June 5, 2011 Fallacies related to climate change
On the right…
“Life has survived when the Earth was warmer, therefore we need not do anything about climate change.” (Or, in Christian Right version: “God promised Noah life would not be destroyed, therefore…”)
Why argument is stupid: False Dichotomy. Assumes only two possible outcomes: extinction of life (or, in milder versions of the argument, extinction of humanity) and status quo. A wide variety of unpleasant outcomes lie between those two extremes, as Europeans learned during the Black Death.
Of course, I don’t necessarily believe that the outcome of climate change will be as bad as the Black Death (which killed about a third to a half of Europe’s population). But suppose a whole lot of coastal cities become uninhabitable due to rising sea levels, while the appropriate zones for large-scale food production move a few hundred miles to the north. The end of humanity? No. Costly? You bet.
“Only liberal environmentalists believe in global warming.”
Why argument is stupid: Factually incorrect. Outside the political arena, numerous non-environmentalist conservative intellectuals take climate change seriously but reject typical liberal regulatory solutions. For example, Jonathan Adler of Case Western’s law school, who used to work for the very anti-environmentalist Competitive Enterprise Institute, just wrote an article in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy (the law journal of the conservative Federalist Society) attacking EPA attempts to regulate greenhouse gases, but conceding that “Existing scientific research suggests human activity is having a demonstrable effect on the global climate system.” (He argues, however, that the problem is basically too big for EPA regulation to make a difference; instead, he favors subsidizing clean energy and a carbon tax). Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish political science professor who is a pretty aggressive critic of the Kyoto Protocol and other environmentalist policies, admits that climate change is real and favors a carbon tax to limit it . Ronald Bailey, science correspondent for libertarian Reason magazine, admits that “man-made global warming is real and a potential problem” but prefers to rely on economic growth to support technological progress which in turn would lead to cleaner energy. (Which is why I take climate change seriously; if even people with no love for the environmental movement, Al Gore, etc. think man-made global warming exists and is likely to continue, I am inclined to trust their judgment as long as I don’t have enough scientific expertise to have a truly informed opinion).
“Scientists believed in global cooling 30 years ago, and they were wrong then.”
Why argument is stupid: Even though there were a few scientists who worried about a coming ice age in the 1970s and 1980s, the notion had far less support than concerns over global warming today. Nobody won a Nobel Peace Prize for worrying about global cooling, and even though I was already a political junkie by 1980, I knew less about global cooling than my 17 year old niece does about global warming.
On the left:
“Global warming is serious, therefore the world’s governments will do X.”
Why its stupid: assumes people will actually do the right thing, instead of letting their short-term interests get in the way, or expecting other governments to do the right thing instead.
“Climate change is a serious problem, therefore we should take politically painful step X.”
Why it is (sometimes) stupid: Exemplifies the Politician’s Fallacy- Something must be done, X is something, therefore X must be done. The argument is fallacious because it assumes X is a cost-effective solution. But in fact, given the size of the climate change problem, it is theoretically possible that a solution could be costly enough to be economically quite harmful, yet not aggressive enough to affect climate change at all.
The War on Terror is somewhat analogous. In the early 2000s, most Americans agreed that terrorism was a scary, life-threatening problem – just as many Americans believe climate change to be scary and life-threatening. But it does not inevitably follow that the Bush Administration policies (such as the war in Iraq) were an appropriate solution. (I thought the war was counterproductive at the time, but that’s another argument).
So what should be done? This is where I leave the argument. Perhaps there are people who have sufficient expertise to have informed opinions on what solutions are cost-effective and which are not; however, I am just informed enough to know that I am not one of them.
At the very least, climate change is another reason to do things we should be doing anyhow for other reasons (which, as readers of most of my work know, includes better public transit and new urbanist-type development). And maybe it is a “tie-breaker” in close calls.