Don’t Argue the Science

The facts of climate disruption and resource depletion are abundant and the logic is clear, yet we keep losing the argument in the realm of public opinion. As a result, pundits and bloggers have been advocating that we drop the scientific approach and instead make the case by promoting other benefits.

A recent example: Bill Chameides writes in The Green Grok (gotta love a Heinlein reference):

When it comes to climate, “just the facts, ma’am” doesn’t seem to cut it for some.

[I]f  you’re a scientist, [you] provide the unconvinced with more evidence, more data, and surely they will come around. Problem is, scientists continue to do just that and continue to make little or no progress or, worse, lose ground.

[F]or some, it appears, personal beliefs and cultural associations trump scientific facts.

Bill McKibben was on Real Time with Bill Maher last week. He was his usual masterfully informative self, as David Roberts of Grist acknowledged. In his post, though, Roberts

Bill McKibben, to the right of Maher. Link to clip here








“Tuesday afternoon quarterbacks” (his description) and says he wishes McKibben, instead of following the standard environmentalist’s response to the claim that “the science isn’t in” by petulantly answering “yes, it is,” had said

this kind of uncertainty isn’t a reason to sit back on our laurels and wait for more information. It’s the opposite! After all, if there’s a 50 percent chance things could turn out better than our best estimates, there’s also a 50 percent chance they could turn out worse. And if you’ve seen our best estimates, you know that “worse” should give you nightmares.

From there, it’s an easy leap to the fire insurance argument. (If you know there’s a chance your house might catch fire, do you wait for it to happen or do you get fire insurance and also try to minimize the chances?)

But in the same way that Roberts says McKibben is almost but not quite on the mark, I think Roberts misses an important part of the argument as well. (Before I get further into this point, let me say that I’m a big follower of both McKibben and Roberts. And just as Roberts couches his criticism of McKibben, acknowledging that he’d be hard pressed to do better than McKibben did, I want to note that my critiquing here of Roberts – who writes terrific posts —  is not meant to indicate I disagree with him in any big way.)

Roberts starts to make what I think is the better argument in writing “when the response to “it’ll cost too much” is “but we have to do it,” climate hawks implicitly concede the cost argument.”  (His emphasis.) He’s absolutely right, but then he lets it go.

We shouldn’t concede the cost argument, or the sacrifice one, because neither of them is true.

As I’ve often written here, when accurate and full “true” costing is calculated, the bottom lines almost always tell us that, in the big picture, environmental regulations do not cost more but, in fact, save money.

And the other premise of EcoOptimism is that we can implement these changes – whether they be regulations or corrections to our free market accounting – without diminishing the quality of our lives. Quite the opposite, as I hope we’ll continue to explore here; we have the opportunity to improve how we live while diminishing our demands on the planet. As I like to put it, we can not only stop biting the hand that feeds us, we can bandage and heal that hand – and still eat well. If we don’t, well that’s when we end up sooner or later without food (metaphorically as well as literally) at all.

But getting back to Roberts’ point about how to best make the environmentalist argument, here’s what EcoOptimism advocates: showing that we can do this without economic disaster and without social upheaval negates most of the anti-environmentalism argument. Combined with the fire insurance metaphor, it disarms hoaxers and deniers by saying, even if this is all a hoax or not true, it doesn’t matter because it will take us to better places in any case. It says there’s nothing to lose and everything to gain.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Argue the Science

  1. Grant

    Playing Devil’s Advocate for a moment… I think the deniers will disagree with your last sentence. There’s always an opportunity cost to economic decisions, so there’s never “nothing to lose.” Moreover, their meme appears to be, “This is all a conspiracy [by some diffuse group of socialists, fascists, communists, liberals, intellectual ‘elites’ and other America-haters, world-government advocates, ‘Europeans,’ etc.] meant to undermine America. The environmental ‘crisis’ is a hoax and the Good Lord has blessed America with ample energy resources. Those who want to tie our hands to prevent accessing those resources are evil.”

    I share the frustration that facts are meaningless in today’s discourse. And it’s not just global warming by any means (I’ve sworn off the sanitized “climate change” moniker, even if it’s somewhat more accurate: I recently learned it arose, at least in part, as a salve to the know-nothings who object to “global warming.” Frank Luntz and Karl Rove have taught me not to let the opposition define the vocabulary of the debate.)

    Recently I heard a podcast that discussed much the same thing with respect to global warming: it was a scientist making essentially the same point, that scientific arguments seem to make little headway with the deniers, so we need to speak to them in more mutually shared terms.

    At the risk of being “un-optimistic,” I’m afraid the deniers are led and spurred on by vested interests that understand the facts perfectly fine… and LIKE them. Until the cynical LEADERSHIP of the anti-science movement see a compelling financial reason to acknowledge global warming themselves, they will keep flogging public opinion with lies and distortions to their own selfish ends. (Feel free to draw obvious parallels with a current “grass roots” political movement holding America hostage, at the beck and call of the likes of the brothers Koch. There’s a lot of overlap in the personnel associated with each movement.)


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