The climate sceptics: Is this a gang war or a disorganised bar brawl?

Browsing the climate change blogs is an interesting process – they vary from extremely detailed to completely mindless, from authoritative “experts” to often as authoritative laypeople.

It says a lot about the way the climate change “debate” is viewed that a leading blog, “A Few Things Ill Considered”, should put up a “How to talk to a Climate Sceptic” guide.

The detail of the cut-and-thrust of the debates is extremely impressive, but it does seem to follow the trend among people interested in climate change, from the most vehement deniers to the most militant greens, to treat this debate as a kind of sport, seeking to beat down the other side with sheer weight of knowledge and understanding.

From this guide one could be forgiven for believing that talking to “climate sceptics” is like some kind of hunting, perhaps of big game: you learn the habits and likely actions of each type of animal, along with studying its weaknesses in order to catch them unawares when they’re in your sights. Another characterisation would be of “sceptics” and “warmists” as behaving like the Sharks and the Jets in West Side Story, street-fighting on the same old turf battles, to no-one’s real gain.

Cards on the table: I am not a climate sceptic, I am very concerned about the impacts of climate change on the world and on society, but this battleground mentality doesn’t seem to make room for the possibility that the climate consensus might occasionally get things wrong. As the recent IPCC mistakes and the defensive climategate e-mails suggest, the more the consensus tries to give the impression its critics are a minority of ill-informed troublemakers, the more undermined it is by the times it inevitably makes mistakes.

The battleground mentality is alienating for many who want to explore climate issues without the point-scoring involved in this street-fight, and it prioritises the technical disagreements, not pro-active action. Climate change action is not limited to those who are worried about anthropogenic climate change: many of the sceptics who believe in the scale of climate change issues but attribute them to natural phenomena would presumably support adaptation actions. Others would share concerns about fossil-fuel use from an energy security perspective. There are many middle grounds available for genuine conversation and joint effort.

Morover, these street battles do claim their victims: everyone involved in climate change debates seems open to accusations of ulterior motives and inflated rhetoric of abuse. Aside from the personal damage, intelligent critics should be engaged with and brought into the converstation, not excluded and discredited.

Let us at least aim for informed and open-minded debate. Otherwise it will happen anyway, and the winners will be the most media-savvy, not the most knowledgeable or those with the best arguments.