Thursday, 15 April 2010

Talking with climate change deniers

The article below was published in Green World, the magazine for members of the Green Party, in the Winter 2010 issue. It is reproduced here with the permission of the author, Richard Lawson, and of Green World. The original title was 'Canvassing Climate Change deniers', as it was written as advice for Green Party candidates and canvassers, encountering 'anti' climate change conversations on the dooorstep. The suggestions, however, are of wider usefulness and need not be restricted to election conversations. The style ('genre', if you like) is party-political - a bit different from the postings that usually appear here!

Dr Richard Lawson is a semi-retired GP in North Somerset. He was one of the first Greens elected to local authorities, serving six years undefeated.

I'll leave this up for a couple of weeks while the election campaign is in full swing.

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During the election campaign, we are going to meet all sorts of different people, and among them will be man-made global warming (MMGW, or AGW - 'anthropogenic climate change') deniers. Richard Lawson tells us how to deal with their questions while canvassing.

First off, it is a good idea to know where they are coming from. First, they prefer to be called sceptics, claiming that deniers is a pejorative term associating them with Holocaust deniers, but the term is in fact derived from Freud, who used it to describe a psychological reaction to an unacceptable truth. Second, they now accept that climate change is happening, but insist that it is all down to natural variability, with either no input, or only a tiny input, from man-made greenhouse gases.

If canvassing, it is always a good rule not to get into detailed disputation on the doorstep, as it can be a ploy by a member of the opposition to waste your time. On the other hand though, candidates will need to have the arguments at their fingertips for public meetings and hustings, especially if UKIP (an officially denialist party) are present, or in the presence of some Tories, who despite Dave Cameron's dog sled skills, are still infested with denialists.

The short answer to the denialist case is that a consensus exists on the matter in scientific community at large. All the major scientific societies have signed up to the idea, and the handful of scientifically literate MMGW critics who are outside the consensus can usually have their funding or associations traced back to oil companies like Exxon Mobil. Many, if not all, are free market fundamentalists.

Unfortunately, since the well-publicised hack into the Climate Research Unit just before the Copenhagen Summit, enough doubt has been (unjustly) cast on the integrity of the scientists to make the consensus argument less effective.

The second argument is the Precautionary Principle case, which runs like this:

- Say we decarbonise our economy, and it turns out (unlikely as that may be) that scientists' view is wrong? Well, we will have created hundreds of thousands of jobs in insulation and renewable energy manufacturing and taken thousands out of fuel poverty. We will also have reduced the shock of Peak Oil, and reduced the acidification of the oceans. And addressed our energy security problems. Not bad, not bad at all.
- This is not just an academic debate, because we and our children are part of the experiment. Academics can debate ad infinitum, but politicians now have to make a choice.
- Say, on the other hand, we go the way of the MMGW denialists, and it turns out, (as per all reasonable expectations), that they are wrong? In that case, we will have problems with energy security, Peak Oil, Peak Gas, acidified oceans, acid rain, fuel poverty, unemployment, poverty, civil unrest and finally, massive, catastrophic climate disruption from droughts, floods, crop failures, disease, and war. With massive increases in immigration of environmental refugees. Not good.
- Any sensible decision maker will therefore put our money into decarbonising the global economy.

This is the key political argument, but we also need to be able to explain, briefly, why scientists believe that our greenhouse gases (CO2, Methane, Nitrous Oxide, Ozone and CFCs) are causing a problem. This is why:

1) The Earth's temperature is the result of these inputs:
    a) Position of Earth relative to Sun
    b) Variations in Solar output, both the 11-year sunspot cycle, and a possible 205-year cycle. This has a weak but detectable effect on the temperature.
    c) Volcanic ash and industrial pollution which have a cooling effect.
    d) Variation in ocean currents which have cooling and warming effects.
    e) The greenhouse gases without which the temperature of the planet would be about 30 deg C lower.

2) CO2 has increased by 37% since the Industrial Revolution, to the highest levels for some 600,000 years, possibly longer.

3) Temperatures on Earth are now higher than they have been for about 8,000 years, possibly longer.

4) We cannot explain recent global temperatures without including the artificially enhanced greenhouse effect into the calculation.

A dedicated denier will dispute each and every one of these points, and there is no point in wasting time with them. An intelligent seeker after the truth can be referred to climate science websites, but these can be a bit weighty for non-specialists. Over the past two months I have been building up a FAQ page designed to explain the science briefly to real non-science based seekers, along with much more fascinating detail about the incredibly complex atmospheric system that supports life on our beautiful planet.

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Thanks to Green World and to Richard for this article. If you want to post a comment and are having technical difficulties, you can email your comment to me at and I can post it for you.


  1. I've had an email sent to me at Woodbrooke from a Friend who does not think human-induced climate change is a reality, and who objects to being labelled a 'denier'. This Friend also thinks that this kind of writing shouldn't be on a Quaker blog. What does anyone else think?

  2. Does this Friend also think that chapter 25 should be removed from Quaker Faith and Practice?!

    I think much of the confusion stems from a lack of understanding of science. There is a short series on BBC4 that I would highly recommend called Beautiful Minds. The first was about Jocelyn Bell Burnell (a Quaker) and the second James Lovelock. Both are still on iPlayer if you are quick:
    The latter explains Gaia theory particularly well.
    James Lovelock is somewhat pessimistic about our ability to reverse climate change and I think he may be right. We cannot escape the fact that we have impoverished the earth and we have almost certainly injured the succeeding age.

  3. A brief addition to Phil's comment, for any readers not familiar with Quaker Faith and Practice: Chapter 25 is about the unity of creation. To take an example (very likely one that Phil had in mind here), the second entry, dating from 1988 comes from Britain Yearly Meetnig of Quakers (at that time called London YM):

    "Our planet is seriously ill and we can feel the pain. We have been reminded of the many ways in which the future health of the earth is under threat as a result of our selfishness, ignorance and greed. Our earth needs attention, respect, love, care and prayer.

    In comfortable Britain we are largely insulated from the effects of the environmental crisis. It is the poor of the world who suffer first.

    As a Religious Society of Friends we see the stewardship of God's creation as a major concern. The environmental crisis is at root a spiritual and religious crisis; we are called to look again at the real purpose of being on this earth, which is to till it and keep it so as to reveal the glory of God for generations to come.

    It is a stony road ahead but our faith will uphold us; the power to act is God's power which is mediated through each of us as we give and receive support one from another. We can all listen if we will to the sounds of the earth, tuning into it with joy."


    Other entries in this chapter may be read at

  4. To claim that "this kind of writing shouldn't be on a Quaker blog" is perhaps a pretty good indication of "denial".

  5. As a Quaker and a catastrophich anthropogenic global warming sceptic, I find this article distasteful to say the least. It takes a whole group of people, sceptics, and labels them all as beholding to big oil, in denial, ignorant of the facts, etc. If the same were to be said about African Americans or homosexuals, it wouldn't be allowed on this site. Furthermore, it smacks of self righteousness, as in, we know how to save the planet and you don't. Whatever happened to listening to others, even if you don't agree?
    It impunes the integrity of serious people and scientists. This article builds a strawman characteur of "denialists" and then procedes to tear it apart. It also presumes that sceptics don't care about the environment. Would the author of the article like to offer citations verifying his discriptions of "deniers?"