If scientists don’t choose their words carefully when they make social and political arguments, it causes me to worry that they haven’t been as rigorous as they should be when arriving at their scientific judgments. In my view, way too many scientists (and others) have taken up hardline positions on either side of the climate change line. From there they hurl insults at each another. Sense and virtue can only be found on their side. Those people over there are deliberate liars. They’re stupid, corrupt, fraudulent, deceptive, manipulative, and self-interested.
In some respects, I’m a typical member of the public. I didn’t take any university-level science courses. Therefore, if someone stands up at the front of the room and points at graphs, refers to scientific theorems, and jots down formulas, my head begins to swim. I’m not equipped to follow the conversation. I don’t speak that language. Everything sounds plausible to me. Which means – and I know this is going to be distressing for some people to hear – I cannot be persuaded solely by a discussion of the science.
I, like many people, decide who I believe based on the strength of their logic, on their demeanor, on how they respond when challenged. Do they behave professionally – or do they lash out with venom and contempt? The individuals whom I find persuasive act like grownups – not not like adolescents intent on scoring meaningless points in a video game.
Freeman Dyson, who is a gifted writer as well as an eminent physicist, describes science as “a mosaic of partial and conflicting visions” (page 3). That makes a lot of sense to me. There are numerous scientific disciplines, numerous ways of looking at the physical world. Two scientists from different disciplines might well examine the same question and come to conflicting conclusions. I’m OK with the notion that they both might be partially right.
So when an ethics professor at Penn State U argued last month that corporations that advance skeptical climate arguments are guilty of crimes against humanity I was deeply offended. And when climate skeptic Ball argued yesterday that proponents of human-caused climate change theory are similarly guilty of crimes against humanity I was equally appalled.
Crimes against humanity are nothing to joke about. Mass graves, intentionally inflicted famine, gas chambers, barbarous violence – those horrors should not be spoken of lightly. If everything is a crime against humanity, then nothing is.
Climate change is a complex matter – and no one knows what the future holds. If the proponents of human-caused catastrophic climate change are right, climate skeptics may indeed have blood on our hands because we may well have impeded effective responses. (I don’t really believe this since I’ve yet to be persuaded that emissions reduction would actually accomplish anything. But for the sake of argument, I’m willing to grant this possibility.)
If climate skeptics are correct, however, and emissions reduction seriously undermines the well-being of national economies then far more people will lead pinched, restricted, poverty-stricken lives. Infant mortality will rise. Food (which is grown with fossil-fueled farm equipment and transported in fossil-fueled trucks) will become more expensive. There is no way, given the current state of our technology, to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions while still keeping the hospitals running, the schools heated, and anywhere near the same number of people employed. The math simply doesn’t work. Environmental activist George Monbiot isn’t kidding when he says:
The campaign against climate change is an odd one. Unlike almost all the public protests which have preceded it, it is a campaign not for abundance but for austerity. It is a campaign not for more freedom but for less. [bold added, p. 215]Because the climate change debate is so important, because so many lives (not to mention trillions of dollars) hang in the balance, we need open, vigorous debate. We need to hear all perspectives.
I want the proponents of AGW to make their case. I want the skeptics to make theirs. I want the lukewarmers and those occupying the agnostic middle ground to have their say. Only from this symphony of discussion, from this multitude of perspectives, will trustworthy knowledge emerge and genuine understanding evolve.
But this free and open discourse cannot happen when both sides are trying to shut down the debate by labeling other people’s views criminal.