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The Rhetoric of Uncertainty

Science, global warming, and shaping a political debate
By Bryan Keefer
April 30, 2001
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When George W. Bush reversed a campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions a few weeks ago, news coverage focused on speculation about Bush's motives. Little consideration was given to the rhetorical environment that has shaped the debate about global warming. With Bush's recent commitment to take another look at the issue, the rhetoric has stayed at the top of editorial pages. Opponents of regulating carbon emissions have taken up a two-pronged attack: an assault on the scientific foundations of climate change theory, and a rhetorical campaign to discredit its proponents and their proposed mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Science in dispute

The science behind global warming is extremely well documented. Carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere, are the primary cause - and the increasing concentration of these gases is a direct result of humans burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests. According to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the average temperature around the world will increase somewhere by 1.8 to 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on what humans do to decrease greenhouse emissions.

The most high-profile attempt to lower carbon emissions worldwide is the Kyoto Protocol, a 1997 treaty that set caps on the quantity of greenhouse gases developed countries can emit (developing countries were left out for various reasons). The United States leads the world in carbon emissions: with just 5 percent of the world's population, we emit 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases. By virtue of being the world's largest polluter, America is in a position to float or sink any international agreement on greenhouse gases.

There is virtually no debate over whether global warming is occurring, only how severe it will be, and the bulk of the evidence suggests a human, rather than natural, cause. Yet you wouldn't know this from listening to the White House or reading the Wall Street Journal.

Opponents of regulations on greenhouse emissions have long sought to discredit the science behind the climate change models. In a March statement, Bush claimed that he was reversing his campaign pledge because of (among other reasons) "the incomplete nature of the causes of, and solutions to, global climate change." The Wall Street Journal editorialized on April 17 that "the [Kyoto] treaty was ill-conceived and the science highly dubious." Henry Payne and Diane Katz, writing in the National Review Online on March 19 claimed that there is a "deep split within the scientific community on the extent and consequences of global climate change," and S. Fred Singer, the most prominent critic of global warming, claimed in February in the Washington Times that Al Gore had "repeatedly proclaimed a non-existent scientific consensus."

These claims intentionally misconstrue the nature of climate change science. The variation in predictions of how much warming will occur comes from the various assumptions of the projections, not a "deep split within the scientific community." The rhetoric implies (and in other instances explicitly states) that 100 percent of scientists working on climate change would need to agree before any action can be justified. In doing so, climate change opponents set up an impossible standard and distort the consensus that already exists. By setting the bar high enough, opponents of regulating greenhouse emissions provide rhetorical cover for political inaction.

Heating up the rhetoric

Editorial pages and pundits opposed to regulations on carbon emissions have a second strategy: link global warming and solutions to the problem to unpopular people and ideas.

A Wall Street Journal editorial of March 17 provides a great example:

There remains, for example, no consensus on what global warming really means for the earth, much less whether restricting CO2 is really a solution. But because Kyoto has been elevated into some great religious truth beyond questioning, any effort to reduce CO2 would inevitably end up as an effective ban on coal.

The first sentence uses a common strategy: link the Kyoto treaty to the problem of global warming. Then, by tearing down the treaty (which the second sentence does), the phenomenon of global warming itself can be discredited.

The second sentence deserves close scrutiny for it embodies most of the reasoning-by-association applied to global warming. The first clause makes the treaty out to be "religious" - essentially irrational and a strongly connotative word in the context of a scientific debate. The second clause serves to knock down the Kyoto treaty (and any other proposal to restrict greenhouse gas emissions) by attaching a negatively associated phrase: "an effective ban on coal." Taken as a whole, then, the paragraph links Kyoto and global warming, attaches a negative association to Kyoto, then attaches a second negative association to Kyoto's consequences - discrediting both the treaty and climate change more broadly. The new jargon works at a subconscious level that defies logic - but because it is phrased as a rational argument ("Since A, thus B") it is designed to sneak through the rational defenses of most readers.

Similar rhetorical devices found their way into various other editorials and columns. A sampling:

Michelle Malkin in the Washington Times, March 16, linking climate change to Clinton and Gore:
"Mr. Bush's costly dalliance with the Clinton-Gore team's junk science legacy is alarming... Cracking down on carbon-based fuels and coal-burning power plants is at the crux of the Kyoto Protocol, an Al Gore hobbyhorse."

George Melloan, Wall Street Journal, April 3, linking global warming with Gore:
"Al Gore, one of the original 'global warming' Chicken Littles, didn't choose to stress his role in producing the Kyoto protocols during the presidential campaign."

Henry Payne, National Review Online, April 20, attaching Communism to emissions regulations:
"Global warming, in short, has become the new Cold War - but without the guns. It's Bush vs. Gorbachev. It's free markets vs. government control."

The rhetoric links the Kyoto treaty and global warming to unpalatable things, especially for conservative readers: Gore (who signed the treaty), Clinton, "junk science," and even Communism. And it operates on a subconscious level that elicits a strong emotional reaction.

A lot of hot air

The crucial point is that rhetoric has done a great deal to frame the debate about global warming and possible solutions. By rhetorically linking global warming to the Kyoto protocol, then linking the Kyoto treaty to negatively associated concepts and personalities, some pundits are trying to undermine belief in climate change and support for the treaty. By distorting the nature of scientific debate, they can confuse the public and provide cover for politicians to escape politically unpopular actions to stop climate change. And in this case, paralyzing the dialogue is the equivalent of turning a blind eye to the problem entirely.

Sources

Global warming science and information:
-United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
http://www.ipcc.ch
-US Environmental Protection Agency's global warming web site
http://www.epa.gov/globalwarming/

Articles cited (in order referenced):
-George W. Bush, remarks at Plainfield, New Jersey, March 14, 2001.
http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/2001/03/20010314-2.html
-"The Alternative to Talking," Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2001.
http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=90000452
-Henry Payne and Diane Katz, "Where's the Policy?", National Review Online, March 19, 2001.
http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-payne031901.shtml
-S. Fred Singer, "Global Warming Rewarmed," Washington Times, February 2, 2001.
-"Anatomy of a Promise," Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2001.
http://www.opinionjournal.com/editorial/feature.html?id=85000716
-Michelle Malkin, "Unbecomingly Green," Washington Times, March 16, 2001.
-George Melloan, "Scrapping Kyoto May Prove to be Bush's Finest Act," Wall Street Journal, April 3, 2001.
-Henry Payne, "Mr. Gorbachev's Global Utopia: On Earth Day, Green Meets Red," National Review Online, April 20, 2001.
http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-payne042001.shtml

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