Debate Trolling and Predatory Delay

Alex Steffen
May 4, 2016 · 7 min read

Ten years ago this month I wrote a piece, “The Debate Is Over” (you can read it below). It caused a stir.

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Tom Toles nails it.

Indeed, nothing I’ve ever written has prompted more wingnut hate mail and harassment than that phrase “the debate is over.” The piece, though, was right: there hasn’t been any legitimate debate on whether humans are heating the planet in many years.

Unfortunately, few people got the message. Many well-intentioned people seem to be unable to believe that on a crisis as serious as climate change, one side has sought not to find the truth, then marshal evidence explaining why they’re position is reasoned and correct, but to lie in the most persuasive way possible. The word “lie” here is intentional and accurate. The entire “other side” of the climate “debate” has been, for at least ten years, a set of crafted falsehoods.

Many smart, open-minded people continue to engage with these positions because they believe that they are having an earnest discussion, and that, at some point, they will persuade the liars and their perhaps genuine supporters.

They won’t persuade them, because the liars are not participants in a discussion, but actors in a large campaign of political theater, following a script whose purpose is to delay action long enough for fossil fuel companies (and others benefiting from the destabilization of the climate) to make another few trillion dollars. Denialism and delay are not intellectual positions, they’re literally propaganda.

The goal of these lies has never been to find truth, or even to win the “debate.” These lies are put forward with the goal simply to maintain the fiction that there IS a debate. Indeed, since 2003, the prime denialist strategy has been asserting that “the scientific debate remains open”:

Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate…

Call it “debate trolling.” Sensible people agreeing to debate well-established facts is how denialists win the fight. The mere agreement to debate is a loss. Acting like there’s a legitimate “other side” means you’ve gotten played. Being respectful of opinions which attempt to play up uncertainty about the scientific consensus, the seriousness of climate impacts or the viability of low-carbon solutions is acting (however unintentionally) as an agent of denialism. Tens of thousands of smart people have, in the last ten years, been unwitting facilitators of propaganda.

There’s only one solution. Because the very mechanism of debate has been poisoned, people in the media, academia and civic spheres need to act with more integrity, and refuse to put denialists and delayers in front of microphones when the goal is to have a serious debate about our shared future. That is the only way for serious people to have a serious discussion about the planetary crisis we face.

The debate, you see, was over a long time ago.

The Debate is Over

May 22, 2006 — This is the way the debate ends: not with a bang but a press availability. President Bush today in a backhand way admitted that climate change is here, but said we shouldn’t get caught up in discussion about what is causing it and instead focus on solutions:

“And in my judgment we need to set aside whether or not greenhouse gases have been caused by mankind or because of natural effects and focus on the technologies that will enable us to live better lives and at the same time protect the environment.”

We’re all about solutions, of course, but this is no time to ignore science, because, as this Op-Ed notes, scientists are saying that none of the solutions we’re yet considering are even vaguely on a par with the magnitude of the threat we face:

Here’s the truly inconvenient truth: Scientists have long been warning that the world must cut back on greenhouse-gas emissions by as much as 70 percent, as soon as possible, if we’re to have a fighting chance of stabilizing the climate. Yet even with full participation by the United States, the controversial Kyoto Protocol—the only global plan in the works— would hardly begin to do that. Its goal is to reduce emissions by 5.2 percent below 1990 levels by 2012. And so far, the best plan offered by American politicians, the Climate Stewardship act sponsored by Senators John McCain and Joseph Lieberman, has an even more modest goal: it aims to cut emissions in the United States merely to 2000 levels by 2010. And the Senate has rejected it twice.

Last June, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California became one of the few elected politicians with the courage to talk about climate change in the language it requires by promoting a plan to reduce his state’s greenhouse-gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2050. But Mr. Schwarzenegger has since warned of the need to move slowly so as not to “scare the business community.”

While the California governor backpedals, a team of scientists, economists and business executives have put forward a potentially revolutionary plan. Outlined by Ross Gelbspan, a former Boston Globe reporter and editor, in his book “Boiling Point,” the so-called Clean Energy Transition would start by turning over an estimated $25 billion in annual federal government payments now supporting the fossil-fuel industry to a new fund for renewable energy investments. It would also create a $300 billion clean-energy fund for developing countries through a tax on international currency transactions, while calling on industry to get in line with a progressive fossil-fuel efficiency standard, forcing greenhouse-gas emitters to immediately work on conservation. … If megaproposals like the Clean Energy Transition, which would get the ball rolling on a global level, still strike us as romantic and implausible, it’s only because our politicians, including the well-intentioned Mr. Gore, and smart, well-financed groups like Environmental Defense have denied us the leadership we need to achieve global warming solutions on par with the problem.

Indeed, it is precisely because the climate crisis is so profound that we need to encourage the American debate on the subject to move on, finally and for good, and start to focusing on how to build a bright green future as quickly as possible. The science, after all, is pretty unequivocal at this point. Indeed, essentially the last remaining credible skeptic, Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer announced this month that, despite his dislike for environmental groups

[D]ata trump politics, and a convergence of evidence from numerous sources has led me to make a cognitive switch on the subject of anthropogenic climate change. … Because of the complexity of the problem, environmental skepticism was once tenable. No longer. It is time to flip from skepticism to activism.

In other words, the debate is over. It’s just over. Climate change is here, it’s scarier than we thought, we’re causing it, and (especially in combination with other large-scale environmental and social problems) it’s going to demand radical innovation and major reforms.

But how do we get the word out to a wider audience? Maybe we need some sort of slogan (“It’s here, it’s human, get movin’” is the best I can do without another cup of coffee). Maybe we just need to make An Inconvenient Truth the number one movie in the USA [it opens this week in select theaters].

Maybe, though, we in the blogosphere should start at home.

Over the last few months, we here at Worldchanging and our allies at related sites across the blogosphere have seen a noticable uptick in comments and trackbacks from climate denialists. Some folks I’ve talked speculate that this is an organized effort to try to inject one final round of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt into the debate in advance of what is likely to be a summer where climate dominates the news. I don’t know that that’s true. What I do know is that having this debate online is no longer helpful: many of the folks making these comments seem most interested not in learning more about the science, but rather in spreading propaganda and disrupting conversation about how to take action. Climate “skeptics” have become a new brand of troll.

But how do you deal with climate denialists? This has been a subject of great debate here at WC Planetary HQ this last week.

Ignoring them (which is the usual practice for dealing with those who would disrupt an online conversation) will in this case leave unanswered what are essentially lies (often lies whose funding trails we can trace back to Big Oil). And we all know that a lie, unanswered, is often taken for the truth. That seems contrary to the mission we’re all pursuing, of putting forward better answers.

Nor do we feel comfortable deleting these comments: though many of them are clearly made in order simply to disrupt rather than add in any way to the conversation, and they are (as Joi Ito argues) a form of spam, and thus fair game for deletion, we feel that simply deleting them is a bad precedent, and that on principle the answer to bad speech is better speech. [Note: We were wrong.]

So ignoring and banning are both bad ideas: where does that leave us? We think it leaves us with the responsibility to answer these comments with better information.

But that’s time consuming, and we’re all busy people. So here’s our proposal — and we’d like your help:

First, we want to build a post for WorldChanging with a simple, clear list of resource links and easy explanations for what climate change is, why scientists know it’s real, and why we’re no longer interested in having this debate.

[Note: you can find an excellent version of this at How to Talk to a Climate Change Skeptic.]

Second, we would then like to come up with a clear, no-more-than-one-paragraph message which can be posted after trolling comments a) informing the commenter that, if they are serious in looking for more info, that info is available and they can access it on this page, and b) letting other readers know that the debate is over, and those questioning the scientific consensus at this point probably have another agenda, and we’re moving on. That message could even begin “The debate on climate change is over.”

It’s time to act.

“The Debate is Over” was originally published on May 22nd, 2006 at

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