Policing the Climate Debate

“You are an ignorant liar who doesn’t care about the unemployed or the suffering of people in the developing world!”

“You are an evil climate change denier who is unconcerned about carbon pollution or future generations!”

These are the depths to which the global warming debate has descended. Whether one supports the hypothesis of human-caused climate catastrophe or believes that global warming is a fabricated hoax, vicious personal attacks have become commonplace.

Even if you merely express doubt about either extreme — the most sensible approach if you do not closely follow the field — leaders in our society rarely come to anyone’s defense when they are condemned for questioning the supposedly settled science of climate change. “Climatism,” as author and executive director of the Climate Science Coalition of America Steve Goreham labels it, is like a fundamentalist religion that rejects all contradictory evidence and ferociously attacks those who challenge it. The message to the general public, as well as to political, corporate, academic, and media leaders, is brutal: fall in line with political correctness on climate change, or face an avalanche of unbridled criticism and perhaps the loss of your teaching, research, journalism, or government job.

Unconstructive personal attacks also originate from some of those who oppose the climate scare. These too must be denounced. Confronted with these attacks plus the shrill harassment from climate campaigners, the public may tune out the debate entirely — something we can ill-afford. Considering the enormous stakes involved — an outcome ranging from an alleged man-made environmental catastrophe to the waste of literally trillions of dollars worldwide – the participation of thoughtful, concerned citizens of all political and philosophical persuasions in the debate is crucially important.

And we need proper leadership. Rather than join in the attacks or simply hide when the going gets tough, our leaders — politicians, university administrators, and media — must set the stage so that all those who want to can easily take part in climate discussions.

Our leaders must define the problem, encourage constructive debate, and establish firm ground rules of productive discussion within their spheres of influence. They need to create an atmosphere in which reputable climate experts — regardless of their stance on the issues — are rewarded for helping educate the public, media, and government about this complex field. Otherwise, the outcome of the climate debate — like so many other controversies — will be determined merely by the relative strengths of the competing lobby groups with little regard to scientific or economic realities.

Our leaders need to help the public zero in on what the global warming debate must be about. We are not discussing whether climate change is “real” (climate always changes on planets with atmospheres), or even whether human activity contributes to these changes (of course it does, especially in urban areas). Only one question matters:

Are human-produced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions causing — or likely to cause in the foreseeable future — dangerous global warming or other problematic climate and weather effects?

Leaders must emphasize that it is “dangerous global warming” that we must talk about. If it isn’t dangerous, then while the causes of climate change are an interesting scientific question, it should not be a public policy discussion at all, let alone an issue worth spending vast amounts of taxpayer funds on.

Leaders must also insist on the use of meaningful language within their parties, media outlets, schools, and discussion groups. We are not discussing “carbon” emissions, or “carbon footprints,” or “carbon pollution.” We are speaking about carbon dioxide — a non-pollutant, colorless, and odorless gas — and other greenhouse gases such as methane and water vapor. Ignoring the oxygen atoms in a carbon dioxide molecule and calling it carbon is as irrational as dropping the oxygen atoms in a water molecule and calling it hydrogen. Both misnomers may help anti-carbon dioxide and anti-hydro power campaigners, but they distort the debate for everyone else.

Leaders also need to identify and discredit logical fallacies designed to disgrace the messenger rather than rationally rebut him. These “attack the messenger” and “guilt by association” arguments must be condemned. Also, they must challenge the “motive intent” fallacy: wherein if you are known to or suspected to have (by virtue of your funding) a motivation, financial or otherwise, then what you say must be wrong. You are tainted by vested interests, and so cannot be trusted.

Our leaders must explain that everyone has vested interests. Environmentalists and research scientists need a steady flow of grants to keep their jobs. Mass media needs exciting headlines to maintain advertising revenue. Energy company executives (fossil fuel or alternatives; it makes no difference) need strong earnings to please stockholders.  Politicians need important causes to allow them to demonstrate leadership. Ordinary people want to keep prices down and so push for cheap energy and low taxes.

Other fallacies in the debate must be exposed and discredited as well: appeals to authority, force, pity, or popularity, “strawman” arguments, “red herrings,” “the bandwagon fallacy,” and others. Instead of allowing such fallacies to derail climate change discussions, leaders must help people learn enough about the issue so that they can formulate their own opinions. Without basic understanding of a topic, public opinion is worthless, and governments that simply follow public opinion risk leading us to disaster.

In the interest of leaving our descendants a healthy society and a robust environment, we need basic standards of rational, constructive dialogue about climate change. It is time for our leaders to set positive examples and truly lead.