My Least Favorite Argument Against Man-made Climate Change

The climate has always been changing.

The climate has been changing since the Earth began.

We have warm periods and cool periods.  That climate.

Likely you have heard one of these arguments or some variation before.  Look at any conversation about climate change and you will see at least some man-made climate change denier using it.  It’s hard to even know exactly what they mean by the argument.  I’m not even sure what argumentation fallacy to call it.  Perhaps it’s just a non sequitur, but let’s try to break it down.

First, let’s start simply.  If such people using the argument are trying to claim that what we are seeing is natural climate change, then they are misstating the argument.  They should simply say.  Yes the climate is changing, but there is insufficient evidence that man is the cause.  I mean that’s not true, of course, but it would be an argument.  Just one in which the person making the argument hasn’t adequately analyzed the evidence.  The other implication here is that scientists in this field either don’t know that the climate changes naturally or that they don’t know what causes climate to change naturally, but just decided to come to a massive consensus across multiple scientific disciplines that it’s happening.  This is also is ridiculous.

However, the way this argument is phrased it seems that the argument that is really being made here by those who use it, is that they think one of two things (or perhaps both):

  1. Since climate changes naturally it can’t change because of human influence.
  2. Since climate changes naturally there is nothing that can be done about it.

Let’s deal with the second argument first.  And let’s even go so far as to say that the person is right.  What we are seeing is just natural.  Given the rate the temperature is warming this is cause for alarm, even if it is natural.  It threatens many human populations, will increase drought frequency, extreme precipitation events, national security issues, species extinction, rapid sea level rise, etc. If this is happening naturally, then why shouldn’t we be trying to do something about it?  If a naturally started forest fire threatens people’s homes, should we not put it out.  Should we not build homes more securely to mitigate damage from hurricanes?   We do so many things to try to mitigate and prevent damage and deaths from natural disasters, it seems ridiculous to me to make any such claim that natural climate change that threatens large populations of people and ecosystems worldwide isn’t something that we should be trying to do something about.

The first argument takes even less effort to counter.  My favorite example is to use evolution, which of course happens naturally, but practically all farming, horse and dog breeding happens through man-made selection in order to increase food nutrition and create your favorite breeds of dogs and horses.  Taken to the extreme we could simply say that death is a natural process, thus there is no such thing as murder.  Or since death is a natural process there is no sense in trying to cure people of cancer.

Overall it is difficult to understand why this is such a common argument, and why this seems to be the final argument for so many to dismiss man-made climate change as a non-issue.  Feel free to share this post with folks you know who have made this argument.

Climate Change for the Masses (Part II)

Well it would seem that a group blog idea with a weather and climate theme has fallen apart, and so I’ll have to do my blogging about it here instead.  Several months ago I began what I hoped would be a 3 part series, themed around the John Oliver’s  “Last Week Tonight” Episode on the climate change debate.  In my first blog post I wanted to try and investigate what type of people don’t accept the evidence on climate change, based on my own experience in getting into various discussions on the topic with people outside my discipline.  In this blog article I’d like to take a look at the actual media portrayal of the problem which was more the central theme of John Oliver’s segment.

If you haven’t watched the clip, John Oliver critiques the media for having one person who accepts the scientific evidence, with one person who denies it, saying that this gives an unfair representation of the scientific consensus on the issue.  Over 97% of the scientific literature from over 10,000 scientists across earth and biological sciences have concluded that human induced climate change is a fact, making it appear as though it is a split issue is quite simply dishonest.  And this absolutely true, but it is in fact even worse than that.

The 50-50 split looks even more in favor of the deniers when the media is always using the same person to represent the scientific side.  If you watch many interviews on the subject you might actually get the picture that it seems to be only one guy who thinks human-induced climate change is real while many other people don’t think it’s happening.  If you always saw the same guy “for” an issue and many other people on TV saying they are “against” it would be somewhat natural to think that the “against” side had a better argument.  Of course you’d be wrong in thinking that.  This is called the “Appeal to Popularity Fallacy” (or ad populum for you Latin Lovers).  An extremely common one used nowadays.  Of course as it turns out, it is the logic of the arguments and the strength of the evidence that makes for who has taken the correct issue on the stance.  Of course there are many biases and fallacies that we naturally gravitate towards because it is in our evolution.  Being the outcast in a group didn’t get you very far early in our evolution and the same is in a large part true today.  Although generally today, no matter how different you might be, with a large population you are likely to find a group to connect with.  But in terms of genetic history being an outcast in a group of social animals who may be relatively isolated from other populations doesn’t really give you anywhere to go, and since survival on your own is more difficult “following the herd” is part of who we are.  Of course, in this instance, there is no real punishment for accepting scientific evidence but sometimes I think our wiring doesn’t really care.

The 50-50 perception unbalances even further when you consider who Bill Nye.  Now don’t get me wrong.  As a scientist, I know he’s

From http://brandonhillphotos.com

a scientist, and that he has the ability to not only understand the issue, speak intelligently about it, and accept the hard work done by so many scientists to reach the conclusions they have about climate change.  But to the public there are a lot of negatives about Bill Nye that would make his credibility more suspect, especially to people who are on the fence or deniers themselves.   First of all Bill Nye is not a climate scientist.  He is not an expert in the field of climate science and as such this will weaken his credibility as an advocate.  In fact Bill Nye is most famous for his use of science concepts for educating children.  Climate change is a very adult issue that will require adults in government and voting adults to accept the scientific evidence and put forth appropriate policies to address the issue.  Bill Nye is also a celebrity and many people have negative attitudes towards celebrities who get involved in issues that are political.  In Canada, David Suzuki is a very famous scientist and naturalist, but is not very knowledgeable about the issue and so while he has tried to be advocate for climate change, he has not done very well when addressing even the most common fallacious criticisms put forth by deniers in a debate format.  He was hoping his popularity would help change the minds of people, but in fact it has likely hurt those who might be willing to listen to a well reasoned debate on the subject.  So I think Bill Nye may have similar impacts.

Now don’t get me wrong, because I am not convinced that the media is intentionally using Bill Nye for the purposes of misleading others.  For them, he is a celebrity and known and will add a few viewers whether people have grown to hate him or love him.  He is also an excellent public speaker, and he is also eager to break away from his previous persona as a scientist for children (honestly go back to getting children excited about science, I think it’s too late for congress now!).   So what is the solution to making the debate fairer?  John Oliver’s suggestion is not a bad one, but of course they are unlikely to get 100 people on the stage for a debate.   We nerdy introverted scientists simply need to become better communicators.  We need to get involved in educational outreach and scientific discourse at regional, state, and national levels.  Since there are literally 1000’s and 1000’s of people researching this field and concluding that man is impacting the climate just as we hone our research and analytical skills we must also hone our communication skills so that we aren’t just contributing through the publication of an article in a scientific journal.  And media, you could do a better job of finding actual experts to have on your programs.  You could do a better job also by being honest and saying we know this is not even close to a split issue in the scientific community and have more debates about what the best way about addressing the issue is, rather than trying to debate whether it is an issue at all.

If you are interested in learning more about climate science, learn about what the common myths are about climate change and why they are not well reasoned arguments, and be able to investigate climate change science at various levels of complexities I strongly recommend this site called Skeptical Science.