The Straw Man Arguments of Climate Denial

For some unknown reason, the New York Times decided that in 2017, it needed to hire a known climate denier away from the Wall Street Journal. The new op-ed writer, Bret Stephens, wasted no time diving into the fray, decrying the certainty of people who want action on climate change. His article is fantastic example of how to make straw man arguments.

Here’s the critical passage from his climate hit piece:

Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expensive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions.

He makes two fundamental claims:

(1) Everyone who is seriously concerned about climate change (which, I would note, includes basically every major scientific association in the world) is TOO certain about the science.

(2) Solving the problem will be “abrupt and expensive.”

On the first one, the only thing to say is that’s bullshit. It’s not that the climate-concerned know with 100% certainty how it will all play out — of course we don’t, and nobody serious is really claiming that we do. The science is filled with probability assessments.

No, the certainty is around the case for action, which is different than the science itself. In that, I’m 100% sure robust action is justified, given both the probabilities of continued emissions changing our climate AND the dire consequences if the warming continues unabated. It’s basically an expected value calculation, and the risk-reward assessment is clear.

Reducing carbon — through innovation in energy, buildings, transportation, and other sectors — is an enormous opportunity to improve health and generate wealth.

The second claim has been the go-to for deniers for many years. It’s nearly the official position of the entire GOP establishment in DC, especially the president. They talk about fighting climate change as if it’s some giant liberal boondoggle to spend money. There are two big problems with this argument. First, it’s quite a logical feat to decry climate hawks for certainty, and then declare with utter confidence (and no data) that doing anything to reduce emissions will be too expensive.

But second, and more importantly, the argument that reducing carbon will drag the economy down is wrong, increasingly absurd, and actually backwards.

If we do nothing, unabated climate change and weather extremes will cost the world tens of trillions of dollars (that’s analysis from Citi and other banks, not Greenpeace). Reducing carbon — through innovation in energy, buildings, transportation, and other sectors — is once-in-a-species’-lifetime opportunity to improve health and generate wealth. As in many trillions of dollars. Thus, rolling back action on climate, as Trump’s recent executive order did, will hurt the economy and our competitiveness.

I could point to endless evidence of the case for action. But what’s the point really? Many people will not be convinced that tackling climate change is justified by the science and by every possible interpretation of risk management. They will keep their ears plugged and eyes covered forever.

By encouraging everyone to go slow, the deniers risk everything, but unfortunately not just for themselves. We’re all in this together, which is why Stephens and his ilk are so dangerous. On the alter of making a point and sounding smart, they’re sacrificing our collective well-being.

Alas, we’ll never convince those like him, even as we build a healthier, better, cleaner economy for him and his children. Onward.

(See part 2 of this discussion, Denying Climate Denial).