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SydWalker.Info is a personal website. I live in tropical Australia near Cairns. I oppose war, plutocracy, injustice, sectarian supremacism and apartheid. I support urgent action to achieve genuine sustainability and a fair and prosperous society for all. I rely upon - and support - free speech as defined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (see below).

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No Need for Sophistry in Climate Change Debate
December 4th, 2008 by Syd Walker


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I’m someone who believes there is an alarming prospect that contemporary humanity will modify the world’s climate in a disastrous way.

I plan to set out the kernel of the case, as I see it, in a separate article. In essence, my key concerns haven’t changed for 20 years. But that’s for another day.

Right now – as someone who believes climate change IS a real concern – I want to dicuss the growing use of terms such as ‘Climate Change Deniers’ and ‘Climate Change Denial’.

These quite new expressions are being bandied around with increasing abandon by some of our most prominent ‘public intellectuals’, such as the highly topical Dr Clive Hamilton. It’s time they stopped.

No case that’s based on evidence and logic need vanquish opponents by ‘framing’ the terms of debate in an unfair manner.

If the threat of rapid climate change is real – as I believe it is – we can win the argument fair and square. And we shall.

Head in the Sand over Climate ChangeA little humour might help. Let’s lighten up!

Of course it would be nice to win the debate sooner. But there’s a process we must go through to get there. It’s called rational debate in a complex modern society.

Nothing could be more damaging to achieving a consensus (or near-consensus) on climate change policy than an attempt to force the issue, by seeking to delegitimize those who hold opposing views.

That’s not to say that anyone – in this debate or others – gets a free pass. If arguments are specious or misleading, that should be pointed out. If there’s evidence that opinions are tainted by pecuniary interest and/or corporate influence, that should be aired too.

But people are entitled to disagree. They are entitled to have their views heard. They are entitled to have questions answered. Often, indeed, there is at least some legitimacy in an opponent’s position.

Setting up a categorical distinction between ‘Climate Change Deniers’ and those who ‘Believe’, is problematic for at least three reasons.

First, it’s simply unfair, in debate, to posit a ‘victor’ and a ‘loser’, then use terms to denote the ‘losing’ argument that are loaded and rather derogatory. It’s sneaky and it may sometimes work. But it’s not fair debate. In fair debate, winner and loser are not pre-selected and each side debates the case on its merits, without employing ad hominem slurs..

Second, it oversimplifies. There are more than two perspectives in the debate about climate change. There are many. We should avoid simplistic categorical distinctions that risk polarizing and stultifying a complex discussion.

Third, it unnecessarily provokes a paranoid response.

Few in the western world are unfamiliar with the common fate of another group of people for whom the term ‘Denier’ is used in mainstream discourse. When used in the context of the climate change debate, the sub-text is clear. If you are a ‘Climate Change Denier’, you might be just one step away from extradition, imprisonment, losing your home, suffering intimidation, copping a vicious physical assault or being assassinated.

Understandably, this not so subtle implied threat does nothing to persuade those who hold doubts about the case for rapid action on climate change. People don’t like being marginalized in a threatening way. It’s undemocratic.

20 years ago, when I first began lobbying for action on greenhouse gas emissions, life was not so rosy for people of my persuasion. Contrary to popular myth, for many years there was easy money to be made parroting a corporate ‘there is no problem’ line and/or ‘my industry is not the problem’ line – but relatively little for activists who believe we have a serious problem.

It’s true that balance has shifted over time. It’s an indication that those of us who believe the problem is real are (slowly) winning the worldwide public debate. The evidence has been coming in, bit by bit. A mainstream scientific consensus is developing, step by step. While massive uncertainties remain in modelling and prediction, Governments and corporations have started to take notice of the issue. Some have taken real and effective action to reduce emissions. Many continue to drag their heels.

We don’t need to posit a ‘Climate Change Believer’ v ‘Climate Change Denial’ paradigm to help skew the current debate. It’s unfair, simplistic and likely to be counter-productive. The last thing we need is for progress on climate change policy to be stalled by futile attempts at control freakery.

As proponents of action on climate change, we should be fair and rational with our intellectual opponents. That’s how we turn them into allies.

After all, nobody wants a ruined planet. So let’s look at the evidence together. There’s no need to shout.

And leave heresy out of the discussion. It’s not useful.


No Responses  
  • hadro writes:
    December 2nd, 20102:19 pmat

    The problem with many contrarians is that they are simply “blinkered”. No matter how comprehensively you destroy their arguments, they simply don’t buy what you are saying, because they lack faith in reason. They hold their beliefs because it is intuitively obvious for them. The irrational mind is very good at contorting to avoid cognitive dissonance, and in their case they reject evidence or reasoning without adequate justification or fall back to “but it’s a great big fraud”.

    Remember, there are still people who believe the earth is flat, that the moon landings were a hoax, that evolution theory is blatantly wrong, and so on. There will always be climate deniers, and there is very little anyone can do to convince them.

    We need to move beyond being accommodating and just do what needs to be done. A Lowy poll found that there has been very little change in public opinion about climate change over the last few years in Australia, despite, for example, the failures of Copenhagen and the manufactured “ClimateGate” scandal.

    We are all waiting for politicians with conviction. That is all that is needed right now. Collegiality with contrarians will accomplish very little.

      

  • Von Curtis writes:
    February 22nd, 20094:03 pmat

    I’m a climate change denier – I don’t believe it at all certainly not carbon caused – if there is something going on it is not happening because of humans – that is not to say that I am in favour of polluting – the coming depression shall close a lot of factories and that will cut a lot of pollution.
    The throw away western culture has way too much waste – we throw out toooooooo much and particularly the young are encouraged to throw it out and get a new one – many of them don’t look after things.
    We’ve had this cattle property for 25 years and it is again a wonderful season here with lots of green grass and fat cattle and thousands of birds.
    We roll with the punches that nature hands us and have always survived well.
    City people are easily tricked they don’t have an association with a big area of land over a long time.
    The whole carbon trading fraud is ridiculous anyway as you only get paid for planting trees and the ones standing and regrowth apparently don’t take up carbon dioxide. The idea is to wipe out farmers in this country and turn farming country into tree plantations so big mining companies can buy green credits to keep polluting.
    The powerful can always stage a war somewhere though and that apparently is okay – that apparently doesn’t pollute at all.
    I used to support WWF but since it has decided to wipe out small farmers of the world – they are part of the new global extreme green religion – I am very sorry I gave them all that money.

      

  • Von Curtis writes:
    February 22nd, 20094:03 pmat

    I’m a climate change denier – I don’t believe it at all certainly not carbon caused – if there is something going on it is not happening because of humans – that is not to say that I am in favour of polluting – the coming depression shall close a lot of factories and that will cut a lot of pollution.
    The throw away western culture has way too much waste – we throw out toooooooo much and particularly the young are encouraged to throw it out and get a new one – many of them don’t look after things.
    We’ve had this cattle property for 25 years and it is again a wonderful season here with lots of green grass and fat cattle and thousands of birds.
    We roll with the punches that nature hands us and have always survived well.
    City people are easily tricked they don’t have an association with a big area of land over a long time.
    The whole carbon trading fraud is ridiculous anyway as you only get paid for planting trees and the ones standing and regrowth apparently don’t take up carbon dioxide. The idea is to wipe out farmers in this country and turn farming country into tree plantations so big mining companies can buy green credits to keep polluting.
    The powerful can always stage a war somewhere though and that apparently is okay – that apparently doesn’t pollute at all.
    I used to support WWF but since it has decided to wipe out small farmers of the world – they are part of the new global extreme green religion – I am very sorry I gave them all that money.

      

  • Shelly T. writes:
    February 22nd, 20092:32 amat

    “That’s how we turn them into allies.”

    I don’t know if you have noticed this discussion much online, but it’s not polite, it’s not educated, and it’s not a gentleman’s game of rhetoric. There are strong, moneyed, powerful political interests behind the denier movement, at least in the U.S.. They are very political and some of them are associated with the nastiest lie-mongers in the United States, i.e., Exxon, Shell, et al. Exxon and others actually pay people to write in online forums, blogs, etc., their denial talking points. They have turned the discussion from an intellectual exercise into a battle, and that’s what we need to return with. The giant oil and coal companies are paying people to deliberately misinform the public. Did you know that? That’s why this is not a polite intellectual exchange, this is war. We all better approach it like that, or we will lose.

    It’s all very well and good to approach this like a grown up but we are running out of time. We are dealing with a powerful political issue that involves billions of dollars, and it’s time we all dealt with it as a political issue, not a scientific one where we have lots of time to convince people. We don’t!

    Know who and what you are dealing with.

      

    • Syd Walker writes:
      February 22nd, 20097:46 amat

      I agree with your sense of urgency Shelly – and broadly speaking with your analysis of who’s really behind the organized scepticism. I was trying to speak more directly to those decent people who have been (in my opinion) misled by such people. They are not enemies, IMO, althought they do need to start using their brains.

      But what do you propose?

        

  • Shelly T. writes:
    February 22nd, 20092:32 amat

    “That’s how we turn them into allies.”

    I don’t know if you have noticed this discussion much online, but it’s not polite, it’s not educated, and it’s not a gentleman’s game of rhetoric. There are strong, moneyed, powerful political interests behind the denier movement, at least in the U.S.. They are very political and some of them are associated with the nastiest lie-mongers in the United States, i.e., Exxon, Shell, et al. Exxon and others actually pay people to write in online forums, blogs, etc., their denial talking points. They have turned the discussion from an intellectual exercise into a battle, and that’s what we need to return with. The giant oil and coal companies are paying people to deliberately misinform the public. Did you know that? That’s why this is not a polite intellectual exchange, this is war. We all better approach it like that, or we will lose.

    It’s all very well and good to approach this like a grown up but we are running out of time. We are dealing with a powerful political issue that involves billions of dollars, and it’s time we all dealt with it as a political issue, not a scientific one where we have lots of time to convince people. We don’t!

    Know who and what you are dealing with.

      

    • Syd Walker writes:
      February 22nd, 20097:46 amat

      I agree with your sense of urgency Shelly – and broadly speaking with your analysis of who’s really behind the organized scepticism. I was trying to speak more directly to those decent people who have been (in my opinion) misled by such people. They are not enemies, IMO, althought they do need to start using their brains.

      But what do you propose?

        


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