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Denialists stake out new ground in the climate change debate

David Roberts has been raising a subtle but important point about the shifting rhetoric of the climate change debate. I want to dig into this topic, but first a word from an Exxon-funded thinktank:

Right now, the whole debate is polarised. One group says that anyone with any doubts whatsoever are deniers and the other group is saying that anyone who wants to take action is alarmist. We don’t think that approach has a lot of utility for intelligent policy.

If you set aside the quote’s provenance, it sounds fairly reasonable. Extremists exist on either side of just about any issue. Sensible minds need to come together to chart a sound policy course. Roberts and others want us to realize that statements like this are neither sound nor sensible.

Let’s rewind a bit. This latest rhetorical skirmish was kicked off by an article from Andy Revkin in the New York Times. Revkin’s coverage of climate change is rightly held in high regard, so his voice carried a certain weight when he described a new middle stance emerging in the climate change debate.

The new middle stance, held by a cadre of self-described “nonskeptical heretics,” essentially holds that manmade global warming is a real problem deserving of urgent attention. It further holds that sensationalist or alarmist portrayals of the possible consequences of climate change are counterproductive.

The issue highlighted by Roberts and others is that there’s nothing particularly “new” or “middle” — and certainly nothing heretical — about this new middle stance. The scientists at RealClimate examined the claims of the nonskeptical heretics and found them all thoroughly uncontroversial and in keeping with the long-held views of proponents of action on climate change. At most, the nonskeptical heretics are advocating a slight shift in tone.

So what’s the problem? If the so-called middle stance is indistinguishable in practice from the more “extreme” views of those pushing for urgent action, couldn’t this be regarded as a sign of progress? In effect, it seems the center of gravity of the entire debate has shifted in a favorable direction.

Which actually it has. But once you further unpack the new middle stance, you begin to understand that the claim to centrism can be used as a bit of rhetorical jujitsu to provide unwelcome cover to former climate change denialists.

Proponents of the middle stance posit (implicitly or explicitly) that a spectrum of opinion on climate change exists. On one extreme sit the denialists. On the other extreme sit the alarmists. In between, you have the reasonable moderates.

This is a false view of reality. Previously, the denialists were not part of any meaningful, good-faith debate on climate change. The spectrum of opinion consisted of one group of people grappling seriously with complex issues, and another group of people sitting outside and throwing rocks at the first.

The denialists have by now been chased from their perch. As I wrote a few weeks ago, their position has been so thoroughly discredited that they were forced to abandon it or else risk complete isolation.

Having abandoned it, the denialists are now in effect saying, “We gave up our unreasonable position. Now it’s time for the other side to climb down from their ramparts as well and meet us here in the comfy middle.”

Read the quote at the top of the post again. It comes from a thinktank that was recently caught attempting to pay scientists and economists to dispute the new IPCC report’s dire conclusion about global warming. The quote pits one group who says “anyone with any doubts whatsoever are deniers” against another group “saying that anyone who wants to take action is alarmist.”

But the first group doesn’t really exist. Everyone knows there are uncertainties in the science of climate change. The second group, on the other hand, not only exists, but also has lots of cash to spread around. If you’re an academic who wants to sell your soul to Exxon, the going rate is $10,000 (and they’ll also cover your travel expenses!).

You’re going to see a lot more of this in the months to come. If you’re interested in this topic, there’s a lot of fairly juicy back-and-forth from the original participants to the debate. Roberts and Revkin have a detailed written exchange in Grist, and a verbal exchange available as a series of podcasts. Roberts entertainingly details the way that proponents of action on climate change can get burned by aligning themselves with the nonskeptical heretics, and Chris Mooney, one such burnee (and TerraPass owner), responds.

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