A Proper Debate Over Climate Change Matters: Let’s all skip the lousy arguments

Commentary, Environment


In a course I teach to undergraduate students, essay instruction necessitates a reminder about how to construct a proper argument. I warn students away from ad hominem attacks, one-sided essay research, guilt-by-association, the inadmissibility of “straw men” and correlation-equals-causation mistakes; I also point out why conspiracy theories are often wrong, and that assuming one’s interests  explains all is one-dimensional. Those and other follies too often cost students marks.
Such errors extend beyond the classroom. Some are unintentional because we’re all imperfect. Others intentionally err—lawyers play up the strengths of their side, minimize their weaknesses and give short shrift to opposing counsel’s assertions; it’s how they win.
But science is supposed to be an objective search for truth, a continual process of building knowledge by testing and falsifying hypotheses. Unfortunately, with the Copenhagen summit in full swing, some shoddy arguments are reaching a fever pitch, including the notion that skeptics of a completely anthropogenic explanation for climate change, or the beneficence of greenhouse gas reduction policies, must be in the employ of “big oil” and their research/writing thus tainted.
It’s an assertion with chutzpah given that some climate change data was manhandled by scientists at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at Britain’s University of East Anglia to produce desired outcomes. Also, recall that letters in the CRU documents show climate scientists there not only sought funds from oil companies but obtained “leaked” versions of their rivals’ funding applications so they could figure out how to make a better bid.
Some institutes skeptical of anthropogenic warming explanations do receive donations from energy companies. (Full disclosure: I am employed by a think tank that publishes authors wary of a completely anthropogenic explanation; it receives little from the energy industry even though it dominates the Alberta economy.) However, and ironically, it is environmental groups that often receive hefty donations from energy companies—and that in addition to substantial government funding.
On global warming, major companies such as BP, Shell, ConocoPhillips, DuPont, Rio Tinto, GE, Siemens, Citigroup, Royal and TD-Canada Trust long ago jumped on the global warming bandwagon, both in terms of their lobbying and donations. In Alberta, the Pembina Institute receives funding from Suncor. In British Columbia, the Suzuki Foundation also takes business donations.
None of that is illegitimate. Whether one is a skeptic, or a green group utterly convinced of the IPCC explanation, unless one wants to rely on government support (which I would argue is a mistake), private sector donations are the default option; it’s that or leave all debate to government civil servants.
In fairness, some global warming skeptics are also overboard in their rhetoric, asserting a worldwide conspiracy or impugning the motives of those with whom they disagree; they too assume funding (of the government variety) automatically taints research.
But while the potential is always there in public or private donations, the notion that donors automatically taint research assumes that no one exists who couldn’t stick to their own conclusions and convictions. That assumption reveals more about those who hold it than about those who are accused. Such views have most of the non-profit world precisely backward. Funding follows and supports ideas, not the reverse—which is the opposite of how it works when, say, public relations firms are hired to defend a particular company.
For example, boil me in oil or offer me a million bucks but I won’t endorse corporate welfare. I’ve looked at the justifications long enough to be sure the case for business subsidies is flawed. Similarly, I assume most scientists and statisticians involved in the climate change debate have firm views for much the same reason (and I’m happy to let them battle it out). They’re convinced by their research or their reading of others’ and which they would argue has led to their respective positions.
Debate about the facts, and even whether they are settled, is generally useful just in case one’s position is flawed or if new, more convincing hypotheses arise; impugning motives, assuming conspiracies and the whole host of other errors in argumentation isn’t. The stakes both ways—billions of dollars unnecessarily spent or an earth damaged—are far too high for failing undergraduate-style arguments.