Climate change rhetoric, politics and smear (I)

August 29th, 2006
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Charles MacKay wrote a seminal book 165 years ago, called Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, describing several examples of wacky mass-behaviour like the South Sea Bubble (a huge investment scam) and the Tulip Mania (where the 17th century Dutch paid small fortunes for a single flower bulb). It is a classic because it gives trenchant examples of society’s frequent lapses into collective psychosis.

I’ve long been convinced that the current global warming (or “climate change”) hysteria is just such a popular delusion. It has all the signs – a fervent collective belief; disregard or at least dismissal of facts contrary to the belief; and this time, fanatical persecution of unbelievers. This behaviour then appears to have much more to do with human psychology and pseudo-religion than reason or scientific method.

It is in this context that we must examine climate change, as a sociological phenomenon. This manifests itself in the way that climate-catastrophists argue their case, and how they criticize climate-change- skeptics. So let’s look at the rhetorical tactics of the Climate Catastrophists.

A case in point was Charles Montgomery’s Globe and Mail article on climatologist Tim Ball, portraying him as part of a great right-wing conspiracy encompassing the Conservative Party and “Big Oil” money.  The article was ably deconstructed by Terence Corcoran in the Financial Post, so I’ll only make a couple of specific criticisms down the page.

Many of the environmentalists and assorted other activists promoting climate catastrophe are not scientists. One can’t really expect Al Gore to expound intelligently on forward modeling of climate or history matching of temperatures. Now that small groups are arguing the contrary position, it’s no surprise the proselytizers eschew scientific arguments.

Ad hominem attacks start it off. As we’ve written before, one radical website even posts caricatures (a kind of “rogue’s gallery”) of the climate change skeptics they don’t like. The next level is to question the scientific credentials of the skeptic as with the throw away line in Montgomery’s article “Dr. Ball hasn’t published on climate science in more than 14 years.”  Well, he IS retired.

The next line of offense is refering to the “scientific consensus” on climate change. As many commentators have noted, this in and of itself is meaningless. There was a scientific consensus that the sun revolved around the earth – and Ptolemy’s astronomic calculations were fairly accurate – until the Copernican revolution proved the consensus wrong. So the mere fact that many scientists believe something to be true does not mean it is true.

Finally there is the biased-self-interest argument; that climate skeptics largely are shills of the oil and gas industry. This was expanded by Montgomery to allege that “Big Oil” was like “Big Tobacco”, deliberately misleading the public about the environmental impact of their emissions.
These are serious allegations. With the debate at this level, how can it proceed?  More on that tomorrow.

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