Taking the Hot Air out of the Climate Change Debate

By Guest Work 22/06/2010 9


By Dr Michael Edmonds

Climate change is an issue which needs to be debated scientifically, through careful and rational analysis of the facts. However, as the climate change debate intensifies a disturbing trend is emerging — more and more of the debate involves arguments reminiscent of a ’down and dirty’ political debate. Personal attacks, misrepresentation or selective use of facts, and irrelevant arguments now permeate the debate and cloud our understanding of climate change.

There is not enough space here to describe all of the inappropriate tactics used in the climate change debate. However, below are five common misleading arguments. My hope is that by recognising and challenging misleading and irrelevant arguments we can remove them from the public arena and focus on the real issues.

  • ’Carbon dioxide isn’t toxic. Plants used it to grow.’
    This argument is pure misdirection. Increased carbon dioxide levels are worrying because they enhance the greenhouse effect. It is disturbing to see many self proclaimed ’experts’ resort to this misleading argument.

  • ’How can carbon dioxide which is present in parts per million (ppm) have a significant effect on the atmosphere?’
    Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have increased by 20% in the past 60 years to 387 ppm, hardly a minor variation. While measurements in ppm might seem low, many gases have significant effects at low levels. Hydrogen cyanide, for example, is lethal at concentrations above 135 ppm.

  • ’Scientists can’t prove their claims with absolute certainty.’
    Scientists seldom make claims with absolute certainty, particularly with regard to complex systems such as climate. Indeed, I would be wary of absolutist claims coming from either side of the debate. Scientists tend to discuss events in terms of probability, for example, the most recent IPCC report suggests that there is a greater than 90% probability that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is occurring. This means that AGW is so likely that the odds against it occurring are similar to the chance of tossing a coin four times and getting tails every time.

  • ’This summer hasn’t been very hot, global warming can’t be true.’
    Short term weather occurrences (intense storms, colder than average winters, hotter than unusual summers) do not prove or disprove climate change. Climate change patterns are measured over decades and centuries to determine underlining trends that are not obvious in the seemingly chaotic nature of daily weather.

  • ’Many scientists do not believe anthropogenic climate change is occurring.’
    Worldwide, more than fifty scientific organisations have issued statements that global warming is occurring and is most likely to be anthropogenic. While six scientific organisations remain non-committal, there are none who refute that AGW is occurring. Closer to home, approximately 70% of New Zealand scientists and technologists agree that AGW is occurring, with 9% disagreeing, and 21% non-committal.

Some scientists who do not accept AGW are carrying out research in order to demonstrate their misgivings scientifically. This is to be applauded. Science does not fear the results of legitimate research. Unscrupulous opponents of AGW, however, have resorted to attacking scientists and science. Claims of a scientific conspiracy appear to have gained some public support even though these claims are based on disingenuous interpretations of hacked emails and exaggeration of errors in IPCC reports. Fear and suspicion may be powerful manipulators of public opinion, but they have no place in scientific debate.

If we are to make progress in understanding AGW both individually, and as a society, we must learn to see through the dirty tricks used in the climate change debate. We all have the capability to recognise and challenge misleading arguments. Removal of these arguments from the public arena can only serve to bring clarity to the climate change debate.

Dr Michael Edmonds is an educator, researcher and manager at Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology. He has strong interests in the communication and promotion of science.


9 Responses to “Taking the Hot Air out of the Climate Change Debate”

  • Several parts of Dr. Edmonds piece apply directly to the way Ken Perrott is behaving towards me and the scientists with whom he disagrees on another thread on this site: See https://sciblogs.co.nz/open-parachute/2010/06/18/apologies-would-be-nice/ .

    Specifically, Ken is demonstrating very well the following aspects of Dr. Edmonds arguments (with which I generally agree):

    “more and more of the debate involves arguments reminiscent of a “down and dirty” political debate. Personal attacks, misrepresentation or selective use of facts, and irrelevant arguments now permeate the debate and cloud our understanding of climate change.”

    and

    “If we are to make progress in understanding AGW both individually, and as a society, we must learn to see through the dirty tricks used in the climate change debate. We all have the capability to recognise and challenge misleading arguments. Removal of these arguments from the public arena can only serve to bring clarity to the climate change debate.”

    All of this is correct and should apply equally to both sides in the debate. Note on the other thread how, despite Ken Perrott’s regular use of these tactics, we at ICSC are not stooping to this level. It is also true that there are those on the skeptics side use such despicable tactics as well and we at ICSC have no qualms about criticizing those who do – see http://tinyurl.com/yefbvo6.

    Let’s call a spade a spade, no matter whether it is left, right or center. The approach of the film we critique (“Not Evil, Just Wrong”) and that of Ken Perrott towards the good scientists with whom he disagrees should be roundly condemned by all people of good conscience, no matter what position they come down on on the science.

    BTW, here is the Register that so upset Ken Perrott: http://tinyurl.com/2g26yyk . ICSC has space in our universe for people who disagree with us, that’s fine. But we do not have patience for the ad hominem abusers on either side, just as Dr. Edmonds implores us in the above piece.

  • Tom, I have written a post on your register at Climate scientist’s’ register?. Far from upsetting me the register actually provides some information on those who are campaigning about climate science – and that is useful. I welcome it.

    As for you complaint, readers should be aware that what I said (in a comment on Apologies would be nice) was “But we know these people. We know their reputations and foibles.” I was referring to the 5 New Zealand signatories of your “register”

    Simple statement of fact. We do know these people, their involvement in the local NZ Climate Science Coalition which campaigns against climate science and climate scientists. WQho defamed our scientist at NIWA. Tom, you are whining about this and accusing me of “trashing” these people as a diversion from the real point. That so far you have not been able to get any other New Zealanders on to your “register.”

    Tom, you produced a list of people with their affiliations, work history, etc. If you consider my reference to this information as “trashing” why produce the list? Haven’t you “trashed” 109 people?

  • Readers should have a look at the discussion at https://sciblogs.co.nz/open-parachute/2010/06/18/apologies-would-be-nice/ and judge for themselves whether or not Ken Perrott uses the sort of sacrasm and ad hominem logical fallacies in practically every one of his posts that Dr. Edmonds rightly condemns. Abusers rarely recognize their own abuse so I am not surprised Ken Perrott thinks his behavior was constructive.

    As drmike, a supporter of the AGW theory said on the page in which Ken Perrott behaved so poorly: “It’s largely personal attacks and repetition of mis-truths and very little science…. Ken, I accept the scientific evidence is pointing very strongly at AGW, but when you name five scientists and basically claim they are not reputable, then don’t back it up it is a really bad look. I’m not saying that you are wrong, because I know some people in NZ have badly misrepresented themselves, but naming them in the way you did is a really bad look, in my opinion.”

    Judge for yourselves as to whether Ken Perrott is behaving respectfully or not, and whether I am responding in kind. I submit that Ken Perrott gives us a very good example of exactly what Dr. Edmonds is speaking. Although he obviously directed the criticism towards the skeptics, and that is certainly valid in many cases, I ask Dr. Edmonds – is Ken Perrott’s behaviour not just as bad, regardless of the side of the debate he is on?

  • Well, Tom, I don’t see there is any value in further discussing this. The facts are there if anyone does give a damn.

    Perhaps one should really addressed the factual claims. Is humanity currently contributing to climate change as the IPCC concluded after thorough consideration of the scientific evidence? Or is there any reasonable body of evidence that can be put out there to support the claim of your “register” that there is no human contribution?

    Really, that’s the issue which concerns us and our governments.

  • from drmike aka Michael Edmonds:

    A picture that has popped into my head reading some of these comments is one of those old swordfighting movies where the two opponents move from room to room, up and down stairs etc as they thrust and parry. In my mind, Tom and Ken are the modern equivalent of this, moving not from room to room but from post to post.

    You both have strong convictions and argue with fervour but I wonder how many people respond to this ongoing conflict by just tuning you out.

    One of my strongest arguments for keeping arguments based on facts is that once emotions become involved and insults and provocative comments start flying, there is a tendency for the ego to become involved.
    Once the ego becomes involved it is much harder to see things rationally. One starts looking only for the flaws in an opponents arguments and overlooks possible merits.

    In my opinion Tom’s survey question is reasonably sound. The proof of the pudding will be how many scientists sign up to it. By my estimation that pool of potential “signees” will be in the millions, but I’m guessing there will be debates over who is “eligible” to sign. Perhaps some clear ground rules would be useful? You have a current signee who is a botanist, another who is a chemist so I’m guessing anyone who is a qualified physical or biological scientist is eligible? A survey only is useful if you have some idea of the total number of people who could have signed it.

  • “You both have strong convictions and argue with fervour but I wonder how many people respond to this ongoing conflict by just tuning you out.” I agree Mike and I would guess most.

    That is why I have suggested Tom deals with the real scientific issue and leaves this sniping behind.

  • Ken Perrott was the one who started the sniping and continued it despite my requests that he stop. I did not respond in kind. I know it is fashionable to ascribe blame to both sides in a conflict but Ken Perrott is the only one who has used ad hominem arguments against his opponents. If he stops, then there is no more sniping. My point is that Ken Perrott’s behavior provides a very good example of what Dr. Edmonds writes about in his piece above on this Web page, something drmike obviously agrees with, based on his labling of Ken Perrott’s attacks on the person of the NZ scientists as being “a really bad look”.

    I won’t ask Ken Perrott to apologize or retract his statement again but it is important we all see that what Mike has been doing in this debate is precisely what Dr. Edmond criticizes, even though now he is saying “who me?” innocently. It is destructive to rational discussion and decision making and should be censored by any fair minded person, regardless of their stance on the science.

  • Correction – it should be “I won’t ask Ken Perrott to apologize or retract his statement again but it is important we all see that what Ken Perrott has been doing in this debate is precisely what Dr. Edmond criticizes … ”

    And, yes, this topic of Ken Perrott’s ad hominem attacks is completely relevant to this discussion since the whole point of Dr. Edmond’s article is that behaviour like that of Ken Perrott poisons the discussions.