Stakes too high to allow our leaders to scare experts out of debate
By Tom Harris
Canadian professors Chris Essex and Ross McKitrick write in their book Taken by Storm, “Climate is one of the most challenging open problems in modern science. Some knowledgeable scientists believe that the climate problem can never be solved.”
As demonstrated by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (www.nipccreport.com), much of what we thought we knew about climate is now being shown to be either wrong or highly debatable. Indeed, the science is becoming more unsettled as the field advances. Trying to get a handle on the economics of hypothetical future scenarios is equally mind boggling.
Creating rational public policy in the face of such uncertainties is challenging for politicians. It is therefore important that Canada’s experts in climate science, economics, engineering and policy are able to speak out without fear of retribution or sanction, regardless of their points of view.
Sadly, the exact opposite is the case today. Emotions run high as the climate debate has become intensely polarized, pitting left against right, capitalist against socialist, “skeptics” against “alarmists”. Implications of bias and vested financial interests, as well as logical fallacies (errors in reasoning) have taken the place of meaningful consideration of the facts. No wonder many of our country’s leading scientists remain silent if their views are not politically correct.
David Suzuki’s article, “Religious right is wrong about climate change” (Beacon News, April 4), provides a case in point. It is riddled with logical fallacies that distract readers from thinking about the issue constructively. Here are examples from his piece:
Ad Hominem (discredit the man, instead of the idea): By calling those on our side “climate change deniers”, Suzuki commits what many people see as an offensive logical fallacy often used to equate those who question the causes of climate change to Holocaust deniers. It is wrong anyways since no one is denying that climate changes; only the causes are in dispute.
“Climate change denier” is also a “thought-terminating cliché”. This logical fallacy appears when a phrase is used to quell an audience’s critical thinking and to allow the presenter to move, uncontested, to other topics. Many people use such clichés without even knowing it.
Guilt by association: That a specific science viewpoint is promoted by the “religious right” is irrelevant, unless one doesn’t like or trust such groups and so, illogically, thinks what they say is therefore wrong. If one is influenced by this “guilt by association” fallacy, then how does someone who distrusts religious groups respond to the fact that most mainstream churches support the Al Gore/Suzuki position on climate change? That some people still cling to outdated concepts of the age of the Earth and other mistaken ideas in no way means that their ideas about climate change are wrong.
Straw man (arguments based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position): Such fallacies permeate Suzuki’s article. For example, no politicians in Canada are “anti-science”. If they were, they would never fly anywhere and would stop using cell phones or taking vitamins. They are simply skeptical about Suzuki’s claims about climate change. That is being scientific—science is all about skepticism.
Similarly, suggesting that Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are not engaged in rational thought when they come to conclusions opposite to Suzuki’s is illogical. Some of the word’s leading climate researchers also conclude that natural forces swamp humanity’s impact on climate.
It is also a straw man argument to imply that anyone doubts “that the environment is real and that we depend on it for survival” or that “a long-term healthy economy depends on a healthy environment”. No one on either side of the debate is saying, or, probably, even thinking, these things let alone that “These people want to ignore both the problems and the solutions…”, as Suzuki asserts.
Finally, suggesting that those who contest the causes of climate change are “placing all our bets on non-renewable and polluting fuels” is another straw man argument. Skeptics recognize that societies are more secure when they rely on a range of energy sources, including, to the extent practicable, renewable energy.
Red Herring/false analogy: Suzuki’s discussion of Tennessee’s approach to the teaching of evolution is irrelevant to climate change. Red Herrings like these are usually introduced to divert debate to an issue the speaker believes is easier to defend (or attack).
Environment Minister Peter Kent recently suggested that Suzuki “chill”. I second the proposal. We need our country’s leaders to help the stage for a balanced and respectful discussion of this, one of the most important issues of our time. Considering what’s at risk—a human-induced eco-collapse if Suzuki and his allies are correct, or, if skeptics are right, a waste of trillions of dollars as we experiment with a worldwide switch to new, less reliable energy sources—the stakes are too high to do anything less.
Tom Harris is Executive Director of the International Climate Science Coalition (climatescienceinternational.org/).