3 october 2012

How to argue with “climate sceptics”

James Murray argues business leaders must step up to the mark and start pushing back against "climate reckless" arguments

Business Green, 03 Oct 2012,

I've been procrastinating for a long time about whether or not to write about the latest developments in the ever exciting world of climate scepticism.

The reasons for my reticence are multiple: writing about climate scepticism is a singularly depressing experience, simultaneously frustrating, futile, coarsening, and, worst of all, staggeringly boring. Frustrating, because you find yourself engaging with a school of thought that refuses to subscribe to normal rules of rational argument, has no qualms about embracing staggering illogical inconsistencies, and is committed to the use of discredited evidence to advance its cause. Futile, because you are arguing with a fundamentalist world view that will simply not correct its inherent flaws no matter how compelling the contrary evidence it is presented with. Coarsening, because with two sides of the climate "debate" that refuse to budge it inevitably leads to a degree of incivility on both sides; I have been accused of corruption, immorality, and, on one memorable occasion, treason for supporting climate science, and equally, whenever you engage with climate scepticism it is hard not to reveal that you regard your opponents as either intellectually or ethically bankrupt.

But worse than all of that, is the sheer boredom. Almost every discussion between environmentalists and climate sceptics follows a remarkably predictable and circuitous path that proceeds in ever decreasing circles until someone (usually me) gets bored and walks away.

You argue investment in green technology is a waste of time; I argue it is essential to tackle climate risks. You argue the technology does not work and there are no climate risks, or if there are they can be managed; I argue the technology demonstrably does work and a vast body of science proves severe climate risks do exist. You argue the science is not compelling and, besides, it can't be warming because it snowed last winter; I suggest you are an idiot. You insist you are not an idiot and argue that even if climate change was happening green technologies cost too much, you then accuse me of deliberately wanting to ensure poorer parts of the global community suffer from higher energy costs; I argue the cost of green technologies is falling fast and offers a more secure and reliable source of energy than fossil fuels, and suggest you don't really care about the poor and are in fact in hock to fossil fuel companies. You accuse me of slander, and insist green technology is a waste of time. We then repeat the cycle. Hitchens (Christopher, not Peter obviously) in discussion with Amis it ain't.

The problem is that, like it or not (and in case you haven't guessed, I categorically do not) engagement with climate sceptic arguments is once again being forced upon environmentalists and green businesses.

There remains a very real chance the next President of the world's most powerful country will be a man who purports to be uncertain about the credibility of climate science and certain about the fact no comprehensive action is required to address the issue. Meanwhile, his vice presidential running mate is a full blown denier of manmade climate change. The polls, while still tight, suggest the Romney-Ryan campaign is heading for defeat, but even if Obama clings to the White House he will continue to face a Republican opposition that has been almost entirely captured by fossil fuel interests and is in thrall to climate sceptic thinking.

On this side of the Atlantic the situation is not quite as severe, but is still demonstrably heading in the wrong direction.

A small band of climate sceptics centred on Lord Lawson's Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) have, through a hugely expert lobbying campaign, convinced an influential and sizable group of Tory MPs and right wing media commentators that climate change is not something to worry about and that efforts to tackle the issue range from a costly waste of time to a diabolical Commie plot.

Significantly, having realised that they cannot win the central argument on whether manmade climate change is happening (after all people can see the evidence of their own eyes, even if they are uncertain about the precise cause of changing climatic patterns), they have developed a more sophisticated position centred on the twin arguments that climate change impacts can be adapted to and that technologies designed to reduce emissions are either ineffective or too expensive. At a time of economic hardship it is a powerfully simple message that forces advocates of clean technologies to put forward less easily digestible arguments about cost abatement curves, discount rates, historical subsidies for dirty and clean fuel sources, and degrees of uncertainty in climatic models.

Does it matter?

This trend raises two important questions for businesses: does it matter, and if so what can be done about it?

The one ray of light in this sorry saga is that in the long term the latest developments in climate scepticism really do not matter that much. Their arguments are so evidently flawed and short sighted that their ultimate side-lining is assured, just as scientific rigour and an informed public eventually discredits other forms of quack science, confining it to the lunatic fringe. Polling consistently shows that a majority of the public regard climate change as a serious issue and are in favour of green technologies, while the political landscape is still largely dominated by those who want to see more ambition on green policies, even if they do not talk about it as much anymore. Meanwhile, the falling cost and growing attractiveness of clean technologies such as solar panels, electric cars, and energy efficient gadgets, means demand for them will continue to grow rapidly regardless of the protestations of climate sceptics.

The problem is that in the short term the continuing influence of climate sceptic thinking remains a serious threat to green growth. In the US effective policies designed to help green businesses are repeatedly blocked by climate sceptic candidates (witness the Republicans plan to cripple the wind energy industry by allowing tax credits to lapse, while still espousing the virtues of tax breaks for big oil). Similarly, in the UK climate sceptic thinkers are hastily trying to erect barriers in the way of green investors and businesses. They have to some extent succeeded, engineering a stand-off between the Lib Dems and the Tories which means that without a bold intervention from the Prime Minister further ambitious action on the low carbon economy is unlikely to emerge during this parliament.

Business leaders do not typically like to dirty their hands engaging with such contentious scientific and political issues, particularly when it means publicly criticising powerful politicians and media commentators. But if they want to see green growth accelerate further they might just have roll their sleeves up and wade into the muddy waters of this debate. Significant interventions from business leaders and groups such as the CBI criticising the Conservatives' recent wavering on green issues suggest they could yet be willing to do so.

However, while it is clear there is a problem, working out what to do about it is far more challenging. If there was an easy way to push climate scepticism to the margins where it belongs then it would have been done by now.

Polite engagement

Over the years, four broad strategies have been pursued by green groups and environmentalists: polite engagement, bemused mockery, refusal to engage, and all-out attack. All four strategies have been tried and tested to near-destruction with varying degrees of success.

Polite engagement is arguably the most effective approach but it tends to result in the kind of circuitous "debate" I outlined above, locking environmentalists into a pointless discussion with their tormentors that wastes time and can leave them looking soft. Bemused mockery is tempting, particularly when climate scepticism throws up so many wilfully eccentric individuals and arguments, but it risks leaving greens looking like a condescending elite, which is exactly what climate sceptics want. Refusing to engage with climate sceptics and their arguments is similarly tempting, and might even work in the long term as the evidence of their wrong-headnesses piles up, but ignoring green critics can smack of defeatism and simply allows your opponents to hoover up influence unchallenged. In contrast, all-out attack against climate sceptic arguments can prove effective at highlighting the corruption at the heart of groups that promote anti-green tropes while refusing to divulge their funding or submit their "scientific" inquires to proper peer review. It is a satisfying approach and can win over some observers, but again it risks leaving environmentalists looking overly evangelical, while also locking them into circular arguments that the wider world simply does not care about that much.

Unfortunately, there is no perfect strategy that can be easily developed and replicated. The best approach probably incorporates all four existing strategies, with a weighting in favour of the frustrating and time-consuming strategy of polite engagement.

Constructing an argument

So if polite engagement (with occasional all-out attack) is the strategy what are the arguments that should be put forward? What messages do concerned green groups and business leaders need to get across to policy makers and the wider public to convince them to ignore the siren voices of climate scepticism?

The first step is to leave climate science to the climate scientists. Admittedly this approach requires climate scientists to really up their game and start communicating their findings and answering their critics in a much more robust and visible fashion. But we have to get away from the current scenario where a non-scientist green campaigner argues with a non-scientist climate sceptic about complex scientific issues (please could conference and TV news producers take note). Green groups and businesses must come at any engagement with climate scepticism from the starting point that there is not a single peer-reviewed academic paper that challenges the central assumptions of manmade climate change and the vast, vast majority of projections suggest it is a serious problem.

The debate has to be around what we do to tackle the climate problem and it is here that green business leaders, politicians, economists and campaigners can bring to their expertise to bear. Interestingly, climate sceptics such as Lord Lawson are increasingly in agreement that this is where battle is to be joined, acknowledging now that some climate change is happening and focusing their efforts on convincing people that we should ignore clean technologies and pursue a strategy of adaptation.

If you do find yourself arguing with a unreformed climate sceptic who refuses to accept greenhouse gas emissions are in any way a problem, my advice would be to point out that their argument has been discredited time and again, and then, when they inevitably ignore you, politely make your excuses and walk away.

"Climate recklessness"

The next step is to properly name the problem. As numerous commentators have pointed out climate scepticism is a completely inadequate term. All proper climate scientists are climate sceptics, taking a sceptical, dispassionate, and questioning approach to the evidence in front of them and then drawing conclusions from that evidence. "Climate sceptics" are not proper sceptics. Moreover, the term has been made doubly problematic by the shift in climate sceptic arguments from questioning climate science to questioning the efficacy and cost effectiveness of green technologies and policies. We need a new term. "Climate denier" does not work because many climate sceptics now maintain that they do not deny that climate change is happening (although I often have a hard time believing their partial Damascene conversion), "anti-green" is too clunky and "eco-sceptic" has the same problem as "climate scepticism" in its appropriation of the word "sceptic".

Personally, I favour the terms "climate reckless" and "pollutocrats". Climate reckless because what Lawson and co are advocating is a hugely irresponsible gamble that their climate projections are correct, using the planet and the global economy as the stakes. And pollutocrats because they are at the vanguard of an anti-democratic attempt to promote the short term and narrow interests of unreconstructed polluters at the long term expense of the rest of society, including the hundreds of thousands of progressive businesses who accept that business-as-usual is no longer an option. Although, I accept neither of these terms are perfect and would be open to other suggestions.

The next step has to be to highlight the utter recklessness at the heart of the climate sceptic school of thought - to draw attention to their wager that it is better to continue with business-as-usual in the belief the predicted economy-crippling climate impacts will not occur, than it is to hedge our bets and try and mitigate climate risks, accruing numerous other benefits such as enhanced energy security and reduced air pollution along the way.

Three questions

There are three crucial questions that help to highlight this recklessness, none of which I have heard a compelling answer to from a climate sceptic.

The first is the environmental campaigner George Monbiot's killer question, what would it take to convince you that you are wrong?

Any honest person can answer this question. On the scientific side of the debate compelling, peer-reviewed, evidence demonstrating either that climate change is not happening, or that mankind is not driving it would convince the vast majority of environmentalists that they had been mistaken. Meanwhile, on the admittedly more complex economic side of the argument a genuine weight of evidence demonstrating that green technologies are flawed and climate adaptation is both possible and cost-effective would certainly force me to re-think.

Climate sceptics dodge this question because their fundamentalism means nothing will convince them that their arguments are based on cherry picked data and discredited theories. No amount of rigorous scientific inquiry on the cause of climate change, nor clear data showing greenhouse gas emissions are falling due to the adoption of clean technologies will convince them. Simply asking the question highlights their intellectual dishonesty.

The next question is, what happens if you are wrong?

The simple fact is that if climate sceptics are wrong and the climate scientists are right we are heading for a deeply challenging century in which an increasingly hostile climate will undermine virtually all of the foundations of a functioning global economy, from food security to stable nation states, predictable climatic conditions to reliable energy supplies. Asking the question and insisting upon an answer immediately highlights the recklessness of the game of environmental Russian Roulette climate sceptics want to play.

Of course, the immediate riposte from climate sceptics is to ask the same question right back to environmentalists. But it is easy to answer. If they are right and we are wrong (and bear in mind the vast majority of scienticts insist this is not the case) we will have invested unnecessarily in new clean technologies and climate adaptation measures, forfeiting the opportunity cost of having invested in other things (climate sceptics tend to argue this money could be better invested in development projects for the world's poorest, which is strange because so few of them have a track record of supporting and promoting development policies in any other way). In investing in green technology we would reduce air pollution, create more stable and predictable energy prices, enhance energy security, improve economic and energy efficiency, invent countless new technologies, and create healthier and more livable communities. As the old environmentalist joke goes, "you mean we've gone to all this trouble and created a better world because of a hoax". Yes, one or two per cent of GDP may have been invested unnecessarily, but we will have accrued countless non-climate related benefits. I'll take the risk of ending up with this world over the risk of ending up with full-blown climate breakdown any day. So would any other rational person.

Finally, and this is the most important question for businesses to ask of climate sceptics, what makes you hate the future so much?

The green economy is nothing more or less than a technological transition; the replacement of old and flawed technologies with new and better technologies. It is just like the first agricultural revolution, the industrial revolution, the post war consumer technology revolution, and the digital revolution. Green businesses are in the process of replacing dirty and unreliable carbon intensive technologies with cleaner and more efficient alternatives. In some cases they cost a bit more currently, but costs are falling and the potential benefits, both environmental and economic, of this upgrade are immense.

Climate sceptics are on the wrong side of this transition. Like the original Luddites and their countless descendants through history, they resist technological progress because it makes them feel scared and insecure, clinging to any theory, no matter how crackpot, that helps to justify their position.

Ultimately, the green economy is about nothing so much as it is about modernity. Businesses understand this. That is why many of the world's biggest firms want to invest in this low carbon transition, partly because they want to mitigate climate risks that could do them untold harm, but mostly because they want to do what progressive businesses have always tried to do: make the world a better place, by innovating and creating new markets, all the while making money in the process.

The past few years might have seen a modest renaissance in climate sceptic influence, but it is useful to remember that the continued ebb and flow of this kind of regressive, anti-modern, anti-scientific thinking is not a unique historical phenomenon. There have always been people who have sought to resist the march of progress, protect their vested interests, and fight dirty in order to do so. It is the duty of individuals, communities, politicians, and yes, businesses, who believe in progress to fight for it at every turn.

>>> Back to list