How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen: A Skeptic’s View

Published August 21, 2014

An essay in the current issue of The Atlantic purports to instruct readers on“How to Talk About Climate So People Will Listen.” The author, Charles C. Mann, is a long-time contributor to the magazine who writes about history, tourism, and energy issues. With this article, he tries to cut a path between the two warring tribes in the global warming debate, the Alarmists and the Skeptics.

He fails, rather spectacularly I think.

The first four paragraphs (out of 45) are good, as are a few paragraphs later on about enviro fruitcake Bill McKibben. But the rest of the article simply accepts the dubious and sometimes outrageous assertions and false narratives that gave rise to alarmism in the first place, the same ones skeptics delight in debunking. Surveys show most people know more about global warming than does Mann. If alarmists use this article as their guide to how to talk about the issue, skeptics once again will win most of the debates in bars and around grills this summer.

A Good Start

Mann starts out strong, reporting how the media turned an obscure modeling exercise about the melt rate of the western Antarctic ice shelf into hysterical headlines about coastal flooding. Had he waited a couple weeks, he could have written much the same about “Russian methane holes.” The lesson in both cases is that the mainstream media are utterly unreliable sources of information on the climate issue. They profit from exaggeration, rely on special interests for advertising revenue, and lack expertise to report on science matters.

Sadly, Mann doesn’t appear to have learned this lesson. In the rest of his article he treats mainstream media accounts of the climate debate as dispository. The public understands this: Surveys show nearly half believe the media exaggerate the climate change problem.

Mann reports, in a single but very nice paragraph, the world’s enormous debt to fossil fuels. The Industrial Revolution, he says, was “driven by the explosive energy of coal, oil, and natural gas, it inaugurated an unprecedented three-century wave of prosperity.” One might quibble with his take on this: The improvement in the human condition started before 1800 and was the result of changes in institutions (the arrival of markets, private property, and limited government) and embrace of new values (the Scottish Enlightenment) as well as the discovery of fossil fuels. Without the first and second discoveries, the third would have done little more than heat some feudal castles and light some cobblestone streets.

An Important Step?

After this promising start, the errors come fast. “In an important step, the Obama administration announced in June its decision to cut power-plant emissions 30 percent by 2030.” There’s a lot wrong with that single sentence.

The Obama administration can’t cut power-plant emissions, except possibly by turning down the heat in the Oval Office in the winter and the air conditioning in the summer. It can only start rule-making processes that would make it illegal for coal-powered plants to continue to operate, and hope the courts and Congress don’t block or repeal the rules. That’s what it did. Time will tell if emissions fall as a result.

The baseline for the administration’s proposed cut of 30% of carbon dioxide emissions is 2005, nearly 10 years ago. Emissions have already fallen by about 15% since then (depending on who is measuring it), or half the goal. Is it unrealistic to expect a “business as usual” scenario would result in emissions in 2030 being 30 percent lower than they were in 2005?

Economists and demographers are converging on forecasts of continued “decarbonization” of the U.S. economy as electrification spreads, the service and digital sectors displace old-style manufacturing, economic growth slows, young people stay home or return home and stay longer than before, and an older population grows more sedentary. If so, how is the Obama administration’s proposal “an important step” to anywhere?

And just to pile on for a moment, even the Obama administration admits a reduction of 30% from 2005 levels by 2030 will have no detectable impact on global temperatures. Global warming alarmists admit this and call for reducing global emissions by 80% or more by 2050. Since there is no chance China, India, Canada, Australia, or Russia will reduce their emissions (voluntarily) between now and 2050, U.S. emissions would need to go to zero or even negative to meet that goal. (Negative? Yes… our economy would need to become a net “carbon sink,” sequestering more carbon dioxide than we emit.) How is Obama’s “business as usual” proposal an “important step” toward that goal?

Those Pesky Economists

Mann correctly scolds alarmists for “rhetorical overreach, moral miscalculation, shouting at cross-purposes…,” a “toxic blend” that damages their cause and fuels the skeptic backlash. But then he miscategorizes their opponents as economists, who he calls “cheerleaders for industrial capitalism.” That line reveals how little Mann knows about public opinion or economics.

Surveys show two-thirds of the American people don’t think global warming is man-made or a serious problem. Are two thirds of the American people economists? Not the last time I checked.

In the national (and global) debate over global warming, economists aren’t prominent, despite some attempts and wishes it were otherwise. The skeptics’ strongest weapon isn’t economics, it’s common sense. Temperatures aren’t rising even though carbon dioxide levels are. Reducing our emissions won’t affect climate so long as other nations keep increasing theirs. Some continued warming would produce more benefits than harms. Future generations will be far wealthier than us despite a small increase in temperatures. Each of these common-sense (and true) observations are deadly to the alarmists’ cause.

Everybody knows we reap tremendous benefits from affordable fossil fuels today. You don’t need to be an economist to know that those benefits vastly exceed the benefits, two centuries from now, of slowing the advance of man-made climate change by one degree or two, assuming the alarmists’ dubious predictions are correct.

Mann’s appreciation for fossil fuels, so eloquently expressed in paragraph three, is missing now. He dismisses cost-benefit analysis as having “moral problems” due to the way it handles small risks and long time horizons. That will come as news to all the experts who made careers of conducting cost-benefit analyses on a wide range of programs and challenges. Why is global warming any different?

Politics and Environmental Protection

Mann says global warming legislation no longer wins congressional approval due to a polarization in views over the value of environmental protection that occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. In Mann’s telling of the story, concern for the environment began as a conservative movement, and then businesses “realized that environmental issues had a price tag. Increasingly, they balked. Reflexively, the anticorporate left pivoted; Earth Day, erstwhile snow job, became an opportunity to denounce capitalist greed.”

Some of us who were part of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s saw something different taking place. The great environmental protection legislation of the 1970s passed with nearly unanimous support because the problems were real and begged for national solutions. After early major successes, an iron triangle of bureaucrats, grandstanding politicians, and yellow journalists started a drum-beat for pursuing ever-more stringent emission reductions regardless of their negligible benefits and soaring costs. The consensus that had produced lop-sided votes in favor of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts disappeared, not because of some kind of “political stasis in the ’90s,” but because the biggest environmental problems had been solved and further legislation wasn’t needed.

It was at this point, during the 1980s, that liberals (or “progressives”) saw the opportunity and the need to take over the environmental movement and use its members as shock troops in its war on “capitalism.” It was easy, since conservatives and libertarians were stepping down and moving on to organizations created to solve real problems. Many histories of the left’s takeover of the environmental movement have been written. A partial list appears in Jay Lehr’s recent Heartland Policy Brief on “Replacing the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Once in charge of the environmental movement, the left turned its erstwhile members into conscripts much like the others in its army: organized labor, feminists, African Americans, trial lawyers, and gays and lesbians. Donors to the environmental movement – solar and wind entrepreneurs, ethanol producers, lawyers, and billionaire financiers like Tom Steyer – are dunned for contributions to the Democratic Party and its affiliates. Propaganda replaces factual information, hysterical warnings of threats to rights and privileges lead to calls to action and “remember to vote on Tuesday.”

The politicization of the movement is made explicit by the League of Conservation Voters’ annual scorecards, which invariably reward Democrats and punish Republicans. The 2013 National Environmental Scorecard, which it says “represents the consensus of experts from about 20 respected environmental and conservation organizations,” includes this nice tribute to bipartisanship: “The Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives continues to be controlled by Tea Party climate change deniers with an insatiable appetite for attacks on the environment and public health.”

More False Narratives

Mann says “a cap-and-trade mechanism… reduced acid rain at a fraction of the predicted cost; electric bills were barely affected.” Actually, research by energy economist Jim Johnston and others shows the cap-and-trade mechanism played only a minor role in reducing emissions. What drove the reductions while allowing prices to stay low was the opening of inexpensive low-sulfur coal mines in western states.

Mann says, “I remember winters as being colder in my childhood….” The 1970s saw some of the coldest winters in the twentieth century, so it’s no surprise many of us remember them that way. But the 1930s and 1940s were warmer than today … and human carbon dioxide emissions couldn’t have been responsible for that warm period. This past winter was the coldest, longest, and snowiest in my life (I live in Illinois and part-time in Wisconsin), and recent summers have been among the coolest I can recall. This morning it was 51 degrees when I walked to my train… on August 15. I don’t remember having to wear coats in August, do you?

Mann says “a few critics argue that for the past 17 years warming has mostly stopped. Still, most scientists believe that in the past century the Earth’s average temperature has gone up by about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit.” This is wrong on a couple counts.

The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which Mann and alarmists generally hold out as the gold standard of climate research, admitted there’s been no warming for the past 15 years in its “final draft” Summary for Policymakers, before politicians and environmental activists made them take it out. Is that “a few critics”? And skeptics don’t deny a warming of 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit occurred “in the past century.” Much of the increase occurred before it could have been attributed to the human presence. Why this peculiar and misleading phrasing?

Swallowing the Left’s Rhetoric

By now, most readers will have figured out that Mann isn’t the impartial observer of the global warming debate he pretends to be. I wasn’t surprised to read, “rising temperatures per se are not the primary concern,” which is the alarmists’ pat answer when confronted by the fact that global warming stopped 17 years ago. But here’s the problem with that: According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the alarmists’ computer models “rule out” a zero trends for 15 years or more, meaning an observed absence of warming of this duration invalidates the models… and the alarmists’ theory.

(Here’s the source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2009. Knight, J. et al., Comment in Peterson, T. C., and M. O. Baringer, Eds., “State of the Climate in 2008,” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Vol. 90, p. S23.)

When data rise up and refute a theory, good scientists don’t reject the data, they reject the theory. Global warming alarmists just say “never mind” and move to the next bit of pseudoscience. Like this: “Note, too, that this policy comes with a public-health bonus: reining in coal pollution could ultimately avoid as many as 6,600 premature deaths and 150,000 children’s asthma attacks per year in the United States alone.”

Really, it doesn’t get much sillier than this. Carbon dioxide is a harmless, invisible, colorless gas. It doesn’t cause “premature deaths” or “asthma attacks.” Shutting down all the coal plants in the U.S. would reduce emissions of real pollutants, which is the basis for Mann’s claim, but those emissions already are too low to be associated with human health effects, and asthma attacks have been rising in frequency even as those emissions have dropped. The dramatically higher energy bills caused by shutting down coal plants, however, would cause morepremature deaths, and since asthma is correlated with family income, would cause moreasthma attacks.

It All Leads Up to This?

After a few paragraphs of criticism of easy-target Bill McKibben, presumably to throw skeptical readers off his alarmist scent, Mann delivers what those readers who haven’t given up already might think is the best talking point: “Let’s assume that rising carbon-dioxide levels will become a problem of some magnitude at some time and that we will want to do something practical about it.”

Yes, really, this is what 40 or so paragraphs have led up to: Let’s just assume it’s a big problem (or will be) and we should all just pitch in and try to solve it. This is where Uncle Jack leans over and says “Um, how about we not make a series of such dumb-ass assumptions and in the process save billions (even trillions) of dollars and millions (maybe billions) of human lives?”

This is the crux of the problem, both with Mann’s attempt to find a middle ground in the global warming debate and with the left’s obsession with the issue. Global warming alarmism rests on assumptions, not facts, logic, or reason. It’s got no game.

“Let’s just assume there’s a reason for government to take over a quarter of the nation’s economy and fix it, just like Obamacare will fix health care. Let’s simply assume the missing science exists, that the warming will be big enough to notice, that it will happen before mankind has found a substitute for fossil fuels or is colonizing other planets, and that the benefits of stopping or slowing climate change would be worth the expense.”

Anyone who stops and thinks about this, even for a moment, realizes it’s nonsense. Why would you make these assumptions? Why would you give up the benefits of affordable fossil fuels? “We may not be scientists,” says Uncle Jack, “but we’re not stupid.”

This is why alarmists always lose debates against skeptics. It’s why alarmists will look and act like fools this summer at countless cook-outs and family parties, while skeptics will sound thoughtful and reasonable. It’s not because, as Mann insists, people are too stupid to understand graphs. It’s because alarmists are wrong and skeptics are right. It’s just common sense.

And that, my friends, is how to talk about climate change so people will listen.