In Plato’s time they would regularly hold competitions between a skilled rhetorician and an experienced doctor to see who could convince a crowd who was the better doctor. Apparently the rhetorician would always win and if we consider the implications of that for the climate change debate it raises some serious concerns.
It is commonly claimed that there are four key rules of successful rhetoric: charm, simple arguments, false dichotomies and cheating. It is clear from this that scientists start off at a significant disadvantage. They are rarely great communicators of their expertise and generally work with a very high level of integrity that would not stoop to use the last two tricks. By contrast the sceptics that oppose them are frequently very effective rhetoricians. I believe this is one of the reasons that the climate change debate has moved so slowly.
Arguably there is no better performer in the climate change arena than Bjorn Lomborg who recently gave the RSA President’s lecture. An example of a classic false dichotomy is his claim that any money spent cutting carbon emissions means there is less available for tackling challenges in the developing world. It sounds clear and unarguable until you dismantle its assumptions. A country like the UK allocates about 0.3 per cent of its GDP to foreign aid and it is how we manage the other 99.7 per cent that determines how much we will mitigate our emissions. If I choose to buy a small, fuel-efficient car rather than a gas guzzler then it does not mean there is less money available for other causes. The opposite in fact. Similarly, we can build ultra low carbon houses for the same cost as standard ones producing radically lower emissions without any reduction in the financial resources to address other challenges.
There are four key rules of successful rhetoric: charm, simple arguments, false dichotomies and cheating
To take an example of a simple argument that Bjorn Lomborg uses; in his book Cool It he argues that cutting carbon costs about $20 per tonne and does only $2 worth of good. In May 2009, I spoke directly to the source of the $2 figure, Professor Richard Tol, who told me the following: "The $2 figure comes about when you ignore all the uncertainties and discount rate, but if you start including the fact that things could go dramatically wrong then you would come up with a much higher number.” Professor Tol believes the right figure for the damage cost of carbon is $28 per tonne. So rather than showing that cutting carbon represents a sound investment, Lomborg has used Tol’s work to suggest that cutting carbon represents a very bad deal. The significance of this should not be under-estimated: this is the economic basis on which Bjorn Lomborg has convinced countless captains of industry and political leaders to delay action on climate change.
Such distortions are disappointing and should not have any place in the debate. Another example of poor use of statistics can be found in the way that Lomborg presents the IPCC predictions of sea level rise. He states that the IPCC predict a rise of 18 to 59cm this century or “about 30cm” as he puts it. However what the IPCC report actually predicted was a rise of 18-59 cm plus an unknown extra rise from various other factors. The IPCC’s top scientists concluded in March 2009 that the total rise is likely to be 100cm. Puzzlingly, Lomborg seems to be aware of this from his exchanges with the IPCC’s Stefan Rahmstorf but has continued to quote the 30cm figure. Clearly there is a huge difference between 30cm and 100cm in terms of impact. In Lomborg’s lecture I counted five other disappointing uses of peer-reviewed literature including his summary of the scientific papers on heat versus cold-related deaths (such as WR Keating’s 'Heat related mortality in warm and cold regions of Europe: observational study') and his account of polar bears’ status (see Howard Friel’s The Lomborg Deception).
The climate sceptics’ positions have followed similar mindsets to those described by Stan Cohen in States of Denial. About twenty years ago the sceptics commonly argued; “It’s not happening”. This gradually segued into: “It is happening but it is nothing to do with us”. Now many of the sceptic’s arguments could be summarised as: “It is happening and it is caused by humans but it’s not that bad and there are higher priorities anyway”. Where the debate should be is: “Climate change is real and very serious so what is the most effective and equitable way of tackling it?”
Lomborg is one of the few that seems happy to have a foot in every camp. He makes some valuable contributions to the last position that I outline. Yet he seems unable to resist bolstering his argument by using distorted facts about the impacts of climate change (so that it doesn’t sound as serious) and his sources on the economic implications (so that it sounds as though there are much higher priorities). He frequently spreads doubt with claims that sea levels have dropped, Antarctic ice is increasing, glaciers are growing and so on. This approach is in no way constructive. The editor of New Scientist echoed the scientific community’s frustration with tactics used by the sceptics when he said recently “We need critics but we don’t need nonsense”.
This contrast between the scientists’ and the sceptics’ use of rhetoric raises the question of what we should do about it. There is, I believe, a role for institutions in refusing to give a platform to any sceptic (or scientist) that persistently distorts peer reviewed literature or repeats errors long after they have been pointed out to them. Similarly there is a role for the mass media in adopting higher standards of data integrity. Arguably the issue is symptomatic of a deeper problem, namely our education system which tends to produce people that are knowledgeable about either science or the arts but rarely both.
I applaud initiatives like the RSA’s ‘Arts and Ecology’ programme, The Tipping Point, Cape Farewell and others that build bridges between science and the arts. I also commend approaches based on reliable evidence such as David Mackay’s Sustainable energy without the hot air and the similarly rigorous ‘Renewistan’ study by Saul Griffiths. Those that debate with sceptics need to do their homework if they are to counter their assertions effectively. This is not a simple undertaking when taking on someone as highly funded as Lomborg, as I discovered when I prepared to oppose him at a conference last year. My rebuttal was put on YouTube (parts 1, 2 and 3) but unfortunately Lomborg refused to have his posted.
In time, increasing public awareness of the sceptic’s rhetorical trickery will undermine their influence but, if 800 of the world’s best climate scientists are to be believed, we don’t have a lot of time on our side. I would welcome comments on how society can rapidly get better at distinguishing the rhetoricians from the doctors that will guide our common future.