Missed conceptions and bad taste.

What's happening in our readers' forum.
Sept. 3 2008 11:13 AM

Palin-tology

Missed conceptions and bad taste.

(Continued from Page 1)

Ummm, I don't know how to say this without being a jerk, but do college age republicans come off like nerds? I'm going to college right now, and I'm an independent, so I'm not biased, honestly. It's just hard to take them seriously. I look at the young dems as stupid, and the young republicans as dorks.

We try to offer something to offend everyone.  MR 4.30 p.m. GMT

Advertisement

Friday, August 15,  2008

Last week, Ron Rosenbaum published a call for greater journalistic coverage of scientific dissent on global warming. Journalists covering climate change find an overwhelming consensus among the scientific community that mankind's release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the last century will cause dramatic changes in the Earth's climate. If true, this consensus seems to call for a substantial policy response. To Rosenbaum, the scale of the costs attendant upon dealing with global warming justifies granting a heightened profile to those who dispute the factual basis for the scientific consensus.

Most of our readers found Rosenbaum's argument unpersuasive. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a majority of Fraysters support marginalizing the fringe voices in the climate-change debate. Many posters wonder along with brucewhite where to draw the line between legitimate dissent and crackpot theory:

I admire Ron Rosenbaum as a writer but wonder if this matter is as simple as he paints it. There are sceptics everywhere but do we want to relitigate everything all the time unless serious new evidence comes to light? Evolution? Alien visitors? The intervention of demonic forces? Holocaust denial?

I'm not arguing that there is no possibility of a good case to be made against anthropogenic global warming but most of the scepticism one reads is pretty low level and not much of it emanates from climate scientists. If we are to inhabit a world shaped to such a degree by the fruits of science we need to give scientists some credit when they present us with inconvenient truths. In fact we rely on a huge amount of consensus for our global society to function—this doesn't mean that other voices shouldn't be heard, but journalists do have the right not to accord them all equal respect.

New York Times science writerAndrew Revkin writes in to challenge Ron Rosenbaum's use of his blogroll to bolster a climate-change skeptic's credibility:

I wish Ron Rosenbaum had explored my Dot Earth posts and Times articles on how best to cover climate science as well as my blogroll. Then he might have realized that Nick Lemann's admonition to "find the argument" is only one of the vital steps required to effectively communicate a complex subject.

An equally important step is to place the areas of ongoing scientific dispute within the broader context of what is not in dispute. If that step is not taken in a story, the lure of conflict can mask the broader reality, and perpetuate policy stasis.

So, yes, "find the argument." But then also "find the agreement" as well. It's not as sexy, but it may be the only way journalism can help society absorb that climate science has a herky-jerky trajectory, that some uncertainty is normal, but that a growing human influence on the planet's thermostat is not in dispute.

Another step is to discriminate between scientific and policy arguments. High-profile skeptics on climate have a hodegepodge of views on the science, but are bound by a common stance that restricting greenhouse gases is a waste of resources. On a science development, I don't seek input from policy advocates, whether from Greenpeace or the Cato Institute. On a policy story, everyone's invited.

To auros, debating the factual basis for believing in global warming is a sideshow to the policy argument we should be having.

I understand the CJR author's point, while disagreeing with some of her methods. I think Ron gets it too, as he recognizes that if the consensus is right, and global warming poses a serious peril to civilization, then anything that tells the voters that such peril doesn't exist will tend to slow down action to address it. Personally, I think of the situation more as deciding how much insurance to buy. You don't buy homeowner's insurance because you believe your house is definitely going to burn down. You buy insurance because it might burn down. If the best available science says there's a 1% chance of catastrophic climate change, the kind that sinks New York, Miami, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Boston under several meters of seawater—well, how much are you willing to pay for insurance against that risk? Is 0.1% of GDP unreasonable? 1%? 10%?

Given that there are also a bunch of non-global-warming-related disadvantages to our current energy system, I'd vote for devoting a significant chunk of GDP to dealing with this situation. Maybe not 10%, at least not immediately—trying to transition the economy that fast would cause a lot of dislocation and unnecessary pain. But a percentage point or two? Sure.