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The Rhetoric of Uncertainty Science, global warming, and shaping a political debate

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  • patneuman2000
    ... wrote: The Rhetoric of Uncertainty Science, global warming, and shaping a political debate By Bryan Keefer April 30, 2001 When George W.
    Message 1 of 1 , Dec 10, 2004
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      --- In Paleontology_and_Climate_Articles@yahoogroups.com, sonya koch
      <msredsonya@e...> wrote:

      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
      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

      This website is copyright (c) 2001-2002 by Ben Fritz, Bryan Keefer and
      Brendan Nyhan. Please send letters to the editor for publication to
      letters@s... and private questions or comments to feedback@s...
      http://www.spinsanity.org/columns/20010430.html

      Sonya PLoS Medicine

      The open-access general medical journal from the Public Library of
      Science

      Inaugural issue: Autumn 2004 Share your discoveries with the world.

      http://www.plosmedicine.org

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