Shepherding the Earth: Fallacies That May Destroy Us All

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts called The Hidden Brain on NPR and they were talking about the climate change situation in a great episode called Losing Alaska.  Basically they were saying that scientific arguments have little merit anymore in talking about climate change.  I would have to say that I agree.  As WhiteEarthWhite EarthAlaskaMuirGlacierDisappearingFast194120040001Asomeone who holds a Ph.D. in the Atmospheric Sciences I can most certainly say that few people that I have debated with on the subject truly understand the problem scientifically and I don’t claim to be the smartest person in the world, this is simply the truth.  My field is applied math and physics.  Not only that, the climate system is   Involves interdisciplinary knowledge as well in chemistry, oceanography and geology.  To change someone’s mind from a scientific point of view, it would take a lot of study and learning.  Now you may be saying, wait I accept man-made climate change, and it it’s pretty obvious.  Well I would argue that you don’t really understand it, but it’s easier for you to accept because it already fits in with your ideology.  And I don’t say that to be demeaning, especially I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad ideology to have.  Specifically the one in which we recognize that something is very complex and we don’t have years to study it on our own so maybe I should listen to what experts are saying.  Much like we tend to believe our doctor when they tell us we have cancer as opposed to learning the requisite knowledge we need in order to test ourselves.

Instead of a Heavenly Father, maybe a Mother Earth isn’t a bad person to start worshiping.

But more to the point it really does come down to our personal ideology whether we accept the science, because let’s face it the science is telling us some pretty harsh things.  Not only is the Earth in a lot of trouble, but we actually might be responsible for it all.  And in order to combat the problem we are causing we are going to have to give up a great deal.  Transitioning away from a fuel source we heavily depend on will require large shifts in business and industry affecting the jobs of many.  And of course such a transition cannot be made overnight, but even at a moderate pace will require a cultural change at a rate faster than many of us would have a hard time adjusting too.  That of course does not make it any less compulsory.  Interestingly this podcast made the argument that we all are capable of great sacrifices at times of war or crises, and that dealing with man-made climate change requires an approach that is used by religion rather than one that is used by science.  I find myself having a hard time disagreeing.  While I would love to live in a society where science had a much more powerful influence on changing minds ultimately it does seem that we need to change minds at an emotional level over an intellectual one (which is to me what the podcast suggested by saying a “religious approach”).

In that vein, I wanted to address some of the main arguments I see used by climate change deniers, which tend to be more ideologically based instead of arguments that attack the scientific data on the subject.  They are more dangerous to me, because they seem reasonable.  They seem irrefutable.  This is not the case.

Science had been wrong before, why should we trust scientists?

                          The Geocentric Universe

This is quite true.  Scientists have been wrong before.  In fact progress is actually built on that very premise.  But notice the word “progress”.  It always strikes me as strange that people overlook this aspect of science.  Much like we learn from our own mistakes and grow and get better as people, this is how science works as well.  So we do get things wrong, but we also get a lot of things right.  Your daily lives in this modern world are a living result of that.  From the car you drive to the device in which you are punching out your arguments.  Now you could be right that someday we will discover that we were all wrong about this, but if we do, it will not because we were willfully trying to mislead people, but rather a new discovery has allowed us to view the world in a different way thus disproving our theory.  So unless you’ve got that said discovery I can guarantee you that our assessment about the state of the climate system is based on the best available knowledge we have about how it works.  And personally I see no shame in acting in the best interest of all on this planet based on what we know of it.

Finally, just because you don’t trust science or want to focus on the things it got wrong makes it your problem, and not science’s problem.  To refute climate change science on those grounds is to commit the genetic fallacy.  Directly address the assertions being made by those advocating the position in terms of their conclusions analysis of their data.  That is really your only option.  To explain it more simply “Al Gore is a democrat, and I hate democrats.  Al Gore gives evidence for why man-made climate change is happening, but since he is a democrat, he must be wrong.”  That’s not how it works.  Sorry.

Scientists are just doing it for the money. IPCC is corrupt.  Liberal media…

This argument is the same as the genetic fallacy because it is again an attempt to discredit to the reliability of the source to simply argue away what the source has to say.  I’ll admit that in such instances I will use the same fallacious argument back, because, quite honestly two can play that game, and I can play it better.  Let’s say all of us scientists are ego driven money-grubbing bastards.  My options are renewable energy companies and liberal governments, or oil companies.  Hmmm…I wonder who has more money.  Not only that with all the other scientists clearly in the wrong camp, all that sweet oil money could be mine (as it was for Wei-Hock Soon) as there are even less people to share it with.

In terms of fame, the fallacious argument made by deniers fall even shorter.  If I had definitive proof that all the other scientists were wrong.  I would be the one who was famous.  I’d be on all the news programs, giving talks around the world on a sweet oil company payroll, and even the liberal media would have me on their shows even to abuse me while I valiantly stuck to my guns with the full conviction that I was doing my science right.  I would be the hero of deniers everywhere.

Sometimes even fallacious arguments are hardly worth the effort.

The climate has changed before when humans weren’t around.  It’s natural.

7wG9WakThis is the first part of an argument constantly used.  It’s also known in logic as a type of naturalistic fallacy.  Just because something can happen naturally, doesn’t mean it can’t happen unnaturally.  Do floods happen naturally?  Sure.  Can floods also happen because of human activities?  Absolutely.  Natural selection happens in evolution.  But you know what also happens?  “Unnatural selection”.  The fruits and vegetables we eat, the dogs and cats we have as pets, and the horses we ride are all examples of this.   The same thing can happen with or without intention.

We cannot have an impact on something as big as the Earth.

                                                       The ecosystem formerly known as rain forest.

This argument is made without any substantiation at all.  It is often also used by people who are trying not to be religious but would rather take the James Inhofe argument that God controls the climate!  Of course examples of how we have changed climate locally can be found all over through the building of structures like dams on rivers, cutting down forests and poor farming practices.  In terms of the climate change issue specifically this person does a pretty nice break down of looking at how the amount of carbon we produce can quite easily explain the increase in carbon since pre-industrial levels.  There is no reason to believe that we couldn’t have such a global impact.  In fact that argument always seems to me a way of insulting or discrediting scientists again because it’s a pretty important question to answer before we would even start putting out evidence about climate change.  I mean if the amount of carbon we produce paled in comparison to the amount of increase we’ve seen then I am not sure how the scientific consensus could be developed in the first place.  It’s like when people say, the warming is being caused by the sun, and I think to myself “Oh my…we scientists all forgot to take into account the sun.  I better make a few calls.  Can’t believe we missed that one!”.

The Earth will survive.  We’ve had major disasters before and life persists.  Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.

This is the most insidious arguments, because it’s not fallacious at all in a logical sense.  However it is apathetic and immoral.  A lot of times people will say things like…”we’re just another species.  Whatever we do is natural, and whatever happens will happens.”

Let’s say you are an emergency manager who works at a national park in a mountainous area.  The weather is starting to warm and there has been heavy rains in the mountains and typically when such rains occur, especially in combination with some ice jams in the water flash flooding occurs.  It’s not a guarantee, but likely.   A town at the foot of the mountain in which the river runs through is going to get flooded, people could easily die if they are not warned.  This is a natural event, it was going to happen whether humans are around are not do you warn them?

I think most people would answer that they would.  To me arguing that doing nothing is the only option we have because the Earth is just going to do is thing is tantamount to doing nothing in this example, and simply letting people die.  Many people who accept the fact that the climate is changing but don’t think man is responsible still must accept the consequences to this warming.  Some of the one’s we are more sure of are:

  1. Rising sea levels drowning coastal populations and increased damages and deaths from coastal hazards such as tropical storms and tsunamis
  2. Increased heat waves and droughts
  3. Increases in extreme weather events as climate patterns shift
  4. Increased severity of extreme weather events.

What’s more is that these types of things will adversely impact the most vulnerable of the worlds population.  People who are in poverty.  People who depend on subsistence farming.  When local hazards happen communities do make sacrifices, and do look for solutions, through re-zoning laws, construction improvements, and other engineering solutions to try and make the world safer and have less loss of life.  So even if man has nothing do with the problem it doesn’t mean that we don’t have a responsibility to act to come up with a solution.

One can be logically sound but be ethically and morally irresponsible.  Ignoring what experts are saying, making sweeping and unsubstantiated statements that there is nothing we can do, that it’s just nature, and the Earth will be fine is really the same as having the power to do something to save lives and not doing it.  And this is why I agree that the conversation about climate change has to shift away from science and facts and be more about compassion, about love for our fellow human beings, valuing equality so that we all have the same chance to adapt and survive the changing climate, and about taking responsibility for the home that sustains us all.  These are important values regardless of what is causing the climate to change and these are things we can address and even already have some solutions for.  Of course I know that is even overly idealistic to think that such a solution of addressing people on an emotional level might work.  Hell it’s difficult to find a religion that unanimously agrees poverty is something we should do something about. I feel pretty bleak in general about us actually doing something about climate change.  It requires people to move beyond nationalism, beyond their own religious beliefs and worldview, which tend to not be very worldly at all.  Maybe we can’t win against the forces of nature, but it sure would nice if we could overcome the forces that divide us as a species.  We can try.  Maybe in the end it really is easier to move mountains.

22 thoughts on “Shepherding the Earth: Fallacies That May Destroy Us All

  1. An excellent post Swarn! I believe you and other science-loving intellectual (logical?) advocates, myself included, must use other means to sway the deniers and apathetic into action by using emotional means as well. After all, it is sadly evident that EMOTION also dictates or heavily influences our political decisions too! Hah, no need to try and explain that one, right? 😉

    Now my poor attempt to make it emotional…

    I agree that even though the science is solid, primarily because of the arctic and glacial core-samples we have managed to collect and study. The samples give us clear general data about the Earth’s atmospheric and oceanic history dating back to 800,000 years! Yes, the Earth has been through many drastic changes, HOWEVER, looking over the averages, i.e. temperatures, carbon-dioxide, and the more recent gas: methanes, the wide-spectrum data charts glaringly show these temps and gases have not been returning to normal ranges, but are instead rising at a very alarming rate! And it began soon after the Industrial Revolution, then trended upward more severely in the 60’s and 70’s; in fact, 20-times faster! An unprecedented rate! And those biochemicals — released (via drilling, mining, and fracking, then burned) — which took over millions of years to form; humans are consuming in a matter of 1-5 years! Holy shit!

    At one time reading the sciences on global warming, I said to myself “If anything that bad happens, it won’t be in my lifetime, my kid’s lifetimes, and maybe not my grandchildren’s.” This brought me some peace-of-mind, granted SELFISH peace-of-mind. But this attitude still did not detract from my own daily responsibility and accountability of excellent biospheric care and management — passing it on to my kids as well. But things are MUCH WORSE now. Climatologists and all the supporting other scientific fields are in agreement… this global catastrophy will likely happen between 2030 and 2050 at the current rates! HOLY F**KING CRAPOLA Swarn! That is now during my own kid’s lifetimes!!! 😮 Okay, now that really effects me, hurts, in a massive way!

    Here is more hope Swarn, for everyone: a recent Stanford University and University California study CONFIRMED that “the world could run entirely on wind, solar, and hydro power by 2050, and we can fully get rid of fossil fuels quickly, if countries can just find the political will.” Here’s the link to that study and results:

    Yes, you are right Swarn about needing to make this ‘change’ a lot more emotional. Once that is done — if it is done — the next major challenge will be the EXTREMELY wealthy influential oil, petroleum, and coal corporations and their X.O’s. A daunting task. :/

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Agreed Professor. As your link indicates there is a lot we could be doing already, but simply aren’t. Yeah things are definitely happening faster than we initially thought in the 90’s. You and I will see some major coastal cities I think lose large portions of their land area before we pass from this Earth.


  2. I sighed yesterday when I heard Hilary Clinton say “He [Trump] thinks climate change id a Chinese hoax… I believe it is real.”

    No, Hilary, you don’t believe it is real, it is real, and it is happening.

    As this is your specialty, don’t you find it just a tad weird that at the precise moment science has gotten to the point where we can predict weather with an astonishing degree of accuracy that man-caused climate change is going to ruin those very models? Talk about irony.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually John, climate change doesn’t impact weather models really. Such models run on smaller spatial scales and time scales and utilize fundamental equation in the conservation of mass, energy, and momentum and will be true regardless of the current state of the climate. Inputting slightly higher temperature values won’t change the outcome of a weather model. Right now our 1-2 day forecasts have an accuracy around 93% and 3-4 day forecasts is the main area of research around meteorological forecasting, but these things aren’t impacting by trends in climate which are over much longer time scales. What will most strongly be impacted by forecasting is the occurrence of unprecedented extremes. Forecasters are always hesitant about forecasting let’s say that we will break a record high the next day. Even if a weather model tells us that is going to happen we would actually second guess the model. Of course there are also times when the model misses the severity of the event as well, which in the future could lead to slightly bigger errors. But when extreme events happen this is always a difficult forecast situation.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Apologies, I probably should have said more the larger models/cycles, not so much the day-to-day/week-to-week. Won’t they become less predictable as we get more unusual patterns, like heatwaves, wets, and the like? I do, however, get what you’re saying.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Well week to week forecasting is based more on climatic norms it’s true, but we are far from being very accurate with those. That’s why when you said accurate weather forecasts I assumed you were talking about 1-4 days. Week to week forecasts can give us an idea about let’s say a low pressure system that will be coming through, but we don’t do very well with any precision on the timing of that system in any particular area nor it’s intensity. All models require initialization in that we take current observations and feed that into the model to get output at future times. So as long as we are continuing to monitor current conditions well climate change shouldn’t strongly increase forecasting errors except where a model might let’s say reject a result based on the forecast being let’s say too far outside of a climatic norm. But again a lot time that’s a decision made by the forecaster, not the model itself.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. I suspect if you begin making more emotional pleas, that the response will be something like, “I thought you were scientists. If you’re resorting to emotional/ethical/compassionate arguments, the science must not be very sound!”

    Although I agree with everything you’ve said I don’t think you can convince someone who is not willing to be convinced, and anyone that uses the arguments that you have refuted is likely to be someone who is not willing to be convinced.

    Personally, I don’t hold a lot of hope that there will be significant change until the problem is catastrophic. There is a serious lack of political will to make the necessary sacrifices to switch to an environmentally sustainable economy. If that is overcome, free trade agreements become another barrier. If that is overcome, we still need the biggest polluters to all get in line.

    The book SuperFreakonomics has a chapter about global warming where the authors essentially make the case that because the costs of global warming are externalized, the problem cannot be solved by people and governments being more responsible, and therefore a technological solution must be found. I fear they may be right.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes people would complain about scientists using emotional arguments, which is why I’m fairly certain that scientists are not the ones to start such a movement. And sadly I agree with you, I think part of me is writing this just for my own need to get away from trying to explain the science unless they ask and at least have people question things more from an ethical or moral point of view. I don’t know. Ultimately I agree that catastrophe is most likely to happen before anything gets done, and given how long it would take to get carbon levels back down it seems like it will be far too late to do much good at least over the course of the next 100 years. And agree some sort of energy source that blows fossil fuels away would be great, but given that fossil fuel companies also actively try to control such research, there are less people working on the problem than there could be.


  4. Great post Swarn.

    Every time I think on the subject I get a bit angry at the world for being so damned feeble minded, and at myself for the role I play in making the situation worse.

    I’d love to never ever need to buy a gallon of gas again. But how would we get to work? What do we do with our lawns? My yard is an acre and half! A bit much to do with an electric cord or an old time push type rotary blade mower.

    One of my boys has to drive a car to trade school every week day.

    I still drive the last brat to/from school daily. We live in the country and while we could get him on a bus, it is an hour earlier in the morning and an hour later in the afternoon. We could do that, but it would suck mightily.

    Writing this I see some of the problem. I could cut back on my yard. Only mow however much I can get done with an electric mower in 30 minutes. I could make my son ride the bus. What is an inconvenience when the entire world is at stake? I can’t stop driving the wife to work though, because that would just drive us into bankruptcy… Got to draw a line somewhere.

    Even if I did everything possible to cut my footprint, would it matter? Are we already fucked? Cutting back at home might make me feel better, but how does that stack up against every coal burning power plant, the billions of cars/trucks/dozers/jet planes/boats/and the thousands of industries daily pumping tons and tons and tons of Co2 in the air?

    The subject makes me pissed about myself, and the entire population of humans. There are days I feel like it might be the best thing for this planet that we, ironically, kill ourselves off. The earth will likely survive once we are gone.

    The only pleasure for those of us with the good sense to understand what is happening, how it is happening, and when it is happening, will be to say on that final day…that last gasp the human population takes, is “I told ya so, you bunch of simple minded morons!”

    I’d love to see political change that would address this issue. Don’t see that happening, for fucks sake Donald Trump just got the GOP nomination. Donald, reality star, racist, bigot, asshat Trump!

    There is no hope Swarn. I am going out to the backyard to bury my head in the sand. With any luck I’ll just die there and not have to worry about global warming, and the fate of my children anymore.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for this very late response! So clearly you are forgiven for disappearing. I agree with what you said and wanted to comment specifically about what you say here in the end. I struggle with those thoughts myself. I know I can certainly do more than what I’m doing, so where does that leave me morally and ethically. Should I always make the decision to shop at a different grocery store if I don’t agree with Wal Mart’s business practices even though making that decision would lead to a greater amount of money I spend on groceries, or a much further drive to a grocery store with comparable prices? Do I go vegetarian simply because I disagree with the industralized farming of animals?

      I think ultimately we do have to make sacrifices but we don’t have to do them all at once. As my income has increased I do shop at Wal Mart less. I do try to buy organically raised meat. Shop more at my farmer’s market. This year I am making a concerted effort to have a garden and grow some of my own food.

      There was an article floating around a couple years ago about this climate scientist/journalist who decided that he wasn’t going to travel by airplane anymore to give talks, attend meetings with legislators etc to advocate for sensible carbon policies. He would do it all over the internet because he felt strongly about reducing his carbon footprint. However others pointed out that the advantage of being personally present and convincing a government to make changes to reduce carbon emissions, might be more important than reducing his own carbon footprint if he was simply less successful by videoconferencing for a meeting. Given the psychology of personal interactions this was a good argument I believe. So for instance you may not be perfect, but if you can help convince somebody else to be at least as conscious as you that has value also. Baby steps, just don’t stop. That’s the way I look at it. 🙂


      1. Wait? I disappeared?

        The moral/ethical reality of each and every persons carbon footprint should be something we all take very seriously.

        Problem is the deniers are so damnable dense between the ears and they take great pleasure in their excesses. How do we convince them there is a problem?

        Probably the biggest reason the R’s are such wafflers is greed. They know they are full of it, but they have to support big business and oil interests. We will ruin our planet for human habitation because of greed and excess. Species are already dying off at an alarming rate. We are a species too. Quite an adaptable species, one heck of an invasive species, but I have to wonder how we will fare with what is coming. There are days I feel like our extinction will be the best thing for the planet.

        Mostly though, I just hope our childrens generation can do better than us.

        Liked by 1 person

          1. Oh yeah. I did disapper there for a while lol

            I didn’t mean to. 🙂

            I spent 3 weeks restoring an old aluminum boat. Been fishing a few times, we had a big fish fry yesterday as a result. All the work was worth it.

            I hope your holiday went well.

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Swarn. you knocked this one out of the ballpark. When they say that scientists are just doing it for the money, my first thought is projection.

    In the link below it shows an interactive map of the United States. Twenty-four of those states have governors and attorney generals who have publicly denied the reality of climate change. Twenty-seven states have mounted a legal challenge attempting to block the Clean Power Plan.

    “The CAPAF research found that governors and attorneys general who block climate action have received a total of $23,862,257 in campaign contributions from the dirty energy industry, including oil, gas, and coal.

    While more than 67 percent of Americans support action to address climate change, more than 54 percent — 173,757,379 people according to census data — have a governor or attorney general attempting or supporting efforts to derail the Clean Power Plan.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you Victoria for your comment and share on Facebook. The amount of money oil companies have compared to clean energy companies is just embarrassingly large, and it just boggles my mind how anybody can think that such companies or the government could match that much economic clout.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ll be honest — I didn’t know much about climate change until I watched a 2 hour lecture by Jeremy Rifkin, who had attended the 2009 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. I was floored by what he revealed.That was back in 2010, and now scientist know it’s much worse than what they previously thought. I was so blown away by what he shared that I made a very short video with snippets from the lecture. The background I selected is symbolic — the sun is setting. The music I picked is ominous.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. As always Victoria this was really well done. You have a keen eye for doing these kinds of video infographics and you always choose your music very well. If it was an asteroid on a collision course I think we’d all be pulling together a lot more, yet this low death, which has the potential to be more life threatening than a large asteroid, will likely not stir action until it actually starts to noticeably impact our life signs…to extend the poison analogy, and by then it’s probably too late.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you, Swarn. The main point in mentioning the music and symbolism of the setting sun was to highlight a point you made — that it seems the only way people will take this seriously is to appeal to their emotions. Like Rifkin mentioned, people aren’t grasping the enormity of this moment. Just today, I read a study published yesterday where five Pacific Solomon islands have been swallowed by rising seas and 6 more severely damaged.

        “Understanding the extent and rate of recent shoreline changes on the islands of the western Pacific is an important step towards assisting these vulnerable communities to adapt to the unprecedented rate of sea-level rise and associated climate changes expected over the coming century. …

        In Nuatambu village on northern Choiseul over 50% of houses have been washed into the ocean as a result of dramatic shoreline recession. …

        In addition to these village relocations, Taro, the capital of Choiseul Province is set to become the first provincial capital globally to relocate residents and services due to the threat of sea-level rise. …

        Climate change induced sea-level rise is anticipated to be one of the greatest challenges for humanity over the coming century. “

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Balanced post. I’m not one of the deniers, by a long shot. My eyes have been open since a very early age, but as pertains to human degradation of the planet, I’ve heard warnings since the ’70’s. That things have escalated to this point is unsurprising, given the nature of humanity. Still, I find it sad that greed overpowers reason (once again and again and …). It’s been an amazing life, and I plan to continue with the smallest footprint I can manage for as long as Mother Earth will have me stay in body. It’s going to be a bumpy ride. Aloha.

    Liked by 1 person

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