The climate change debate

September 2014

There seems to be a high probability that before this century is over, climate change caused by us humans is going to have some consequences resulting in massive human suffering. The scientific evidence for this prediction, so far as I can tell, is about as solid as scientific evidence ever gets. I’ve been hearing this for at least the past two decades, but didn’t become convinced until just a couple of years ago. I was not in denial, in that I never believed that it wasn’t happening. It always seemed like a plausible hypothesis. But plausibility is not probability, and it seemed to me that those who claimed it certainly was happening had failed to present a cogent argument.

And I’m not the only one whose mind was hard to change. I have long been a fan of professional skeptic Michael Shermer, and discovered recently that he, too, was a long time coming around, and for about the same reasons ( So now, people like Shermer and me are being scolded for our disinclination to believe the warnings from Day One. It is being suggested that if it weren’t for skeptics of our kind, corrective action might have been taken when there was still a chance of averting the coming disaster.

The commentariat doesn’t know I exist, but at least one public response to Shermer’s article accused him of committing the genetic fallacy, which consists of dismissing an argument on account of its maker’s motivations. And, it really is a fallacy. A cogent argument loses no cogency just because its advocates like the conclusion for ignoble reasons. It is also the case, though, that an uncogent argument gains no cogency just because its advocates’ intentions are morally pure. That much is covered in Philosophy 101, or should be. In the real world of public-policy debates, though, motivations cannot be dismissed as irrelevant, because most of us don’t have time to confirm every advocate’s every utterance. Anyone — even creationists — can say, “It has been scientifically proven that X,” but the mere assertion does not make it so, even when asserted by someone obviously more scientifically literate than most creationists.

Here is the argument that was offered for our consideration:

  1. Global temperatures are increasing.
  2. The increase will result in massive human suffering that will not otherwise occur.
  3. The increase is due primarily to certain specified human activities.
  4. Therefore, governments must take any action necessary to effect a cessation or massive reduction of those activities.

The logical form is a material implication: If A and B and C, then D. This is the claim that if one affirms the conjunction of A, B, and C (the antecedent), then one cannot without contradiction deny D (the consequent). If this claim is true, then the argument is valid, and if furthermore A, B, and C are true in fact, then the argument is sound.

There are two and only two possible rebuttals. One is to show that the implication is false, i.e that it is not illogical to deny D while affirming the conjunction of A, B, and C. This is to show that the argument is invalid. The other is to demonstrate the falsity of at least one of A, B, or C, in which case the argument, even if valid, is unsound. In the modern political climate, the first option is difficult to defend. Those who advocate it tend to be accused of moral callousness, and so those inclined to doubt the conclusion tend to suspect that at least one of the premises is unjustified.

I think premise B is mistaken, or at the very least unproved—but the key phrase is “suffering that will not otherwise occur.” Progressives take it for granted that any solution they propose to any problem will have nothing but benign effects—any change they advocate can do nothing but improve the human condition. I have never been convinced, though, that the measures proposed for preventing or ameliorating climate change would not themselves result in considerable suffering.

Now of course, my not being convinced isn’t proof of anything. To the real point, though, the progressives have not even tried to convince me or anyone else. They seem to think they don’t need to prove that the economic and regulatory interventions that they propose would be generally harmless. They do concede that the interventions would cause financial losses, at least in the short term, for some large corporations, but in their worldview, that is of no moral consequence. And even more to the point: Progressive were advocating these interventions long before most of them had ever heard of climate change. What climate change gave them was just the best excuse they ever had for demanding what they had always wanted: a command economy.

(Didn’t they learn anything from the Soviet experiment? I think not really. They certainly learned that you have to be careful who you put in command of the economy. I don’t think they learned that it isn’t a good idea to have anybody in command.)

This gets us back to the genetic fallacy. If anybody was arguing, “That can’t be a good argument because look who’s making it,” then the progressives’ objection is well taken. But it’s also massively hypocritical. To hear them tell it, no scientific study of a medication is any good if it was paid for by a pharmaceutical company, no scientific study of a chemical’s safety is any good if it is paid for by the chemical industry, and no research about genetically modified food crops is any good if it was paid for by an agricultural corporation.

There is a war on science, all right, and much of the fire comes from the political right. But a lot of it comes from the left, too. Conservatives have no monopoly on the disparagement of critical thinking whenever critical thinkers disagree with them. Progressives will use any fallacy in the book to promote their agenda when it suits them to do so, and that includes arguments from authority. Back when only a handful of climate scientists were warning about anthropogenic global warming, the progressives were satisfied to quote them as if their papers were holy scripture: “Dr. X says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” They were begging us to see the debate as a kind of Pascal’s wager: If you bet against the truth of climate change and lose, the worst that can happen is a horrific disaster for all of humanity; if you bet for government intervention and lose, the worst that can happen is nothing worth fretting about. We skeptics think the conventional Pascal’s wager is a sucker bet, and some of us think the climate change version is, too.

We all have to trust authorities on most matters of public policy, but advocates of some policy who are not themselves authorities have the burden of proving that an authoritative consensus actually exists and is incontrovertibly supported by the pertinent evidence. Until just a few years ago, the interventionists were not carrying that burden. They were content simply to demonize anyone who disagreed with them as an apologist for the oil industry. The global warming debate was a holy war, and God was at least metaphorically on their side.

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(This page was last updated on September 13, 2014.)