How to talk about climate change so people will listen

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A recent essay in The Atlantic purports to instruct readers on ???How to Talk About Climate So People Will Listen.??? The author, Charles C. Mann, is a longtime 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, and why skeptics once again won 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 of weeks, he could have written much the same about ???Russian methane holes.??? The lesson in both cases, which he doesn???t draw, 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 dispositive. The public understands this better than does Mann: 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.

Economists and Julian Simon

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, whom 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 manmade 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 is 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 manmade climate change by one degree or two, assuming the alarmists??? worst scenarios and most dubious science 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. Well, 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, illustrated by the debates and eventually the famous bet over the future price of some commodities between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon. In Mann???s telling of the story, concern for the environment began as a conservative movement, but 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 and expensive emission reductions regardless of their soaring costs and negative consequences on businesses. 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 willing to step down and move on to other, more important, civic causes. Many histories of the left???s takeover of the environmental movement have been written; see a partial list in Jay Lehr???s recent Heartland Policy Brief on ???Replacing the Environmental Protection Agency.???

More False Narratives

Mann says, ???I remember winters as being colder in my childhood….??? The 1970s brought 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, 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 of 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.??? Temperatures probably did rise by this amount, but much of the increase occurred before it could have been attributed to the human presence. Why this peculiar and misleading phrasing?

Explaining Away the Facts

By now, most readers have probably figured out that Mann isn???t an impartial observer of the global warming debate. 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 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??? any 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.)

This is where data rise up and refute the alarmists??? theory. Any good scientist sees this, doesn???t try to excuse it, and rejects the theory. But not the leftists who are leading the global warming campaign, and why should they? As the history of their takeover of the environmental movement makes clear, global warming was always about political science for them, not physical science.

Swallowing the Left???s Rhetoric

After a few paragraphs of criticism of easy target Bill McKibben, presumably to throw skeptical readers off his alarmist scent, Mann swallows the left???s biggest falsehood: that it can predict the weather centuries from now based on how much carbon dioxide we release today. ???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.???

Um, how about we not make a series of such dumb 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. ???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? How stupid do you think we are?

This is why alarmists always lose debates against skeptics. It???s why alarmists looked and acted like fools this summer at countless cookouts and family parties, while skeptics sounded 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.

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

Joseph Bast ( is president of The Heartland Institute.