The Rhetoric of Uncertainty Science, global warming, and shaping a political debate
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The Rhetoric of Uncertainty
Science, global warming, and shaping a political debate
By Bryan Keefer
April 30, 2001
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
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
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
George Melloan, Wall Street Journal, April 3, linking global warming
"Al Gore, one of the original 'global warming' Chicken Littles, didn't
choose to stress his role in producing the Kyoto protocols during the
Henry Payne, National Review Online, April 20, attaching Communism to
"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
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.
Global warming science and information:
-United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
-US Environmental Protection Agency's global warming web site
Articles cited (in order referenced):
-George W. Bush, remarks at Plainfield, New Jersey, March 14, 2001.
-"The Alternative to Talking," Wall Street Journal, April 17, 2001.
-Henry Payne and Diane Katz, "Where's the Policy?", National Review
Online, March 19, 2001.
-S. Fred Singer, "Global Warming Rewarmed," Washington Times, February
-"Anatomy of a Promise," Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2001.
-Michelle Malkin, "Unbecomingly Green," Washington Times, March 16,
-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.
This website is copyright (c) 2001-2002 by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and
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