A Reasonable Global Warming Counterargument

The Republican Party’s (and associated columnists’) opposition to global warming legislation over the past few years has been all over the place. The arguments have ranged from the ever-popular, “It’s not real! It just snowed in May!” to “It’s real, but we didn’t do it!” Then there’s “Won’t somebody please think of the cost to consumers/businesses!” and “What’s the big deal? Everyone loves summer!”

One columnist, who purports to be a renowned scientist, managed to levy nearly every talking point in a single, spectacularly convoluted argument. My personal favorite was the claim that the U.N.’s scientists have produced “no credible evidence” that warming is man made. This, after he implicitly admitted that it was a problem by saying we need to get polluter-in-chief China on our side before we start talking about solutions.

Given that backdrop, when I saw this blog post from the Christian Science Monitor, I took notice.

In it, the Monitor analyzes two opposing views on global warming with — wait for it… here comes the twist — both conceding that it’s actually happening.

On the left we have David Orr, a professor at Oberlin College.

… Orr believes that mitigation will be necessary and suggests giving “priority to limiting the emission of heat trapping-gases as quickly as possible to reduce the eventual severity of climatic disruption.” Otherwise, down the road, we’re going to have “why didn’t we act earlier” regrets, he says.

You may recognize this as the typical view of those who think global warming is a threat. But here’s what blew my mind:

On the right, instead of the typical scattershot political response, we have Freeman Dyson, a physicist at Princeton University (emphasis mine):

You sit in front of a computer screen for 10 years and you start to think of your model as being real. It is also true that the whole livelihood of all these people depends on people being scared. Really, just psychologically, it would be very difficult for them to come out and say, “Don’t worry, there isn’t a problem.” … I don’t say that they’re dishonest. But I think it’s just a normal human reaction.

No doubt that warming is happening. I don’t think it is correct to say “global,” but certainly warming is happening. I have been to Greenland a year ago and saw it for myself. … And glaciers are shrinking and so on. … I am not saying none of these consequences are happening. I am just questioning whether they are harmful.

His overall point is one of purely scientific skepticism — what if their prediction models are wrong? That, I think we can all agree, is a much better starting point for potential opponents than “pfft… science. Hogwash.” Then if you want to bring in the economics arguments, by all means, do so. This issue is, after all, inextricably connected to public policy.

And as ClimateSight pointed out in a recent post, these are legitimate concerns:

An interesting theory as to why so many people reject climate change is that they don’t want to take action. Whether they work in the fossil fuel industry or are vehemently opposed to government regulation, they feel that the consequences of taking action will be worse than not taking action.

This is a legitimate opinion, even though I disagree with it. It involves policy (what we should do about the problem) instead of science (deciding if there even is a problem). Stating that we shouldn’t take action at all is, in a way, deciding what action we should take. It’s a personal opinion. You don’t need a PhD for it to be respected.

What I find interesting is that, as convoluted and often contradictory as popular conservative response to global warming has been, it might actually be a decent strategy politically. By levying as many seeds of doubt in global warming as possible, they have effectually perpetuated a lot of doubt among the electorate. In March, a record number of respondents (41%) to a Gallup poll said global warming is exaggerated.

In the interest of full disclosure, I fall into the David Orr camp that says it could be a big problem down the road, so better to act now than too late. That said, I think current discourse does a disservice to what could be a legitimate point of view in opposition.

UPDATE: There was a good deal of criticism in the Monitor’s comment section about their using Dyson as a source. Here’s a lengthy profile from the New York Times for those interested in learning more about him. I still think his criticisms can be taken at face value. He is, after all, a physicist, so I was never attempting to frame him as a climate expert.

UPDATE 2: As pointed out in the comment section, an out-of-context blurb I (well, actually, a Monitor commenter) pulled from the Times profile made him appear kind of senile. It’s been removed. My apologies.


8 Responses to “A Reasonable Global Warming Counterargument”

  1. 1 Steven Wood June 9, 2009 at 5:51 pm

    While the battling political strategies may be interesting, it coulds what should be the most important aspect of the debate.

    People (especially in law and government) fall easily into a sort of “courtroom” epistemology, where they get very tied down in the adversarial nature of a disagreement.

    We should really be using a “risk management” epistemology, where we try to determine as best as possible the probabilities of various outcomes and allocate resources to deal with each outcome as needed according to its likelihood and threat.

  2. 3 Steven Wood June 10, 2009 at 9:06 am

    And the fart noises! Don’t forget how easy the fart noises are. Very effective after pointing the finger. ;o)

  3. 4 Steven Wood June 10, 2009 at 9:51 am

    Incidentally, clicked through to the linked IBD column, and the outright lies astonished me…

    While their [the IPCC’s] 2007 Report asserts a better-than-90% certainty that the average temperature increase over the last 50 years is human-caused, they have produced no credible evidence to back this up. None!

    Obviously a complete lie, and detectable as such by anyone who has even browsed the IPCC’s report (http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/ar4-syr.htm.) Of course, it is Fred Singer, so I guess I can’t be surprised.

    The question is, with those out there clinging to an adversarial view of the issue, what’s the best strategy for moving on from an adversarial view forward?

    If you ignore the people like Singer, then they get an opportunity to sway people who don’t know much about the issue. If you address people like Singer, you give them a platform for their lies. If you mock people like Singer, you are accused of close-mindedness. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, damned if you laugh.

    Are we then trapped in the adversarial mode?

    • 5 Brian Eason June 10, 2009 at 3:57 pm

      I think the reality is that so few Americans pay enough attention to this issue — or any other, frankly — for it to make much of a difference. For many, the inane snippets like those from Fred Singer will seem like good sense, and go on unchallenged.

      But you’re right, the damned if you do/don’t scenario very much applies to the rest of us. One of my biggest complaints of the media is that it gives a platform to people from either ideological extreme who (1) don’t know what they’re talking about or (2) would rather spew misinformation and outright hatred than contribute meaningful ideas.

      And, yes, in a way, I realize I’m just as culpable by linking to the Fred Singers of the world. But I guess I fall into the camp that says addressing it does less harm than the alternative.

      Mockery might be the least productive of all, because it does little more than reinforce everyone’s respective viewpoints. Can’t say it isn’t entertaining, though.

  4. 6 danup June 10, 2009 at 7:48 pm

    Dyson is in fact an old man, but the questions you mention regarding his senility seem cheap–they’ve only come up since he’s announced his skepticism re: global warming. The rest of the Times profile about him was pretty glowing, as I recall.

    • 7 Brian Eason June 10, 2009 at 8:30 pm

      Fair. There were quite a few that were criticizing the Monitor’s use of Dyson, as it were, so I thought I would pass along one of the comments. Though it could just as easily be for the reasons you say as for any questions as to his competence.

    • 8 Brian Eason June 10, 2009 at 8:52 pm

      Yeah, after rereading what I wrote that was probably an unfair thing to rip out of context. Fixed.

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About the Author

Brian Eason is a University of Missouri graduate with bachelor degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He has covered Congressional elections and local government for the Columbia Missourian and worked as a general assignment reporter for the State Journal-Register in Springfield, IL. Brian has also had articles published in Roll Call.

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