Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Does the climate change debate need a reset? - on name calling in the climate change debate

The purpose of this post is to address an area I think is incredibly badly served in the climate change debate and damages all resultant policy debates: it is the topic of name-calling. It is a common ploy in debating to label your opponent with a name intended to lower their appeal and thus degrade the reception of their technical arguments. The classic example of this is in the abortion debate. Supporters of “a right-to-choose” call themselves “Pro-Choice” (after all choice is a good thing isn’t it) which automatically labels their opponents as being “Anti-Choice”. Supporters of “fetal rights” call themselves “Pro-Life” with the obvious label for their opponents. You will note in this paragraph I have almost used up my normal quota of quotation marks for a post. I want to be careful here and use the terms and expressions used by the members of the debate themselves without indicating any opinions on that front because for the purpose of this discussion my opinions on that topic are not a matter of concern. The point is that by labelling yourself in a positive manner your opponents, by definition, get labelled in a negative manner.

Before I go too much further, I’d like to digress slightly and give you a little more of my personal background. I was a young boy when Ernst Zündel published the pamphlet “Did Six Million Really Die” (in 1974). I grew up in a time of the quiet growth of the Holocaust denial movement in my home province of British Columbia. I was a young activist while the Keegstra case worked its way up to the Supreme Court of Canada and did my small part to support groups who fought anti-Semitism and the rise of Holocaust denial. I watched as a tremendous effort was made to link a relatively benign word “denier” with the concept of Holocaust denial. This linking worked and for many of my generation this term has a power like few others. Happily, my kids are growing up in an era where (at least where I live) Holocaust denial is restricted to those with recognizably bad intentions. Given this background, you can imagine my anger when the term "denier" was misappropriated by a core of activists who recognizing its power (a power soaked in the blood, sweat and tears of people I knew and respected) decided to use it to label their opponents. I have even less time for the apologists who say, “well look it up in the dictionary” and thus excuse themselves of the implied slander associated with using the term. When I was a young man the “joke” used to be that calling a homosexual a “faggot” was not an insult because if you looked the word up in the dictionaries of the time the dictionary definition simply read “a bundle of sticks”. Everyone knew that the word had an incredibly evil use intended to degrade the person being addressed but for some the fact that the dictionaries had not caught up with the common usage meant it was okay to use this vile term. So given my history, I will not use the term (except in quotations) and I give short shrift to those who attempt to use it in polite discussion. 

So now I have addressed the most denigrating term in the vernacular of the climate change debate, I suppose the question arises: what label should be used to describe someone who disagrees in the fundamental science of climate change? To my mind, labels almost always detract from a discussion, but I admit to using them a lot in my posts to date. I am open to suggestions, but if I had to choose I would suggest that the people who legitimately disagree with the physics of climate change are “sky dragons”. This term is, of course, not mine but refers to the book “Slaying the Sky Dragons” which presents a “full volume refutation of the greenhouse gas theory of man-made global warming”. For detailed refutations of the book, look elsewhere, but in my mind Sky Dragons are people who legitimately believe that the science is on their side. I tend not to attempt to debate them as I lack the time and energy to do so. Perhaps they represent Galileo striking out against the dogma of the church, but in this debate I’m on the side of the church. On that end of the spectrum also exist a different group. This group includes those who, for reasons other than the strict science, deny the science of climate change. Looking at the numbers this group is made up of a surprisingly small number of individuals and could easily be described as “denialists”. My goodness, apparently there is a word in the dictionary, with deny at its root, that does not carry with it the toxic scent of Holocaust denial? I wonder why it was never chosen by the activists for use in the debate? Denialists, as I note, are few in number but are used as the boogeyman (or straw man) in any debate on the topic. 

On the other end of the spectrum are people I describe as catastrophists. This group tends to be made up of individuals, like the denialists, who tend to have less interest in the science and more interest in the political and financial ramifications of the issue. I know, I know it is really hard to get hard-earned dollars out of donor’s pockets, but to suggest that “Santa Claus is going to drown” or that our civilization will collapse if we cannot return our atmospheric CO2 concentrations to 350 ppm both seem pretty far-fetched. Much like the denialists, I tend to tune out the catastrophists in my day-to-day endeavours. The problem lies in the fact that, most really are “true-believers” and in my neck of the woods are willing to go to almost any end to avoid the catastrophe. Most are individuals I describe as “science blind” and comprise the people who chain themselves up to the Chevron refinery in Vancouver, even though we currently have no option besides fossil fuels to run our fire trucks or ambulances in BC. These are the people who are so unwilling to compromise that they are willing to ignore the environmental and human health risk implications of sending oil-by-rail because upgrading a 60 year old pipeline might increase oil exports. My earliest posts on this blog address these people so I will say no more of them here.

So the title of my post includes the idea that the climate change debate needs a reset and you are probably wondering when I will get to that point? Well having dismissed the fringes of the debate we come down to the meat of the matter and what I find most interesting is that an examination of the issues, the differences are really quite small, but the antagonism and bad blood sure are not. There was an old saw in our department that “politics in universities are so vicious because the stakes are so small”. This can be re-purposed for the climate change debate to “the politics of climate change are so vicious because the actual differences in science are so small”. If you actually look at the debate you have lukewarmers, like myself, who suggest that the likely range of climate sensitivity is going to be at the lower end of the IPCC range; you have “warmists” who think it is going to be in the middle end of the range; and you have “alarmists” who think the higher end of the range is the most likely. Notice the strange coincidence? Virtually all the combatants are actually still within the current range of the scientific “consensus”. Certainly some lukewarmers might think that negative feedbacks will dominate and foresee little global effects based on Tyndall gas emissions but, at a minimum, all are working under the general restrictions of climate science. So when a certain high-strung Professor calls his opponents “deniers” or “delayers”, what he is really saying is: “I disagree with your interpretation of the currently available scientific literature, but am unwilling or unable to explain why my interpretation is better than yours”. To put it another way, we are not talking about black and white here, we are talking about a palette of greys that is strongly supported by a robust scientific literature. Frankly to my mind, most of the real debates end up being about mitigation versus carbon dioxide reductions and how quickly we should move away from fossil fuels as primary energy sources.

The critical point that appears to be completely missed by the alarmists is that their language actually hurts their cause. As is noted elsewhere, there are numerous debates out there. The two primary forms are debates about the science (climate sensitivity, aerosols, etc..) and debates about the politics and policies. Moreover, as I note above, there are real denialists out there whose aims appear to be to delay and befuddle in order to maintain the status quo and/or to provide cover for industries that would be hurt by political action. What really detracts from our ability to develop good policy is when alarmists call lukewarmers “deniers”! Why is this the case? Because what the alarmist is doing by conflating lukewarmers and denialists is actually giving unearned respectability to the denialists. Consider Sen. Inhofe, by the standards of the climate change debate he would appear to represent a denialist (I make no claim to knowing the man’s heart and mind and if I am mistaken I apologize in advance). Now don’t you think that a politician like Sen. Inhofe prefers to be lumped in with a group that includes highly credible and well-respected scientists like Dr. Judith Curry and Dr. Richard Muller rather than his true position outside the ranks of mainstream science? From a political perspective you shoot yourself in the foot when in trying to denigrate an opponent you actually strengthen an enemy. So whenever a warmist calls a respected colleague a “denier” he/she is actually adding a mantle of respectability to the actual denialists out there. The alarmists wrongly make the denialists look like they are many in number and that they have a scientific expertise which they do not possess.

On the other end of the spectrum, by not calling out catastrophists for who they really are, warmists also lose on that front. We have Chicken Little’s screaming that every drop of rain represents a clear sign of “climate change”. The IPCC SREX clearly states that the science is not in and that while the potential exists that climate change will increase the likelihood of major weather events there is insufficient evidence that it has done so to date. Warmists and alarmists have to call out the catastrophists because like in the story “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” the wolf eventually showed up, but by the time it did the townsfolk had stopped listening. I sometimes wonder if the reason the warmists have appeared to have thrown their lot in with the catastrophists is that they are tired of trying for incremental changes and want to win it all with one roll of the dice. The problem is that, continuing the analogy, you can also lose it all on one roll of the dice. In science and politics incrementalism is how most advances are made. By pushing the alarmism ahead of the science the warmists risk alienating the public and that makes it easier for the denialists to do their thing.



  1. While there is much to your exposition that I find counterfactual, I'm glad you accept a sensitivity at the low end of the IPCC range. For purposes of argument I am willing to accept that too. Perhaps that is a basis for reconciliation? Can we accept that climatology is merely half-true and move on to policy on that basis?

    Unfortunately, the implications of that sensitivity remain radical, which is what ATTP meant in saying that the sensitivity isn't very important.

    We are so far from a reasonable policy that even if the sensitivity were half what IPCC claims, a very vigorous policy response is urgently required.

    1. Michael,

      I recognize that you haven’t read my entire blog but I have repeatedly indicated that I accept the legitimacy of the IPCC scientific consensus just not the politically described “consensus” which I detail in an earlier blog posting.

      As for the importance of climate sensitivity, to suggest it is unimportant for policy purposes ignores simple mathematics. As detailed at the Skeptical Science web site (yes I love irony) there is a “logarithmic relationship between radiative forcing (which is directly proportional to the change in surface temperature at equilibrium) and the atmospheric CO2 increase". To further quote the Skeptical Science web site: “This logarithmic relationship means that each doubling of atmospheric CO2 will cause the same amount of warming at the Earth's surface. Thus if it takes as long to increase atmospheric CO2 from 560 to 1120 parts per million by volume (ppmv) as it did to rise from 280 to 560 ppmv, for example, then the associated warming at the Earth's surface will be roughly linear."

      So why do I care about climate sensitivity? If a doubling results in an increase in 1.5 oC then the next doubling also results in 1.5 oC . Using the skeptical science numbers an increase in CO2 from 280ppmv to 1120 ppmv would therefore result in an increase of 3 oC. If sensitivity is 4.5 oC then the same 3 oC would occur below 500 ppmv. So when you ask why sensitivity is important? Well the math is pretty easy here. If we only have until 500 ppmv to avoid 3 oC (which in this thought experiment we will define as a "point of no return") then we need to act immediately. If we have until 1120 ppmv then we can wean our society off fossil fuels more gradually and decrease the pain.

      Please note, in both scenarios I foresee a need to wean ourselves of fossil fuels as energy sources but under the second scenario I see it happening without dramatic dislocation of our economy. So does climate sensitivity have a policy implication…maybe…just a little bit.

    2. OK, good answer in principle.

      But we can't just shrug and ignore the situation in either case; in one case the response is much too late. In the other it is timely. The vigor of the indicated response is "as fast as possible without major disruption".

      The trouble is that even in the more benign scenario, we have little slack. In the less benign scenario, the slack is already used up.

      So "as fast as is possible without major disruption" is the actual answer in either case. You have to drop the sensitivity by half yet again before it seems to me that you can settle for half measures.

      The trouble is that 1992 was actually the right time to start moving, and Kyoto was inadequate even then. We have gone very much in the wrong direction since.

    3. Since the Kyoto Protocol (in 1997) I believe the world added 8 times more coal energy than wind, nuclear and solar combined. Which in itself is interesting (as well as being obviously the wrong direction re emissions reduction).

  2. I mean to say that I understood that ATTP suggested that **refining the value** of the sensitivity is not immediately policy-relevant. My article making that point is at the link.

  3. On twitter someone says that I suggested (though I probably got it from someone else) a neutral terminology of "concerned" or "unconcerned" about climate change.

    1. Paul: It's a matrix. There is also a range of concern about climate policy.

    2. On the plus side, Richard, you must admit that Paul's suggested labels have the merit of not being lies, which puts them infinitely far ahead of the leading brand.

    3. Too confusing. 'I am concerned about climate policy' could mean anything. GWPF and Greenpeace are both very concerned about it.

    4. people who are concerned about climate change would be concerned about climate policy not going far enough

      people who are not concerned about climate change would be concerned about climate policy going too far

      there may be people who are concerned about climate change but think that climate policy is just fine (although I never met one)

      there are plenty of people who are bothered by neither

    5. I'm concerned about climate change but concerned that most climate change policies being followed, eg in EU and UK, achieve something sometimes but at vast and incoherent expense. Neither going too far nor not far enough.

  4. Well said!

    Both sides—climate confusionists and climate rationalists—need to read this and stop patronising each other with question-begging labels.

    I'm speaking to everyone here, whether they're pro- or anti-evidence. We're never going to agree with the other side, but do we need to be quite so obvious about dismissing their views? No.

    What do you reckon, fellow science-literates: shouldn’t we at least pretend to treat the climate gullibilist viewpoint seriously?

    And to those who've chosen to reject the facts, allow me to put exactly the same challenge:

    Would it kill you and your fellow delusionists to respect those of us who have other, better opinions about the Earth’s atmosphere?

    I know I’m asking a lot here—I know this can’t be easy for a largely hate-based pseudoscientific cult—but couldn't you try to sound polite, at least?

    1. Very good! Still obscure by the end as to whether you agree with me and are therefore right. Excellent.

  5. Do you accept the facts, Roddy? Then we're on the same page. Otherwise give us another year or two to open your eyes. (The problem with the climate issue is nobody has been talking about it nearly enough.)

  6. To put it another way, do you agree with what we know about the climate? Do you acknowledge the evidence of the contingent universe? Do you accept the physical data?

    Or do you have some objections, suspicions or questions as to the reality of what's happening around us? (Are you confused and/or crazy, is what I'm suggesting.)

  7. Blair, one very elegant label used by Lord Deben, chair of the important UK Climate Change Committee, is 'dismisser'.

    He uses it to dismiss anyone who disagrees with him.

    1. in which case, the correct term is "the dismissed" rather than "the dismissers"

  8. I’ve always thought that for peace talks to work, one side or both has to give up some or all of what they want. The disputed ground is there, no matter how polite the peace talks. So while I’m all for politeness I’m not sure it helps convince the other side I’m ready to surrender.

    I see acting on AGW like a set of scales. On the one side we have proof and on the other we have actions. If the action required is small, the proof only needs to be small. So little things, like home insulation or putting less water in the kettle, that don’t require much from climate science get done but if climate sensitivity is moderate or large and (as seems very likely) the solutions are very onerous, then to balance the scales, the science has to be equally impressive.

    Now in my eyes, the warmists have dismissed the idea the science isn’t good enough and tried to manually adjust the scales with talk of consensus and an aggressive rejection of scepticism. Instead of strengthening the science, they’ve weakened it. For some reason they think the solutions and the science are standalone issues and don’t understand that everyone has a personal proof/action scale.

    How do I know the science is not convincing enough? I need only look at the limited solutions being implemented and the almost non-existent individual and international commitment. Warmists on the other hand look for complex explanations – from fear based denial to oil funded opposition. Reality may be a mix of the three but improving the science is the only thing within their ability to influence.

    Is it a good thing if sceptics give scientists the benefit of the doubt? What for? We’re not holding anything up and the warmists only see amenability as evidence that the science is fine and want to move on to the next point on their agenda.

  9. A paper has just appeared on exactly this topic.
    Labeling opinions in the climate debate: a critical review
    Candice Howarth and Amelia Sharman
    Unfortunately it is paywalled from where I am.

    Another new paper,
    Structure and Content of the Discourse on Climate Change in the Blogosphere: The Big Picture
    uses the terminology "skeptics" and "accepters", but like virtually all the literature in the field, fails to acknowledge the existence of anything in between, i.e. the lukewarmer community.

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