Climate change – rhetoric and urgency

Joseph Romm has written an interesting post on science, rhetoric, and why those who deny the reality of climate change are so effective at spreading their message. Basically, he argues that they are more sophisticated in terms of argumentation styles, and that they are able to engage people on terms they can intuitively appreciate.

Right now, it actually seems more as though the biggest gap is between accepting that humans are causing climate change and accepting what the consequences of that really are. Even organizations that claim to accept the conclusions of the IPCC are nonetheless perpetuating a society emitting grossly unacceptable amounts of greenhouse gasses. How, for instance, can you accept the science of climate change, then deny that it has a major impact on the applicability of a political philosophy based on unending economic growth?

With bluntness very unusual for a scientist, Andrew Weaver summarized the situation we are in:

[U]nless we reach a point where we stop emitting greenhouse gases entirely, 80 per cent of the world’s species will become extinct, and human civilization as we know it will be destroyed, by the end of this century.

We don’t actually need to completely eliminate emissions by the end of the century, but we certainly need to begin cutting them deeply and rapidly. That remains a reality that no government anywhere seems to have fully accepted. Right now, we are like a gambling addict losing $1,000 an hour. If we can get it down to a dramatically lower level, we can keep gambling for longer without going completely bust. Achieving that will require a lot of politically difficult work.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

9 thoughts on “Climate change – rhetoric and urgency”

  1. The political will to do this difficult work seems to simply not exist. If “Green Shift” was not a realistic climate change action plan, I’m not sure what is. The total lack of party concensus on this issue, means its somehow up to Canadian voters to vote on a single issue elsewise they are being “anti-environment”.

    The “politically difficult work” ought not to be thought of as a “Green party” winning an election and forming Government, but as agreements in back rooms. The closest thing now would probably be an anti-harper coalition, but it would be hard to Sell unless Greenshift was radically repackaged to suit the NDP’s anti-elitest rhetoric.

  2. Tristan,

    In all likelihood, a realistic policy will start fairly small and ramp up quickly. In that sense, any of a number of carbon pricing schemes could be the first commitment.

    I very much doubt that Canada will be the place that shows the way. Let’s just hope that someone does in time to be widely emulated.

  3. “Basically, he argues that they are more sophisticated in terms of argumentation styles, and that they are able to engage people on terms they can intuitively appreciate.”

    Also, though Romm doesn’t touch on this, the scientific arguments involved are nuanced and involve some level of undivided attention. Those who dismiss science (not just global warming) have a much easier job since they just have to instill some small amount of doubt in the public to win people to their side.

  4. I agree with the previous poster – the problem is that the public generally dismiss evidence (on many topics, not just climate change). The hysteria the Conservatives have been peddling about crime & about the safe injection site are further examples where many people determinedly disregard the evidence (whether it is presented by academics, doctors, local law enforcement officials or the BC provincial government) in favour of ignorant, fearful policies that will cost lives & waste an astonishing amount of money.

    Romm’s idiotic conclusion that scientists should learn to use rhetoric more effectively is rather like telling a bird that it should give up flying and learn to swim – why stop focusing on evidence, which is the one thing scientists are genuinely good at and much better than their opponents, in favour of being incredibly bad at an activity which bears no relation to your skill set? If science if worth anything at all (and I think it is) then it is because evidence usually prevails given time. The idea that we should teach scientists to over-simplify, deceive and emotionally manipulate in favour of a ‘greater good’ is horrifying and IMHO wholly counter-productive.

  5. Is 450 ppm (or less) politically possible? Part 0: The alternative is humanity’s self-destruction

    You may be interested in how fast we can hit 1000 ppm. The Hadley Center has one of the few models that incorporates many of the major carbon cycle feedbacks. In a 2003 Geophysical Research Letters (subs. req’d) paper, “Strong carbon cycle feedbacks in a climate model with interactive CO2 and sulphate aerosols,” the Hadley Center, the U.K.’s official center for climate change research, finds that the world would hit 1000 ppm in 2100 even in a scenario that, absent those feedbacks, we would only have hit 700 ppm in 2100. I would note that the Hadley Center, though more inclusive of carbon cycle feedbacks than most other models, still does not model any feedbacks from the melting of the tundra even though it is probably the most serious of those amplifying feedbacks.

    Clearly, 800 to 1000 ppm would be ruinous to the nation and the world, creating unimaginable suffering and misery for billions and billions of people for centuries to come. No one who believes in science and cares about humanity can possibly believe that adaptation is a more rational or moral policy than focusing 99% of our climate efforts on staying far, far below 800 ppm and far away from the tipping points in the carbon cycle.

  6. The idea that we should teach scientists to over-simplify, deceive and emotionally manipulate in favour of a ‘greater good’ is horrifying and IMHO wholly counter-productive.

    I agree that is essential for scientists to remain impartial and focused on evidence. Some necessary steps for improving how scientific information fares in the public arena of ideas include changes to curriculums and improved education generally, as well as the continued emergence of knowledge brokers who are able to accurate transfer scientific knowledge into the public domain (the IPCC has done very important work on this).

    I just hope the public consensus about the danger of climate change doesn’t require massive disasters obviously caused by climate before it can emerge. By the time that happens, we might have locked in a huge amount of additional warming.

  7. This is an interesting quote, from Joseph Romm:

    “Future historians will inevitably judge all 21st century presidents as failures if the world doesn’t stop catastrophic global warming.

    If global warming exceeds 5°C (or even 3°C), then we will head inexorably toward an ice free planet with widespread desertification, sea levels rising 6 to 12 inches a decade for centuries, the oceans turning into a hot, acidic dead zone, and a billion or more environmental refugees (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 0: The alternative is humanity’s self-destruction“). Historians (and every other human being) enduring such harsh misery will care little about Iraq, health care, an early 21st century recession, or the budget deficit.”

    I think he is quite correct, but it is nonetheless extremely difficult to convince politicians to focus on the long-term threat of climate change, rather than more immediate issues.

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