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The Unnatural Habitat of Science Writer John Rennie

Filtering by Tag: Global warming

“Stasists”? No. “Deniers”? Yes.

John Rennie

My previous post about the polar bear photo embarrassment, which Andy Revkin wrote about, gives me occasion to comment on Andy’s use of “stasists” for the people in opposition to the climate warming arguments. He favors that term, I gather, because it is more neutral than names like “denier,” and because he thinks it speaks to the goal common to the diverse camps of people on that side of the argument: to keep on doing things as we have been. Much though I appreciate Andy’s ongoing good-faith journalistic efforts to keep an even keel in these contentious discussions, after some consideration, I still disagree about the appropriateness of that label. (But then again, I’m no fan of the “pro-life” label for people who are objectively anti-choice, either.) First, let’s acknowledge that the terminology for both sides stinks. James Hansen, Stephen Schneider, Rajendra Pachauri, Al Gore and others warning about the evidence for anthropogenic global warming (AGW) are obviously not “warmists” in the sense of wanting more warming any more than Marc Morano and Bjorn Lomborg are "coolists" who want more cooling.

The problem is compounded by the range of nonexclusive reasons why (ostensibly) people are in the stasist/denier camp. First, there are the many who may start off with no particular opposition to the idea of AGW but who sincerely do not know or do not understand the evidence for it (I would like to think they constitute much of the U.S. public). Then there are the ones who outright deny the climate is changing; the ones who do not think human activity could affect the climate; the ones who recognize changes in the climate but insist it must be natural; the ones who concede the possibility of human influence but doubt the warming will continue; the ones who accept the fact of significant warming but doubt it will be disruptive; the ones who grant AGW could be bad but say responding to it in the future makes more sense than trying to prevent it; and the ones who simply argue that More Research Is Needed and refuse to act until their agnosticism is satisfied. And of course within each of those segments, one could split out still smaller shadings of opinion. (Baskin-Robbins doesn’t have as many flavors of ice cream as Andy’s stasists have flavors of opposition.)

Finding one name that honestly and accurately reflects all those points of view is difficult. Yet with the exception of those who can plead genuine ignorance (and who are almost never the ones publicly arguing against climate science or policy), pretty much all of those other positions involves some level of active denial or disagreement with copious scientific evidence or risk-management precedent. So at a purely existential level, they define themselves to my mind as the “uninformed” and the “deniers.”

(I suppose the latter could also be called “resisters,” but frankly, the dishonesty many of them exhibit in repeatedly using debunked arguments persuades me that the overtones of “denier” are more accurate. Moreover, since I suspect that many of them are simply committed a priori to rejection of the climate science and its consequences out of their own beliefs, the term “denialist,” with its creedlike associations, also makes considerable sense.)

But here is the crux of my argument: I think it’s a mistake when characterizing these people as deniers to try to homogenize what they think about AGW or climate science because they are all over the place on those. Rather, what they all deny is any need for a pro-active response to AGW.

Isn’t that essentially Andy’s argument for calling them stasists? It’s close but here is where I fault his terminology. First, these critics are not all calling for stasis in policies: those like Bjorn Lomborg are happy to see any number of policy responses but only after the damage of climate change is more evident. They simply don’t want anti-AGW activism to rock the boat now. Second, I think “stasist” is Orwellianly misleading as a label for a position synonymous with acceptance of massive change. Put it this way: would you consider someone a “biodiversity stasist” if he advocated continuing to cut down rainforests only at the current rate?

As so many climate scientists and others have already said, the time for action on global warming is already upon us. Let’s be clear, then, that the division in the arguments is between those committed either to climate action activism or to climate action denial (or resistance or opposition). Forget trying to find some neutral, anodyne term in the interest of reconciliation. The weight of evidence runs against most of the deniers' positions, so don’t hesitate to use a term that puts them on the defensive.

Polar Bear Pic was Bad... But So What?

John Rennie

Andy Revkin, on his Dot Earth blog, has already done a fine job of summarizing the self-defeating gaffe of Science publishing the new letter from 255 National Academy of Sciences members, which rebukes the misleading political assaults on climate research and its investigators, with a Photoshopped image of a polar bear on an ice block. Because of this frustrating error, the attention that the authoritative scientific statement deserves is instead diverting to the flawed rhetoric of its presentation (a mistake introduced by the publication, not by the NAS). The incident has become a perfect cameo of the larger climate-change issue: scientists speak out on the state of the research with facts and substantive arguments, and opponents jump on any small defects in what’s said to argue, honestly or otherwise, that the climate science is wrong, corrupt or both. Of course, the irony of us criticizing Science’s use of the polar bear artwork is we forget that in the eyes of the people most incensed by it, literally no effective image would have been acceptable. I’m not arguing that the polar bear picture wasn’t a particularly bad choice: it was, because it made the critics’ job much too easy. But what images would have been above reproach? Photos of shorelines racked by hurricanes or floods? Icebergs calving off polar glaciers? As individual incidents, none of those can be pinned definitively to global warming, so the critics will always call the images sensationalizing. How about a photo of a polar bear on a larger ice sheet? The critics don’t think polar bears are endangered, wouldn’t really care if they were, and don’t accept that global warming is the real reason for their problems. Ditto for any other climate-endangered species. Care to show photos of people whose livelihoods are jeopardized by climate change? Surely then you are ignoring the flexibility and ingenuity of human economies.

How about just a presentation of the scientific data, then? Maybe, say, a nice hockey-stick graph of rising temperatures over the past millennium? Hmm, apparently that’s not acceptable either, no matter how well vindicated its conclusions might be. Or maybe something showing the rapidly rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere? But surely then you’ll be ignoring the fact that CO2 levels were higher during the Carboniferous, and if it was good enough for Apatosaurus, it will be good enough for us, too.

No, none of those is beyond controversy. Here’s what you need to show to keep the critics happy: Big, empty photos of the sun. Photos of scientists pulling ice cores out of the ground or otherwise engaged in bland, unintelligible, wonkish busywork. Maybe a big group photo of those 255 NAS members standing on the steps of a building in Washington. Photos of the IPCC reports (riveting!). Maybe some artwork of a thermometer creeping into the 90s with a big question mark beside it (awesome!).

Face it: to the people committed to rejecting your message, no image that helps you sell your message persuasively will ever be acceptable—because accepting it would be tantamount to conceding some point in your favor. And if the climate deniers have proven anything, it’s that they are willing to oppose the global warming issue at every possible level, from denying the fact or possibility of global warming right up through dismissing the possibility or desirability of responding to it proactively.

By the way, just as an experiment, consider if the shoe were on the other foot. Suppose 255 scientists released an official statement dismissing global warming as a sham. Are there any images they could use to illustrate that argument forcefully that would elicit an equal sense of outrage and disappointment from others on their own side? Somehow, I doubt it; these are people who have embraced “Al Gore is fat!” as a rallying cry.