I held a debate on environmentalism last month, which included a climate scientist as well as traditional evangelical environmentalists. Not surprisingly, the discussion quickly bogged down on the issue of global warming. My experience as a layperson taking a stand against a coalition of true believers and technical specialists presented some lessons on arguing against environmentalism.
1.) Focus on your strengths
Global warming can be argued on several levels. You could argue that
- There’s insufficient evidence for a long-term warming trend
- The earth’s warming is not historically significant
- The warming is not anthropogenic
- The benefits of a warmer earth exceed the costs
- Stopping warming is economically impractical or undesirable
- Implementing government controls is the wrong response to climate change.
Each response requires knowledge in a different field – climatology, paleoclimatology, environmental geography, economics, and politics. Unless you’re an expert in one of those fields, you should not make them central to your position. You should also avoid original research or original arguments in them.
For example, I have read arguments by amateurs whose entire position centers around whether humans contribute to CO2 levels, and whether that contribution affects climate. For example, human CO2 output is 5.53% of the CO2 related greenhouse gases, and 0.28% of the total greenhouses gases. These numbers are not widely disputed – but the difference that .28% percent makes is. Are you prepared to discuss such details? Unless you’re a climatologist, don’t make it the crux of your position.
There is a crucial field you cannot avoid – epistemology. The issue of scientific methodology as well as the means by which reputable research is recognized is crucial, and you should become thoroughly familiar with it, since the use of junk science, non-scientific claims, and the misuse of valid claims is one of the major problems of the environmentalist movement.
My recommendation for non-experts is to establish that the actual climate predictions from alarmists are moderate, and then focus on how individuals are best equipped to deal with them. This sidesteps the complex technical issues of climatology, and creates an opportunity to educate the audience on capitalism.
2.) Start with a concession
Not every argument made against global warming strengthens your case. Decide beforehand which claims you want to argue, which are unsupported, and which ones you’re not qualified to argue. Here are the concessions I made when arguing my case:
- Humans contribute to CO2 levels
- The earth has gotten slightly warmer during the 20th century
- I’m not qualified to debate whether anthropogenic CO2 contributes to global warming
Conceding arguments which are not central to my position shifts the debate to areas I’m strong on.
Not everyone who shares your position is an ally: there is a widespread perception that climate change skeptics are dominated by religious fundamentalists and corporate interests. There is some truth to the former, while the latter is reversed – 99% of corporate funds -even from oil companies – goes to support environmentalism rather than capitalism. You should dissociate yourself from either group, and respond to ad-hominem attacks by identifying them as such.
3.) Look at the big picture
I’ve seen many arguments about climate change devolve to endless factual disputes over details neither side really understands. This problem is inherent in disputes within scientific fields without a well established methodology. It’s impossible to make conclusions about global trends based on local or short-term observations, yet local and short term observations are all we have to build global models. In practice, this means that debate over factual details should be reserved to the experts.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t challenge absurd claims. If someone claims that the temperature will rise 10 degrees, and oceans will rise 20 feet in the next 100 years, you can point out that temperature rose at less than 1 degree in the 20th century, and oceans are rising at 1-3mm per year according to the alarmists themselves.
However there are broader and more important issues, such as the ability of humans to respond to climate changes, the gullibility of the public and policymakers in accepting absurd and unscientific doomsday scenarios, and the need for cost/benefit analysis when advocating policy changes. The major problem with environmentalism comes from the moral opposition to industrial civilization, not bad science. The scientific process tends to correct bad ideas in the long run, whereas environmentalism generates a torrent of new crises, intellectually crippled students, and bad policies.
4.) Site your sources
Evangelical environmentalists are rarely concerned with facts, and they will often try to hide their exaggeration with rhetoric. For example, In “Inconvenient Truth“, Al Gore claims a 12ft sea level rise, whereas the IPCC itself gives a maximum of 23 inches. You should be prepared to counter this rhetoric with reality – and this requires citing sources. This is especially important in offline debates, where the urge to exaggerate claims is much stronger. I prepared a number of documents and PowerPoint slides for my debate that I did not show during my talk. When responded that my claim that the U.S has more trees now than 100 years ago is absurd, I was able to whip out charts from the U.S. Forest Service backing my claim.
5.) Beware of sophistry
There are a number of logical fallacies commonly used in environmentalist rhetoric. You should be familiar with them and be ready to identify them to your audience. Here are descriptions of the ones I’ve come across – their usage should be easy to recognize:
- Misleading vividness
- Proof by example
- Correlation versus causation
- Affirming the consequent
- Appeal to consequences
- Argument from ignorance
- Appeal to the majority “ad populum”
See also my “One Minute Case Against Global Warming Alarmism“