My week arguing with climate deniers on the internet
During the last week, I’ve been exchanging points with Twitter climate dissenters. With support from a Canadian Green, some of their claims have been refuted. At least that is what I like to think. But they simply retweet the original claim, and ignore my comments. So I can’t say I have achieved much.
All the same, it is enlightening to talk to people whose views are so radically different. It’s totally unlike debates within the Green Parties. Or even within the broad left of UK politics. They’re mostly Americans, but with a sprinkling from the UK and elsewhere, and pretty much all very right wing.
Politics of names
One thing I’m inclined to concede easily. They greatly resent being called “climate deniers”. That is said to be an allusion to holocaust denial, and they regard it as a smear. Now, although there may be a parallel in denying what many think to be well established science, smears don’t make good arguments. If they think our arguments rely on smears, let’s back off.
Although they like being “climate sceptics”, that gives too much away, since scientists are all sceptics who are forever questioning things. So letting them have “climate dissenters” seems a fair way to avoid arguing over names. Now, let’s get back to the substance.
What about that perennially popular British topic, the weather? We tend to think extreme weather is increasing as a result of global warming. But we should know better than to claim, as some have, that any particular weather event can be laid at that door. The climate dissenters are only too keen to point to examples of cold weather. They say that disproves global warming.
Of course, we want to argue that global warming is expected to cause extremes of weather, not simply warmer weather. The evidence is still quite thin though. Consider flooding. It has certainly been increasing in frequency. But we must acknowledge that some of that is down to changes in cultivation practices. More water runs off farm land more quickly. And building on areas liable to flooding inevitably creates risks. Our arguments have to be qualified.
That’s not the only area of complexity. The dissenters like to emphasis the environmental damage done by changes such as wind turbines and solar farms. Turbines kill birds and bats. Large scale solar desecrates wilderness areas. All this new infrastructure needs a lot of concrete, a major source of CO2. Making batteries results in CO2 and a lot of pollution. We can’t get away from the fact that these complaints have a degree of truth. We need to be careful not to be complacent about the downsides of our solutions.
Politics of science
When it comes to science, I want to be able to rely on the system of peer review, replication of results, references to the work of others, etc. But the dissenters just call it all a conspiracy and prefer to talk of “pal review”! If you think the world of science is largely a scheme to channel money to an unscrupulous elite, then established science doesn’t cut much ice.
That is harder to fight than one might at first think. There are many factors that have left the edifice of science weakened. Green Parties justifiably fight against them, but they are well entrenched. First, publishing is largely in the hands of commercial operators who restrict access to important science by price.
Second, government has cut the amount of money that goes to university research without strings. Researchers are told to find a commercial sponsor. That naturally leads to a situation where research tends to chase the prejudices of the paymasters.
Third, security of tenure is much harder to achieve. That may cut the number of academics who simply coast along waiting for retirement. But it also cuts the number of academics who are willing to challenge received wisdom in any field. People with secure tenure do not have to worry about making themselves unpopular. So they’re valuable sources of criticism.
Fourth, all the factors listed add to the tendency for scientists to become stuck in a cosy rut with accepted theories. It is safer and easier to conform to the consensus and avoid rocking the boat. It has to be allowed that science has always had difficulty discarding failed theories. The current climate makes it even harder. So we can’t altogether reject criticism of science.
Politics of solutions
Most proposals for fighting climate change involve government action. That is liable to mean spending tax money. The dissenters jump on this, and argue that it involves taking from the poor to subsidise the rich. If you think of the subsidy for buying a new electric car, for example, it isn’t easy to disagree. Certainly Greens want a radical shake up of how wealth is distributed, but it hasn’t been that way. Over the last 30 or more years, whoever was in power, growing wealth has gone to the rich. None has been left for the poor. Will we be able to change that?
So, in a way, the climate dissenters are making much of legitimate criticisms of the way the world is. But they are also making a point that is in fundamental disagreement with Green and Left thinking. They regard any solution that involves communal action as necessarily bad. It goes against their faith in individualism. Most of the Republican Party is committed to opposing the merest hint of social action.
So what, in the end, were the arguments all about? The complexity of the issues means that it is hard to make any headway. Short of a cataclysm, we’re probably never going to persuade the extremists who want to fight it out on Twitter. In the wider political world, our hope has to be to persuade more people that individualistic free markets damage our interests and those of the natural world. And that we rely on the wellbeing of the latter for us to flourish. Hopefully, a few engagements with the dissenters helps to sharpen our arguments, if nothing else.