Uncertainties demand a calmer approach to climate change debate
By Tom Harris
Re: Religious right is wrong about climate change, Science Matters, March 29.
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.”
Creating rational public policy in the face of such uncertainty is challenging. It is therefore important that Canada’s climate experts 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. 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.
Many of our country’s leading scientists therefore remain silent if their views are not politically correct.
David Suzuki’s article provides a case in point. It is riddled with logical fallacies, distracting readers from thinking about the issue constructively. Here are examples:
Ad Hominem (discredit the man, instead of the idea): By calling those on our side “climate change deniers”, Suzuki commits a logical fallacy often used to equate those who question climate change causes to Holocaust deniers. It is wrong as well 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.
Guilt by association: That a specific viewpoint is promoted by the “religious right” is irrelevant, unless one doesn’t like 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 support of most mainstream churches for Suzuki’s position on climate change?
Straw man (arguments based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position): Such fallacies permeate Suzuki’s article. For example, politicians in Canada are not “anti-science”. If they were, they would never fly in an airplane, use cellphones or take vitamins. They are simply skeptical about Suzuki’s claims about 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.” No one on either side of the debate is saying this.
Red Herring/false analogy: Suzuki’s discussion of Tennessee’s approach to the teaching of evolution is irrelevant to climate change. Red Herrings like this 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 (www.climatescienceinternational.org).