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When Will Intellectuals Heal Toxic Climate Change Debate?

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Today, many of the world¹s leaders in science, engineering, and other relevant disciplines will not comment publicly about climate change. They fear being labeled as “scare mongers,” or deniers, or funded by special interest groups, or not caring about the poor.

This must change over the coming months. Otherwise, what promises to be the largest global warming agreement in history will be signed at the UN climate conference in December with little or no input from many of the brightest minds in the field.

Taming the noxious and illogical climate change debate will not be easy. Strong leadership is needed from philosophers and other scholars to help us overcome the errors in thinking that are sabotaging the discussion. At stake are billions of dollars, countless jobs, and, if activists are right, the fate of the global environment itself.

When advocates are criticized, as leftist, foreign funded eco-nuts or right wing, or oil-funded deniers, philosophers must explain, “That is irrelevant. Nature does not care about the political orientation of the debaters or who funds them. All that matter is the validity of their arguments.” It is an error in reasoning to dismiss someone¹s assertions because of suspected vested interests.

And calling someone an eco-nut or a denier is an “ad hominem” logical fallacy, against the man, instead of the idea, a tactic that has no place in rational discourse.

Particularly misleading is an error called “affirming the consequent.” It works like this: If my theory is true, then a logical consequence of that theory is that X should turn green. X does turn green. Hence my theory is true. We have known since ancient Greece that this is a deductive logical fallacy. Something unrelated to your theory could have caused X to turn green.

When activists claim that rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels occurring concurrently with rising temperature proves the theory of CO2-induced global warming, philosophers should explain that they are committing the affirming the consequent fallacy. The same applies to observed correlations between climatic conditions and variations in other potential drivers such as the Sun or ocean currents. The fact that scientific theories make correct experimental predictions under certain circumstances does not mean the theories are necessarily correct. Other factors, or, more likely, a combination of phenomena could be causing the changes observed.

Finally, the belief that scientists discover truths, or as the United Nations often puts it, “unequivocal” conclusions, should be refuted by intellectuals. Truth applies to mathematics but never to our findings about nature that are merely educated opinions based on scientists’ interpretations of observations. Since observations always have some degree of uncertainty, they cannot prove anything true.

So why do philosophers and other scholars not speak out about these obvious problems?

Many are undoubtedly deterred by the aggressive tenor of the debate and so fear for their own personal safety. Those on both sides of the controversy have experienced death threats and other abuses. Correcting debaters¹ mistakes could lead activists to charging a philosopher with taking sides, even if they are, in fact, neutral.

It may also be that intellectuals judge that acceptance of a particular point of view about the causes of climate change will encourage outcomes they support. Those who back nuclear power, alternative energy, pollution reduction, conservation, increased foreign aid, and social justice may therefore chose to not highlight the problems in the arguments of climate activists. Similarly, intellectuals who support the expanded use of hydrocarbon fuels to provide abundant, inexpensive electricity may elect to keep their opinions to themselves if they notice logical errors committed by skeptics.

But this is a slippery slope. If the aggressive and often irrational climate change debate is an indication of where we are headed concerning science-based public policy decisions, then we are in big trouble indeed. Whatever the cause of their silence, philosophers and other intellectuals have a moral obligation to speak out loudly when they see fundamental errors in thinking in the climate debate. The stakes are too high to accept anything less.

Tom Harris is executive director of the science-based, non-partisan group, the International Climate Science Coalition (ICSC). Until 2011, he taught 1,500 students in the second-year course, “Climate Change, an Earth Sciences Perspective,” at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Tom’s education was in thermo-fluids and energy sciences and he has Bachelor and Masters degrees in Mechanical Engineering.