Logical Fallacies in Climate Change Denialism

During my time at Vanderbilt, I knew of the morass of pro-anthropogenic global warming (AGW), anti-AGW, and flat-out denial websites, but never actually explored them. Navigating Google to research my previous post reintroduced me to that wide range of mindsets and mental gymnastics that end up in the climate change debate. I would look up a graph showing some relationship, click on a promising-looking image, and find out that it came from a site that completely misconstrued it. Poor, innocent graph.

Running across sites like Resilient Earth force me to very carefully consider my own arguments – the author did thorough research (much of it from the same sources I use), made some superficially convincing arguments, and then the whole argument veered off into left field when he tried to corral those facts into a something that would support a denialist mindset. (The author, Doug Hoffman, later presented these arguments at the convention of “Scientists for Truth”, which I guess is supposed to contrast with my party of “Scientists for Lies”) This experience led me to turn to my favorite resource on logic, Ali Almossawi’s Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments, to try to pin down the exact reason I thought he used faulty logic.

Let’s take this example, quoted from Hoffman’s article:

“What the future holds climate scientists are unable to portend with all their computer models and IPCC consensus reports. The Earth and its climate are constantly changing—there is no one correct climate or temperature for our planet. Those who say CO2 is the most important factor in climate change, that human GHG emissions will cause runaway global warming, have no historical basis for such claims”

First of all, his argument in the first sentence is based on a blatant falsehood. The author is confusing scientists’ carefully calculated margins of error with an inability to “portend”, and is using a small uncertainty in the magnitude of predicted change to ignore the fact that the change itself is certain. Logically, this error in rhetoric falls under “straw man” strategy – using a misconstrued picture of the opposition as evidence in an argument.

In the second sentence, Hoffman states a (true) fact and hopes that the reader will make an unwritten leap of logic with him: “there is no one correct temperature for the planet” = “humans’ effects on climate won’t create a completely new paradigm” = (giant logic leap) = “We don’t have to worry”. This one was harder to pin down, but I decided it shows the “appeal to ignorance” strategy, in which arguments present an absence of evidence as evidence of absence. The author argues that since life is some form has always adapted to temperature (i.e. an absence of evidence of a climate that perturbs life), then no matter what temperature we create on earth, we will adapt (i.e. evidence of an absence of true risk).

In the last sentence, the author argues that because we have no evidence that humans have changed the climate in the past, then we cannot change the climate in the present. This argument reminds me of the “hasty generalization” strategy: something along the lines of “I have never seen food that isn’t circular, so all food must be circular”. While there haven’t been past situations where humans dumped CO2 into the atmosphere we have, as I covered in my last blog post, we have seen evidence of times where a natural CO2 excursion has created dramatic changes in the climate and ocean circulation.

Now that we’ve explored the logical fallacies of a climate change denier, let’s move on to the content. That particular website brings me to my pet peeve climate change denial argument: the climate has always changed and life has rebounded after even the harshest extinctions, so why should we worry?

Life may have rebounded, but it sure wasn’t the life that thrived before the change. Trilobite diversity declined, and was replaced with diversity in reptiles at the end of the Paleozoic. Reptile diversity was superseded by a trend towards mammalian diversity at the end of the Mesozoic. Our current problem with climate change is not that it will wipe out all life on earth (it won’t), but that it will make business-as-usual a whole lot more complicated and expensive for us humans. Human societies are very used to the status quo of geography and climate; there’s no guarantee that ecosystems’ adaptations to the new climate regime we’re helping to create will be pleasant for us.

Owners of beachfront property may be able to survive a climate change, but any small change in hurricane patterns will wreck havoc on their investments. The California drought may be balanced out on a global scale by flooding elsewhere, but that doesn’t make the residents of either place any happier. We can’t pick up New Orleans and have it migrate northward away from the encroaching seas, or take increasing snowfall in the far north and transplant it to shrinking low-latitude snow-packs. (Although I know some engineers who would love to try) Our planet has amazing capacities for reinvention on geological timescales, as shown by the history of life throughout extinctions. While humans are pretty darn ingenious and flexible, we live on a much shorter timescale and our investments in geography make us vulnerable.

Although I’ve weighed the facts and believe that climate change is accelerating, I don’t believe that climate change is the necessarily most dangerous kind of change that we’re dealing with at the moment.

Over the past 50 years humans, by the force of our growing populations and economic footprints, have had to come to grips with the stress we put on our planet. For hundreds of years we had swept the environmental externalities of our actions under the rug of “endless” land and “boundless” oceans, only to find out that we have come to the ends and found the bounds of both. The climate change debate has consumed that more subtle and tangled issue; certain politicians then ignore that unpopular sustainability debate under the more popular excuse of the controversy of our responsibility for climate change. To stretch that metaphor past its breaking point (sorry), we’ve run out of space under the rug, and the consequences of the human race’s historical growth are spilling out into the light of day.

Just for fun, I flipped back through the “Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments” to see which one I could apply to that particular issue. There’s an overabundance of choice, depending on which angle of their argument I focus on. I could start out with the “Appeal to Fear”, the fallacy that “plays on the fears of an audience by imagining a scary future that would be of their making if some proposition were accepted”. When a politician says something like “If we take action on climate change, it will cripple the economy and attack the lifestyle of the hard-working middle class,” this is the one of the fallacies in play. It’s a classic bad argument because it completely ignores society’s ability to make positive, inventive change in the economic paradigm. It could also be construed as an example of the “False Dilemma” fallacy, in the sense that it oversimplifies the complex sustainability issues into “Either we continue with the status quo, or we abandon our cars, close all of our factories, and live like it’s 1750”.

These arguments also use the ‘Appeal to Consequences” fallacy, and handily Almossawi even gave a climate-related example, so I’ll set it out here:

On the flip side, a reader might look at my arguments and accuse me of using the “Straw Man” fallacy to oversimplify people with objections to the current scientific consensus on climate change. To which I would have to say: mea culpa.I know that there’s a huge range of opinions and arguments in this debate, but while I could go and find specific politicians who have made those arguments, there’s no way I could address all of them in a blog post. That would be serious PhD-in-political-science fodder. Climate policy is a high-stakes cost-benefit game, and I understand that many decision-makers simply use a calculus with differently weighted values than I do. I know change is often scary to contemplate and possibly expensive, but I oppose exploiting that fear and shying from that cost as political strategies.
Isn’t rhetoric fun?

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