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.