Climate Change Scepticism Is An Age-Old Problem

September 1, 2010 | 20:22
Climate Change Scepticism Is An Age-Old Problem
Climate Change Scepticism Is An Age-Old Problem
Original article by Brendan Barrett and Sven Åke Bjørke on September 1, 2010. Published on OurWorld 2.0

If you feel passionately that humanity should respond to climate change as rapidly and as effectively as possible you may, at times, feel extremely concerned by the antics of the climate contrarians, sceptics and deniers. The debate between those who warn that climate change is real and those who challenge these warnings has been with us for decades and has gradually evolved over time.

We are not going to provide you with a list of the best arguments for use in a discussion with climate deniers.  But if you want one, you can take a look at the 100+ quick rebuttals to common anti-climate change arguments published recently on Treehugger.

The main point here is that we don’t really expect every contrarian, sceptic and denier to change their viewpoint any time soon. We are not holding our breath waiting for this to happen, though it is always refreshing when it does. For instance, as reported on Climate Progress, only a few days ago the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper shifted from its previously “climate sceptic” editorial line to one that accepts that climate change is “real and deeply worrying”. Even famed ‘sceptical environmentalist’ Bjorn Lomberg did a bit of U-turn this week.

However, the truth is that those people most concerned with the negative implications of climate change and those people who hold sceptical views represent only a very small proportion of society, working diligently to influence public opinion to support their positions.

Nothing new here

To be honest, the divisions we see around climate change are nothing new. They resemble the divergent views we find around the issues of the environment in general or about population growth. Indeed, we are struck by the fact that similar divisions can be traced back to the days of Thomas Malthus, suggesting it is normal, part of our longer history, part of the human condition.

Malthus himself summed up this situation in the introduction to An Essay on the Principles of Population back in 1798. He began by stating that at any given time we appear to find ourselves facing two diverging futures.

“It has been said that the great question is now at issue, whether man shall henceforth start forwards at accelerated velocity towards illimitable, and hitherto unconceived improvement, or be condemned to a perpetual oscillation between happiness and misery, and after every effort remain still at an immeasurable distance from the wished for goal.”

Much time has passed since he wrote those words, and great progress has been made, but the statement still rings true. While we have many future scenarios, they often boil down to what Australian political scientist John Dryzek described as Survivalism (i.e., we are reaching the limits to growth, overshooting those limits and societal collapse) and Promethean (ingenuity, technology and markets solve our problems).

But Malthus looked deeply into this age-old dichotomy when he said, “Yet, anxiously as every friend of mankind must look forward to the termination of this painful suspense, and eagerly as the inquiring mind would hail every ray of light that might assist its view into futurity, it is much lamented that the writers on each side of this momentous question still keep far aloof from each other.”

This is clearly the case with respect to the patterns of the current climate debate — where either direct face-to-face interaction is avoided or takes the form of aggressive attacks and counter-attacks, each side looking for weaknesses, but never conclusively ending the debate. The same has held true to environmentalism in general.

As an example, take the 1992 debate between Norman Myers (environmentalist, a survivalist) and Julian Simon (economic professor, a Promethean). In the verbal contest at Columbia University (the transcript later published as Scarcity or Abundance: A Debate on Environment), the opponents argued about whether the world is at a historical threshold at which we risk dooming ourselves and the planet if we don’t change the way we exploit the Earth’s resources. They sparred over whether environmentalists are alarmists, underestimating nature’s resilience and humanity’s adaptiveness.

Some commentators thought that in the debate neither participant expounded beyond the veneer of viewpoints, and that the debate emerged as superficial, whereas their collective works outside of the debate reflected profoundly deep understanding of the issues.

Read the rest of the article here.
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