Friday, September 14, 2007

Global Warming Ad Hominem

Tibor R. Machan

Someone I know in the community of academic philosophers who works mostly in environmental ethics recently labeled me a “global warming denier” because I am—along with quite a few lay and expert individuals interested in the topic—skeptical about the human contribution to global warming and related environmentalist contentions. Now this clearly isn’t how philosophers are supposed to conduct debates. It is more reminiscent of Thrasymacus than of Socrates, that’s for sure, the guy who crashes a serious discussion with his rude intrusions. Why?

Well, the term “denier” gained its prominence in recent decades from discussions about those who claim that the Holocaust never happened. Such folks do exist—in fact, the president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is among them, as well as a bunch of neo-Nazis and some—a few—Word War II revisionists I have actually met.

Now to deny that the Holocaust happened, that Hitler initiated and tried to carry out the final solution of ridding Germany, maybe even all of Europe, of Jews, is blatantly dishonest. It amounts to refusing to take account of innumerable historical records, photographic evidence, eye witness testimony, mass graves, etc., etc.

It is hard to imagine that this kind of denial is based on mere ignorance. Rather, much more likely, it comes from a hatred of Jews. It comes from the legacy of their vicious treatment throughout much of ancient and modern history, ending with the mass murder of millions of them in the 20th century.

In short, calling someone a denier is to morally indict the person, even to the point of charging him or her with complicity in such mass murder after the fact. Is this anything comparable to anthropogenic global warming skepticism? Clearly not.

Anthropogenic global warming skepticism involves serious doubts about whether the recent increase in atmospheric temperature has been dramatic and whether it is the result of human activities—mostly industrial as well as involving transportation and farming. Whatever the best understanding of global climate fluctuation may turn out to be, it is certainly not based on the kind of hard and fast evidence that we have of the Holocaust.

Most of the estimates about current and future climate change are based on complicated, often quite incomplete and relatively primitive records and on the computer models that utilize these records. While there is no serious debate about the usefulness of researching the issue with the aid of these records and the models that rely upon them, it is by no means ridiculous to regard the results less than conclusive. Indeed, even most environmentalist who share Al Gore’s perspective understand their concerns to be precautionary! That is to say, they are basically advising caution so as to guard against anything drastic happening in the future.

Let us suppose they are right. Could anyone reasonably compare having doubts about their advice to doubting that the Holocaust has happened? No way. Just the fact that we are talking about predictions of the future, which is always somewhat uncertain—except perhaps about such elementary matters that there will be a future—should make it clear that this isn’t a matter of denying anything since what will happen hasn’t yet happened and cannot actually be denied yet!

What the labeling of anthropogenic global warming skeptics as “deniers” does very strongly suggest is a good deal of desperation on the part of those who deploy that term. It suggests less than serious confidence in their own projections, needing instead of evidence the demagoguery of throwing around ad hominems, that is, insults.

Which would, it seems to me, add some more credibility to the skepticism that some people want so badly to silence. (Yes, Virginia, some American politicians have already tried to silence the skeptics by threatening those who fund their research with repercussions such as withdrawing whatever support they receive from government or excluding them from eligibility for government contracts in areas completely unrelated to climate change research!)

With the recent discovery of some serious errors in calculating the temperature of the earth—turns out the early 1990s were not the hottest years because there were hotter ones in the 1940s—the work of the skeptics is essential and to dismiss—indeed to morally deride—it is scandalous.

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