agreement in science. But policy-makers are bound to make decisions based on best available evidence, and the best evidence, supported by the vast majority of active climate scientists indicates we should do something serious right now.

3. Why Bother?
Point:
It is too late to do anything about climate change, so we should just go on the way we have been going and not worry about it. It’ll be too hard, too expensive, and too disruptive to do anything, and anyway it’s too late.

Context:
This is at once the most pathetic and the most powerful of arguments. If it is indeed too late, and cataclysm is nigh, then at the very least we should be spending some serious time, money and energy thinking about how we’ll deal with the consequences. Governments in Canada and the US have not even done that; so if you take this view you’re either logically obliged to lobby for action, or you are willfully irresponsible.

Counterpoint:
If you make this statement, you acknowledge that climate change is a massive problem. If you acknowledge that it’s a massive problem, then you acknowledge that something should be done. Plus, it just ain’t true.

For a more complete list, see: How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic. And for the best in-depth analysis of science, visit: realclimate.org