I spoke too soon. A certain populariser of the anti-global-warming movement has received more media attention than I’d hoped this week as he continues his speaking tour of Australia. The ABC’s 7:30 report carried a fairly careful story about the issue yesterday, which I was thinking about in the surf this morning. One comment in particular stuck in my head, by Penny Sackett, the Chief Scientist for Australia:
“I think that we’re seeing more and more a confusion between a political debate, a political debate that needs to happen, it’s important to happen, and the discussion of the science. I feel that these two things are being confused and it worries me, actually.
… [T]his is what I meant about polarising society. We’re beginning to describe people as sceptics or denialists or alarmist, warmist, all of these words that I’m beginning to hear. And I think that is very unhelpful, because when we’re doing that we’re actually playing the man and not ball. We should be discussing the science, not labelling people.”
Human nature seems to thrive on tribalism, so being able to identify with this or that group on any given issue can give a sense of belonging. There is a legitimate political debate about climate change, but the position of “no ETS” is becoming increasingly blurred with the position of “no global warming”. These positions should be almost entirely separate – the policy debate stems from the acceptance of climate change as an issue; it is not a debate about the scientific legitimacy of the issue.
However, the highly vocal anti-GW movement has managed to link the two positions. It’s smart campaigning: people will support policies on party lines, quite often, so if the “no ETS = no GW” equation can be successfully sold, then a large proportion of people in the community will hold that position simply because it aligns with their political or social viewpoint. I know that I, personally, don’t research and make an informed decision every (or even most) policy which I don’t have an active interest in, which is probably in common with just about everyone else in the population.
Formulating an opinion based on trends – this party/these parties tend to make policy I agree with, so I will agree with them again here – is simple and easy. While I’m sure a large majority of people haven’t gone through and read the IPCC reports and primary literature and made an informed decision about the veracity of climate change, they may have remained climate-agnostics: admitting that they don’t know enough. The “no ETS = no GW” seeks to turn “I don’t know” into “No” by default.
By deploying terms like ‘alarmist’ and ‘denialist’, artificial lines are drawn which are destructive to useful communication. These scornfully applied terms can be worn like badges of political or ideological identity; I’m a climate skeptic, and you can’t convince me otherwise, you alarmist!
Stumbling home in the early hours of sunday morning, after a particularly large saturday, one of my friends stated that, after doing some reading up on the subject, he didn’t think there was sufficient evidence to link human activity to climate change. I bit my tongue (perhaps a little melodramatically), but sparking up would have been entirely counterproductive. Scorning someone for a statement like that isn’t going to make them understand or accept climate change. My friend isn’t a ‘denialist’ or a ‘skeptic’: he’s just a person who holds an opinion about an issue.
For those brave, hardy souls who have read all the way to this point (+10 points to all of you), you might be wondering where I’m going with this. It’s a minor epiphany I’ve been leading to: I’m going to avoid, wherever I can, applying labels and judging people based on their views on climate change. I reserve the right to make exceptions for the particularly objectionable (you know who…), but the next time I hear someone doesn’t believe in climate change, I might just ask them why, or point them to the excellent website Skeptical Science for some further reading. I will remember that, no matter where on the spectrum of belief that person falls, they are much more than just a ‘skeptic’ or a ‘warmist’.