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The debate: Can it change minds or is it just a big waste of time?
Why do people believe the things they believe?
If scientific facts can't change minds, what will?

16/4/07

There's been a lot of talk about debate. In the US, Gore testified to both houses. In New York City, there was a public debate where dissenters such as Michael Crichton argued with NASA scientists like Gavin Schmidt. After the debate more people agreed with Crichton & Co. than the scientists.... In the UK The Great Warming Swindle was broadcast on channel 4. Packed full of lies, it caused such a furore that the broadcaster has decided to have a televised debate on the program and its erroneous assertions.

The big emitters are fighting very hard to keep us consuming and polluting. The debate doesn't mean the same thing to them as it does to us. As long as there is debate there will be less action to stop them. Even though the science errs on the conservative side, the 'debate' still goes on...

Just by engaging in this debate we lose,

(1) because we imply there is something to debate. In the media, on forums and in newsgroups, the debate is constantly dignified with a response.

(2) because we enter into the delay that plays into their hands. From their point of view, any delay is good. Debate is probably the best and cheapest way to keep things from getting done; the promise of future technological fixes is another good one. When I was a kid I saw Raymond Baxter drink the water that was dripping from the exhaust pipe of a hydrogen fuelled car. That was about thirty years ago. Carbon sequestration is another example. What are the odds that in another thirty years these new technologies will still be at the proof of concept stage and we'll have had another thirty years of unregulated carbon emissions clagging up the sky? (Wow, plug that one into the war analogy - WWII - 'We've got an atomic bomb on the drawing board so we won't bother fighting the Germans and the Japanese now, we'll just sit tight for five years until it's ready and hope they don't get us in the meantime')

(3) because we accept the limited scope of the debate. This isolates global warming from the many other pending environmental disasters and their common cause. The Earth's ecosystems are in big trouble and it's the same villain behind the demise of each and every one: unbridled over-consumption of its resources by an unfettered globalized free-market economy. Fixing this one root cause will fix them all. Considering each one as a separate problem makes it easier for the villain to squirm off the hook.

To engage in the debate is also to fall prey to the conceit that facts and a clever argument can actually make people change their views. Unless we just enjoy the sound of our own voices, that's what we're trying to do, no?

I learnt the folly of debate the hard way over my own dining room table with an old friend. As the subject turned to global warming, I was shocked to find that they were sceptical. I firmly believed that with the wealth of facts at my fingertips I could win them over - no chance - what I learnt was that in most arguments your opponent is not actually trying to find out the truth; they are defending a position. They believe they are right and "being right" feels great (unless you're an AGW believer) while being wrong is the pits. It doesn't matter what arguments you present, your opponent simply accords them less value than their own in order to justify their own position. Debate, argument; it's all abstract, you make your mind up - How? Perhaps you identify with the arguments and the people making them. So, to influence people you have to be the sort of person they can identify with. Allegedly this is one of the reasons Bush beat Kerry (hmm...). Apparently more people could imagine themselves having a beer at a barbecue with GW than JK. Supposedly more people would prefer to be a wealthy and celebrated writer like Michael Crichton than a humble scientist like Gavin Schmidt ...

To move the argument along, one is supposed to have facts. In this case, I would have thought that wisdom is far more useful than 'facts', but wisdom is seen to be more subjective than facts and common sense appears to have gone the way of the dodo. Yet even with facts, your opponent has merely to doubt their validity and we are back to square one.

People are more easily influenced by experience than by information. In the last fifty years the balance has swung dramatically away from experience and toward information. We 'know' more but it's not earned knowledge; it's second-hand knowledge, and where did it come from? Can it be trusted? Info-taiment; why do we even have such a word? Hunters and anglers, who have traditionally been opposed to environmentalists, are starting to speak out about climate change because they are witnessing it first hand; they are out there seeing its effects, unlike those whose lives oscillate from one air conditioned environment to another.

To those living in their own little world, global warming could be just another urban myth. We are so divorced from reality that it's not obvious how dependent we are on Mother Nature. Folks think that milk comes from cartons and pineapples come from tins. Alexander Selkirks we are not. No wonder we see debates about 'the economy versus the environment'. People really are so disconnected that they believe you can have the former without the latter. The idea of losing your job is more real than the idea of losing the planet and that's understandable, we never lost a planet before.

Add in all the media's zany depiction of science and it's no wonder the facts of global warming aren't being taken seriously. When the newsmedia reports scientific studies on 'when men see beautiful women they go a bit stupid', real science gets undermined. Every few months the newsmedia gives us the latest scientific conclusion on the benefits of chocolate/red wine/tea and then a few months later we'll see the opposite conclusion. The scientists don't do themselves any favours either. Just because they are scientists doesn't mean they can't have opinions, but they're so hung up with the politics of certainty that they rarely go out on a limb and say what would the full effects of global warming might be - why? - because the sceptics would have them prove it and the future can't be proved. Imagine the headline,

'Scientists PROVE global warming is real and dangerous

Scientists from the IPCC today revealed the results of a long-term study into the effects of greenhouse gases on the temperature of inhabited worlds. By giving hydrocarbon extraction and utilisation technology to humanoid inhabitants on a number of Earth like worlds, researchers have proved beyond doubt the mechanisms of irreversible runaway climate change. In the study, every single planet whose inhabitants adopted the hydrocarbon technology suffered irreversible climate change with associated collapses of society, civilisation, biodiversity and ecosystems. The control group experienced no such effects.
'
Beyond the 'facts', in the debate, people identify with the core values of one side or the other. If you like owning stuff you're more likely to side with the sceptics because it gives you the justification to carry on trying to acquire the stuff you crave but, if you believe in sharing stuff, you'll side with the believers, because you're less likely to gamble the well being of everybody else in the world on the slim chance that you'll be one of the ever decreasing number of lucky survivors. Unfortunately the proof of the pudding is in the eating and so far global free market capitalism (the Great Emitter) has delivered us much riches, (whether or not it has brought us happiness is another matter) whereas the bad stuff always happens to someone else.

But perhaps siding with the sceptics doesn't necessarily mean you're a selfish evil greedy bastard or an agent of the forces of endarkenment, maybe it could be a sign of blind optimism. I mean the weather isn't all that bad really, is it? I can look out and see greenery and birdies and I can close my eyes and forget about melting ice and dying walrus pups and pray that it isn't really happening. Maybe it isn't, maybe we're wrong and everything is going to be alright. Bob Marley said everything's going to be alright. I pray everything is going to be alright... Maybe if I pretend it's not happening, if I deny it's happening, perhaps it will go away?

What will it take to change people's minds and wake them up to the perils of climate change?

Experience is the great eye-opener, take the notorious poll tax introduced in the UK by 'milk snatcher' Thatcher in the 80's. Before the poll tax, local rates (municipal taxes) were levied on property owners according to the value of the property. The poll tax changed the system so that each person, whether they owned property or not, had to pay the municipal tax at a rate that was pretty much independent of personal wealth or income; a windfall for rich property owners who had their bills slashed but kick in the teeth to the poor. At first there was an outcry from the social justice types and there were demonstrations, but nothing changed - Why? For most people nothing much had changed - their tax bill was about the same amount, only calculated differently. But, as time went by, it became harder to find anyone who didn't know someone who was suffering badly because of the poll tax. That was the tipping point and soon after the law was revised.

Another example would be those that lose a loved one to, say, cancer and immediately become activists, doing sponsored walks and starting foundations.

So until we really experience the nasty effects of climate change, I fear we will see little action. Hurricane Katrina and the exceptionally mild start to the winter of 2006 made people begin to wonder, but how many Katrina's will it take to wake us up the to the fabulous mess that our crappy values have lead us into. How many Katrinas can we afford to let go by without taking action before we slip over the edge?

It's just a shame more of us don't have relatives in Alaska or Tuvalu, or see frogs, walruses and polar bear as next of kin.

Nothing to do with the debate but, have you noticed how many unprecendented attacks there have been on humans by animals lately, I wonder if they're trying to tell us something....

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