Stop pretending there is a debate over climate change

It’s tough being a minority. You do not get attention. Your rights are trampled on in the name of the majority, and your agenda gets ignored. Unless you tend to believe that global warming is not happening, or that humans are not driving this change. In that case you suddenly get to dictate the news agenda by shouting loud, creating sexy controversy and revelling in your genius at being the one to have seen the giant conspiracy. And all you have to do is massage some facts and misrepresent what other people say.

Which is getting a bit tedious. The climate is a-changing, just look at the statistics from last year and the decade before when lots of records were set for things being extreme or the most. And these got their fair share of headlines … and admittedly in many cases these headlines were exacerbated by environmental extremists, but the basic rate of change is there to be seen.

But in the face of this, the ever-exhausting tedium of people saying it’s all a big lie continued. The science of climate change and humans driving the biggest chunk of temperature increases is solid.

In a leaked preview of the next big report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, it said, "It is extremely likely that human activities have caused most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the 1950s and it is virtually certain that this warming is not due to internal variability alone."

Which doesn’t seem to have had any effect on people who like to be contrary. In a recent column local climate change sceptic (it’s a horrible word with so many connotations but seems to be the least cumbersome way of talking about sceptics) Ivo Vegter said, “But in the meantime, the evidence appears to be swinging towards the sceptic camp on climate change too. That’s not anti-science. That is science.”


And this was the view that was also put forward in an interview CNN anchor Piers Morgan set up between Bill Nye, "the science guy", and Marc Morano, a representative of a think tank funded by big oil to muddy the waters in the debate. Morgan proposed they debate whether or not humans are driving climate change. And while Nye destroyed his opponent's points – it’s really worth a watch – the points raised in opposition were insightful in showcasing the argument sceptics put forward.

  • The sun is warming the planet: Well this is true. The sun has a big impact on the earth and changes in its radiation lead to fluctuations in the earth’s temperature. And the IPCC report acknowledges this. But its impact in rapidly changing the rate of temperature increase is negligible when compared to the impact of human activity.
  • ‘Theory’ of global warming: To break down the climate change position, and make their argument seem to be on an equal footing, sceptics harp on that it is just a theory. But it is still only a theory in the same way as the earth rotating around the sun was a theory.
  • Manufactured consensus: The famous 97/98% of scientists who agree that humans are driving climate change. Now this number is always questionable because a survey of every scientist in the field is implausible, but there is a damn obvious consensus. Go talk to any scientist to try this out. These are the scientists who plainly refuse to debate the issue anymore, because it is not a debate and they say to argue is to give the other side credence. And perhaps this is the problem at the moment, because scientists are so tired of being stuck next to a sceptic and arguing that they have retreated from the public sphere, leaving the space to the loudest shouter.
  • The planet is too big for humans to have an impact: yes, the planet is quite big and we are quite small. But its ecosystems have been in equilibrium for millennia and by pumping and chucking millions of tonnes of junk into the system in a short space of time the planet’s systems have trouble adjusting quick enough. And these adjustments lead to things going out of kilter.
  • It’s all about the money: The idea is that thousands of scientists, working independently, have reached the same consensus because there is lots of money to be had. And yes there is funding out there. But this is being doled out at legitimate centres of study. Whereas the sceptic funding is coming from think tanks that have peaceful names, like the Heartland Institute, and funding from big oil. Their agenda is quite clear, while most scientists are very serious about their pursuit of ‘facts’ and the ‘truth’.
  • It has been like this before: The argument is that carbon levels, or temperatures, have been this high before. This cleverly bypasses the real argument that changes are happening at a rate far in excess of anything that has been seen before. So while things are apparently not bad now – if you ignore the record number of temperature highs and climate events – the sceptics would have you believe that the rate of change will not have a further impact. So things will be ok, which is a view surely shared by people in England with their houses flooded twice in one year, when the rains leading to them are supposed to be once in a century.
  • Temperatures are not increasing: This is just perplexing. The last two decades have been the warmest on record, and even the non-scientists can see a trend here. With the thing driving the change only getting worse it will only get hotter.

What is noticeable about the sceptic’s argument, and admittedly this is a quick summary of the main points, is that it cherry picks and relies on a few cases. There are thousands of peer-reviewed articles about climate change published, and there are thousands of scientists working on the topic. Yet they take a few weird cases to create their entire argument.

And from this they reach the bizarre conclusion that Vegter reached, that the whole construct of human-driven climate change is about to fall apart. This is so far removed from reality that you really have to wonder who gives them space.

The planet is warming and the climate is changing. The poor are the most vulnerable and are going to be very seriously impacted. And while we still do not know how it is going to change, there are rough models that give scary insights. So instead of continually having an old debate that no longer has two valid sides, we have to move on and work out how to slow the change and help people adapt. That is what is now important.   

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever. But it comes at a cost. Advertisers are cancelling campaigns, and our live events have come to an abrupt halt. Our income has been slashed.

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Sipho Kings
Sipho is the Mail & Guardian's News Editor. He also does investigative environment journalism.

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