Say Brother, Can You Share My Logic? The Climate Debate and “Talking Past Each Other”

Mon, 2011-07-18 07:32Chris Mooney
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Say Brother, Can You Share My Logic? The Climate Debate and “Talking Past Each Other”

I’ve previously written about University of Michigan business professor Andrew Hoffman’s insightful work on the underlying motivations behind climate skepticism. Now, I’ve come across a more detailed recent paper, in Organization and Environment, that advances the case.

Hoffman’s strategy this time is to examine newspaper editorials, op-eds, and letters to the editor from both sides of the issue—795 of them, published between September of 2007 and September of 2009. Hoffman combines a look at these opinion pieces with an examination of the rhetoric at last year’s Heartland Institute climate denial conference.

His conclusion is that the two sides of the debate simply argue past each other. The Heartland folks, of course, think climate science is ideological and corrupt, and action on this non-existent problem will hurt the economy—and that, basically, it’s all an environmentalist power grab. They even detect hints of socialism or communism at the root of the movement for climate action.

But this we know already. What’s more interesting is the newspaper writings.

A large majority of the articles were convinced of climate risks–but there were lots of disagreeing letters to the editor. Overall, “skeptic” opinions came not from journalists or experts, but from average citizens. And what lay at the center of their logic, content wise?

Not surprisingly, almost 90% of skeptical articles reference science. It suggests that the skeptical logic centers on the idea that the problem definition of climate change is the crux of the debate. For the skeptical, there is no problem or there is uncertainty about whether there is a problem.

The skeptic articles are also very interested in diagnosing and explaining the “motives” of those who disagree with them—and in bashing one person in particular. Guess who?

Similar to the terminology of the climate denier movement, nearly 25% of all skeptical articles refer to climate change proponents as “alarmists.” More specifically, the dominant political target of these arguments is Al Gore, who is blamed by skeptical authors for fabricating the problem of climate change for ideological and personal gain. A word count of all the skeptical articles showed that nearly 40% of them mention Gore in one fashion or another.

Not only do skeptics love to talk about Gore—but they think he’s in it for the money, not the planet. Wild, off base? Sure. but that’s what they say. They are going after our motives, and our leaders.

Those who are convinced climate is a problem overwhelmingly talk about it in a different way. They discuss not so much the validity of the science, but the many risks from doing nothing, and the specific solutions—such as legislation—for addressing the issue. 

Hoffman’s conclusion is that the two sides are talking about vastly different things—and also, that the level of demonization is far too high for de-polarization to occur:

The form of the political dialogue illustrated above (which may be suggestive of the denier/believer extreme of the debate) suggests a conflict of positions that are relatively exclusive and rigid, positions that will not yield to negotiation and resolution because they define and establish very strong in-group/out-group distinctions. At the national level at least, it appears that for some of the more extreme elements, political debate has broken down and the two sides are talking past each other. 

No shock, maybe–but certainly the situation is bad, bad, bad. It is increasingly being observed that the climate debate is becoming like the abortion debate—far too polarized and entrenched for any dialogue to occur. Hoffman’s results lend strength to this characterization. 

Previous Comments

First a word about the difference between ‘sceptic’ and ‘denier’. A sceptic is someone who maintains an open mind and reviews all the relevant evidence as it becomes available. All scientists, from Jim Hansen to Bjorn Lomborg (although the latter is a poor economist at best) can be described as sceptics. The ‘skeptical’ articles analysed above were not written by sceptics, but by deniers. Deniers are those who refuse to accept the weight of evidence, which every scientific body in the world agrees points to as definite a problem and cause as you will ever get in science.

What this shows is that denial is nothing to do with the science or any objective analysis of the science. Deniers cherry-pick the science they want to believe in, or misinterpret specific papers in a way that supports their preconceptions. Their focus on the science is not shared by those calling for action simply because the science is so overwhelmingly supportive of the theory.

There is nothing to debate, so why engage in debate with people who are deliberately lying about the entire topic?

There are several websites (notably Coby Beck’s contributions on Grist) that attempt to counteract the various pseudo-scientific counter-arguments with some facts and logic.

I am not convinced that this is similar to the abortion debate, since that debate has valid arguments on both sides, and is a moral dilemma that has never been adequately resolved, and probably never can be. The climate change debate is, rather, akin to the evolution debate. Real scientists who assess the information dispassionately all, without exception, agree that something drastic and dangerous is happening as a result of our influence on the atmosphere. Those who disagree do so either as a result of financial or dogmatic incentives preventing the ‘dispassionate’ part (e.g. Soon), or do not have the intelligence and training to qualify for the ‘scientist’ part (e.g. Monkton).

Keep up the good work - and maybe consider contributing articles to Challenge?

I can’t help but wish that Hoffman had examined editorials, op-eds, and letters to the editor from both sides between the dates of September 2009 and the present instead(ie; post Climategate). I’m sure that he would have found a lot more interesting material. H

What’s fascinating is that the study ended with materials printed before Climategate. Can anyone guess why?

“What’s fascinating is that the study ended with materials printed before Climategate. Can anyone guess why?”

Because the lies, misinformation, lack of understanding & hysteria by deniers got worse after then?

What “debate”? The debate is over, and you lost. Get used to it.

Unfortunately the AGW Religious Cult is so far removed from reality that you’ll never understand that, even as the movers are evicting you from your offices and leaving the contents of your desk in cardboard boxes by the curb.

Here’s a good example:

“They even detect hints of socialism or communism at the root of the movement for climate action.”

Hmm, maybe they “even detect” this because the Global Warming Cult has repeatedly and unambiguously declared their socialist/collectivist goals. They’re not even shy about it.

The latest loud socialist manifesto comes from the Australian Green Party:

* The system of global governance must be reinvigorated.

* A stronger UN capable of dealing with threats to international peace and security.

* Support the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, and ensure that all nations are subject to its decisions.

* Major structural reform is needed to provide stronger, more effective and more representative multilateral institutions.

* The leading role of the United Nations (UN) in the maintenance of International peace and security must be recognised and respected by all countries.

* The international financial institutions that govern aid, development, trade, and transnational financial movements require extensive reform to enable them to provide global economic justice

* Support the establishment of an international environmental court and an environmental council at the UN, with similar decision-making powers to the Security Council to deal with environmental issues of global significance.

There you have it. World government and wealth redistribution, and they’re not even trying to hide it.

Frankly, I’d rather trust my fate to Maoist Shining Path guerillas or the Khmer Rouge.

You can rest assured that the US (and China and Russia, for that matter) will never give the UN that much power. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. History has shown us this time and again.

“The debate is over, and you lost. Get used to it.”

You might be right. In a democracy that’s how things go. I’m prepared to live with that. On the other hand, “Mother Nature bats last,” so it will be interesting to see the outcomes there. I sincerely hope the “skeptics” are right.

You forgot fluoride and precious bodily fluids.

Hahaha! I haven’t laughed that much in ages! ;)

“What “debate”? The debate is over, and you lost. Get used to it. ”

*sigh*…I’ve been hearing that for the past 7 years that I have been following AGW. Strange, but they never seem to realise that we are still here & it hasn’t gone away.

Even if we shut all the scientists up world wide, the problem will just go on.

recyclenot, anyone who does not know the difference between science and religious belief is not worth reading on either topic.


Anyone who does not understand that science doesn’t require “belief” is an idiot.

Thanks for playing.

Not quite right. It’s perfectly acceptable to use belief so long as it’s revised when new evidence comes along and overturns the previous position. This is known as “belief revisionism”, and separates science from religious dogma, the latter tending to dig its heels in, refusing to accept new evidence.

Well I guess it had to happen eventually…..

The greenhouse theory has been falsified emperically.


‘Satellite Records Back Up Mexican Findings

Professor Nahle’s findings will come as no surprise to anyone who is up to speed with the other big climate story that has raised huge doubts over any so-called greenhouse effect. NASA now admits global warming just isn’t happening despite ever-rising levels of CO2.’

Another huge spike in the coffin.

Oh dear, what utter tosh. They do not even appear to understand the NASA article that they so jubilantly link to, and omit some rather important details. Here is the link:

In which they quote the following:

“Continued emissions at current (year 2000) pollutant and CO2 levels may have little near-term effect on climate, but the climate ‘debt’ from CO2 forcing will continue to mount. Once pollution controls are put into place as society demands cleaner air it will rapidly come due, leading to a “double warming” effect as simultaneous reductions in sulfate and increases in CO2 combine to accelerate global warming. The only way to avoid this would be not to impose pollution controls and to perpetually increase sulfur-dioxide emissions, which would lead to a staggering cost in human health and is clearly unsustainable.”

So nothing new, just “skeptics” misrepresenting the science.

The coffin of AGW (again): 10 tons of nails, one ounce of wood, no corpse inside.

The study is flawed because it fails to consider the group-think that is being promulgated by foundations–Walton, Scaife, Bradley, Charles Lambe, Koch, etc. There would be no denier/skeptic movement if it weren’t for the funding that these foundations provide.

Unfortunately, this looks to be more and more like the Emperor’s New Clothes where those who responsible for executing the policies of the foundations are obligated to provide the specific response that their funders’ want to hear or else risk losing their patronage.

If one looks at each of these foundations, inevitably they are founded in the 1960s and 1970s. And if one looks at the reasons for their founding, it is because a well-meaning wealthy individual was concerned about either an increase in government social welfare programs, which is viewed as the slippery slope to socialism, or as a concern for insufficient national response to communism.

In either case, the foundation instinctively will take a scientific issue and compartmentalize it into its framework as one of “conservative values” versus “socialism” or “communism”.

The unfortunate situation is that even free-market/libertarian economists realize that there are situations where government action is required. Here is what Hayek writes in Chapter 3 of “The Road to Serfdom”:

“To prohibit the use of certain poisonous substances or to require special precautions in their use, to limit working hours or to require certain sanitary arrangements, is fully compatible with the preservation of competition. The only question here is whether in the particular instance the advantages gained are greater than the societal costs which they impose. Nor is the preservation of competition incompatible with an extensive system of social services – so long as the organization of these services is not designed in such a way as to make competition ineffective over wide fields. …

There are, finally, undoubted fields where no legal arrangements can create the main condition on which the usefulness of the system of competition and private property depends: namely, that the owner benefits from all the useful services rendered by his property and suffers for all the damages caused to others by its use. Where, for example, it is impracticable to make the enjoyment of certain services dependent on the payment of a price, competition will not produce the services; and the price system becomes similarly ineffective when the damage caused to others by certain uses of property cannot be effectively charged to the owner of that property. In all these instances there is a divergence between the items which enter into private calculations and those which affect social welfare; and, whenever this divergence becomes important, some method other than competition may have to be found to supply the services in question. …

Nor can certain harmful effects of deforestation, of some methods of farming, or of the smoke and noise of factories be confined to the owner of the property in question or to those who are willing to submit to the damage for an agreed compensation. In such instances we must find some substitute for the regulation by the price mechanism.”

The issue of global warming fits all the criteria which Hayek lays out for government intervention. What is key to Hayek is that government action should not be taken with the intent of income redistribution.

“denial is nothing to do with the science or any objective analysis of the science”

For evidence, please read the comments subsequent to mine.

My experience is that the denier attacks are divided into the self identified intellectuals who use the many arguments documented at Skeptical Science (GW stopped in 2000, urban heat-island, etc) and the more political types who go after Al Gore. In either case they appear immune to evidence. How bad will conditions have to get to see any manifestation of cognitive dissonance?

RE: “How bad will conditions have to get to see any manifestation of cognitive dissonance?”

What conditions? Even granting for a moment that AGW is real (which is a big stretch), what square inch of the globe is in peril at this moment due to AGW? Who has died? What war has broken out as predicted? What species is extinct? On the other hand, what species is thriving? What is the proper and just amount of arctic ice? What low lying island has disappeared, or even begun to? How long will the Maldives be just fine before you admit you were being foolish?

Where exactly are these bad conditions? I read somewhere that the Sahara seems to be greening. Positive side affect of AGW?

Ask rather who will die from lack of food from droughts and other extreme weather causing crop failures. If stupid anonymous is too lazy to do the research, he can go cry for it.

Meanwhile, in the US:

“…At its peak, the heat wave put some 132 million people under a heat alert and was blamed for as many as 34 deaths, according to the National Weather Service…”

“…No relief was in sight, however, for the southern plains where triple-digit heat will continue to roast states such as Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Arkansas, forecasters said.

The heat has exacerbated droughts in Texas and Arkansas.”


For more than a year, oil giant BP has waged a massive public relations battle to convince Americans that the company has been bamboozled by the oil spill claims process relating to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout.

This BP PR campaign has involved full-page newspaper ads paid for...

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