On Discourse: Climate Change

24/09/2019

I recently joined a student led and run Facebook group for my university (it’s mostly a “shitposting” forum with some decent posts and gems hidden inside). This coincided with the climate strike last Friday, and so there was a lot of buzz about the protest in the city. While I am all for free speech and even enjoy a worthy shitpost (including those against the strikes), it was the occasional disinformation and vitriol that caught my eye.

I believe everyone, regardless of their position, has the right to express what they think. However, there are some basic standards that should apply to all legitimate discourse, and particularly when it comes to discussing political and environmental matters. One can choose to disregard these, but do not expect a constructive or positive response from those who oppose your viewpoints.

Of course, many of the posts in the context of this page were supposed to be humourous and ironic, and I see no harm in that even if I don’t find it as appealing as others. So it wasn’t the people who make jokes, or even those who try to get a reaction from a crowd, that I was concerned with. It was those who, in the comments or on posts beyond the simple ‘humour’ label, actually ran with the ideas and either propagated falsehoods or resorted to pathetic attempts of, to put it bluntly, bullying.

The first standard is to stay within the realm of reality, evidence, and fact. While denying climate change and/or mankind’s impact on its progression is an indefensible position, if you are going to attempt it you must stick to truth. Once you begin resorting to vague conspiracies or outright falsehoods, people will rightfully call you out on it. Whether out of legitimate ignorance or wilful denial, spreading misinformation has no place in a genuine discussion, especially when information is so widely available and proven.

Some examples. There is no elite force pulling strings behind the climate activism taking place around the globe. To the contrary, the elite, including the so-called ‘liberal elite’, and the governments they back (such as the US Democrats, Canada’s Trudeau, France’s Macron, etc.) have been heavily behind the campaign to suppress knowledge about climate change. “Liberal” politicians do put a positive spin on things these days, but policy is nowhere near good enough. As far back as 1954 we had studies on human impact on the climate, and since then money has flowed into governments and media outlets from the fossil fuel giants who helped carry out the studies.

One person took the claim further and said it was a ploy to give the State further powers and to keep third-world countries poor. The former is easy to dispute – the calls last Friday and well before then have all been to give power to the people, not the State. It is the State in many countries that subsidies fossil fuels to the tune of trillions of dollars a year; no one wants the State to maintain power, particularly in this context.

On the third-world, this is interesting because it’s another case of picking a mild truth and then swerving way off the mark in diagnosing the causes. The elite do indeed work to keep the developing world poor and under heel, but that is a system that has existed well before climate change was even conceived. Further, if the elite really were on the side of the climate protestors, then the third-world would stand to benefit from it, as they are the ones who are suffering the most due to our neglect.

  • Africa faces increased desertification
  • Fires in the Arctic and Brazil (the latter, coincidentally, worsened by direct State terror under Bolsonaro) are burning at rates never seen before, beyond the usual and natural scope
  • Island and coastal regions in the Caribbean face increasingly disastrous storms, such as Dorian, which obliterated the Bahamas and made landfall in Florida – Puerto Rico is still reeling from Maria in 2017
  • South East Asia and the Pacific Island nations are at extreme risk of rising sea levels in the coming decades, and the Australian government simply ignored their concerns
  • Counties like Guatemala (one of the leading sources of refugees trying to enter the US at the moment) have become impossible to live off, setting off the first of the environmental refugees that will make the Middle Eastern-European refugee crisis look like a holiday.

Yes, third-world countries and developing nations would benefit greatly from an elite that backed climate action. That is not what the elite does.

The second standard is basic civility – in simple terms, don’t be an arsehole. I’ve written previously about how people have used personal attacks against Greta Thunberg as a way to discredit the science (a leap in logic that is realistically baseless), but the fact that personal jabs are a part of the discourse at all is pathetic. I’ve seen some vile things said about Thunberg, including allusions to other disorders she could have.

Were some of those posted in jest? Perhaps, but it’s generally expected that a post based on humour, irony, etc. actually be funny, and insulting the physical appearance of a 16-year-old girl you don’t like misses that mark entirely. Insults about one’s physical appearance will earn you justified retaliation, no matter which side of the argument you are on.

Climate change really is at a point now where debating whether it exists is a pointless task. In an older piece I quoted this statement from Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric:

“Moreover, (2) before some audiences not even the possession of the exactest knowledge will make it easy for what we say to produce conviction. For argument based on knowledge implies instruction, and there are people whom one cannot instruct. Here, then, we must use, as our modes of persuasion and argument, notions possessed by everybody…”

Looking back, it is worth noting that instruction should indeed be the first action anyone should take when combatting climate denialism, because only truthful instruction can undo decades of propagandistic rhetoric from the fossil fuel companies and their lackeys. As I said back then:

“And so we end up in a position where Aristotle’s idea of rhetoric is not used to convince people of fact in the absence of instruction, but instead see it warped to take advantage of that absence to propagate falsehoods.”

As tiring as it is, debate on the reality of climate change must take place. While more attention should be given to finding solutions and making systemic changes to implement them, whatever we can do to dwindle the influence of climate denialism is certainly a positive step. Just remember that, no matter which side of an argument you are on, fact and civility must be your default approach.

 

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