Even if an opinion is wrong, debating it will teach more people what is right. And if the opinion is right, it offers an opportunity to exchange error for truth. Instead, we’re left with just one “right” way of thinking.
Al Gore recently had a telling altercation with a journalist. The Spectator’s Ross Clark wanted to ask him about Miami sea-level rises suggested in the new film, “An Inconvenient Sequel.” The reporter started to explain that he had consulted Florida International University sea-level-rise expert Shimon Wdowinski. Gore’s response: “Never heard of him — is he a denier?” Then he asked the journalist, “Are you a denier?”
When Clark responded that he was sure climate change is a problem but didn’t know how big, Gore declared, “You are a denier.”
I was recently on the receiving end of a similar rebuff from Chile’s environment minister. I’d written an op-ed for a Chilean newspaper that, among other things, quoted UN findings on how little the Paris climate treaty would achieve and argued that vast investment in green energy research and development is a better policy. Marcelo Mena proclaimed, “There is no room for your climate-denying rhetoric in Chile.”
Something odd — and dangerous — is happening when even people who accept the reality of man-made climate change are labeled “deniers.” The unwillingness to discuss which policies work best means we end up with worse choices.
Consider the case of Roger Pielke, Jr, a political scientist who worked extensively on climate change. He believes that climate change is real, human emissions of greenhouse gases justify action and there should be a carbon tax.
But he drew the ire of climate campaigners because his research has shown that the increasing costs from hurricane damage is not caused by storms made more intense by climate-change but by more and pricier property built in vulnerable areas. He took issue with the UN’s influential International Panel for Climate Change over a chart in its 2007 report that seemed to imply causation when there was only circumstantial evidence.
Pielke was proven right, and the IPCC’s subsequent outputs mostly accepted his arguments. Yet, he was the target of a years-long campaign, including a massive but baseless takedown that later turned out to have been coordinated by a climate-campaigning think tank funded by a green billionaire, alongside an investigation launched by a congressman.
Pielke left climate change for other fields where “no one is trying to get me fired.” And sidelining him has made it easier for climate-campaigners to use hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria to argue for carbon-cut policies, even though these will do very little to prevent future hurricane damage.
Pielke finds that we should make relatively cheap investments to reduce vulnerability, like limiting floodplain construction and increasing porous surfaces. Ignoring this means more harm.
“Ten years ago we did ‘An Inconvenient Truth.’ Its predictions...
Leaving out dissention echoes the worst of the leaked “ClimateGate” e-mails. In 2004, the head of a leading climate-research organization wrote about two inconvenient papers: “Kevin and I will keep them out [of the IPCC report] somehow — even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!”
Journalists also ensure debate “purity.” In Scientific American, climate writer and former CNN producer Peter Dykstra stated baldly that “climate denial extends beyond rejecting climate science,” comparing policy questioners to Holocaust deniers and dismissing my own decade of advocacy for a green energy R&D; fund as “minimization.”
This intolerance for discussion is alarming. Believe in climate change but wonder how bad it will be? You’re a “denier,” says Gore. Believe, but argue that today’s policies aren’t the best response? You’re a denier, says Chile’s environment minister. Believe, but point out problematic findings or media reporting? There’s no room for you, say the self-appointed gatekeepers of debate.
The expanding definition of “denial” is an attempt to ensure that public and policy-makers hear from an ever-smaller clique. John Stuart Mill calls this “the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion.”
But even if an opinion is wrong, debating it will teach more people what is right. And if the opinion is right, it offers an opportunity to exchange error for truth. Instead, we’re left with just one “right” way of thinking.
With dissidence on the Paris Treaty not allowed, we are on track to lose $1 trillion to $2 trillion annually to achieve what the United Nations finds will be 1 percent of the carbon cuts needed to keep temperature rises under 2°C.
That’s not the right way to solve climate change. Saying so denies nothing but economic illiteracy.
Bjorn Lomborg is director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.