May 20, 2019

Games People Play in the Climate Debate

Joel Nodelman

About the Author

Joel is an engineer and risk management specialist with over forty years of professional practice. He is committed to helping his clients achieve climate resiliency and sustainability.

When people thought the Earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the Earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the Earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the Earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together. 

– Isaac Asimov –

Recently, I read several posts on Facebook that show the games people play in the climate debate. The posters argued that the Province of Québec has no right to comment on climate change because cities in Québec “spewed” raw sewage into the St. Lawrence River.  In fact, the posts got a lot of attention, re-posting, and argument back and forth. Ultimately, this resulted in no change in opinions, and served only to vent frustration. Admittedly, this was fun, but beyond the entertainment value, there was no purpose.   

As a climate professional, I face this sort of discussion almost every day. It can be frustrating.  In fact, the arguments only cloud the issues. Generally, they create a division between folks, and they present the false idea that there are only two sides to this issue, no shades of grey. 

Either you are with us or against us.

Meaningful discussion is difficult when issues are treated as black and white arguments. In my work, this keeps us from finding workable ways to address climate issues. In fact, often the point of these arguments is creating divisions to prevent useful discussion. These are arguments based on flawed logic, and all too often we take the bait and fall into the fray. 

The two most common games people play in the climate debate are false equivalence, and false balance. These are technical terms, but they describe simple concepts. 

What is False Equivalence?

In a false equivalence, we assume two ideas are logically identical when, in fact, they are not. Often, the two ideas share a common trait. But, that trait may differ in size, or complexity between the two. Often, we overlook other features that are very different. In simple terms, a false equivalence is like saying:

One is a number, and two is a number, therefore one equals two.

While both one and two are numbers, that quality is far outweighed by the substantial contextual difference between them. Two is twice as much as one, and the equivalence we assumed falls apart.

The False Equivalence Game People Play in the Climate Debate

Confused? In the Facebook posts I read, false equivalence translates to:

People who “spew” sewage into the river don’t care about the environment. Climate change is an environmental issue. So, a person who “spews” sewage into the river doesn’t care about the climate.

When we draw out the logical path between the start and end points of the argument it looks ridiculous.  Here, the argument also makes a ton of judgments about the horrible folks that would allow sewage to spew into the river.  

The argument ignores the fact that combined sewer systems and aging sewers are common across Canada. In fact, cities in Québec are not the only places in the country struggling with this issue. I did a quick Google search and found many reports of sewage discharges across the country, some of these were even in Western Canada.

The argument also ignores the fact that combined sewers spill sewage to the river during heavy rains.  These are events we expect much more often because of climate change. So, rather than removing Québec’s right to comment on climate change, it supports their right to comment on actions they believe will make things worse.  

In the climate debate, we need to hear from these folks, as they have firsthand knowledge about climate impacts. This does not mean that they are the only voice we need to hear, but it sure suggests that they have every right to contribute to the discussion.  

What is False Balance?

False balance occurs in news reporting. Reporters must be fair, present opposing views on an issue, and may give the same time to two opinions. The reporter maintains the sense of balance, but gives equal time to weaker arguments. In fact, this suggests that the poor argument is as valid as the strong argument.

In simple terms, a false balance is like saying:

We must give equal air time and weight to the opinion of Flat Earthers to that of astronomers when discussing a solar eclipse. 

The False Balance Game People Play in the Climate Debate

Games People Play in the Climate Debate
False Balance is Very Common and Can be Confusing

False balance is so common in the climate debate we often take it for granted. I seldom see a TV spot or newspaper article on the climate that does not offer “both sides” of the issue. While I believe that everyone has a right to their opinion, and we are all free to share our views, I do not believe that every opinion is right. Nor, will I give equal weight to subjective opinions to those of established experts. On the one hand, it is a personal opinion, on the other it is a professional opinion that has survived the rough and tumble of a rigorous review.

When I see a TV report on flooding, I give more weight to the climate expert who explains how this all fits within climate change. Conversely, I give less weight to the opinion of the guy in the street who says that we have seen flooding before and this is nothing unusual. In fact, I recently did an interview with our local newspaper discussing the risk that changing climate poses to infrastructure in St. Albert. Soon after, the paper published a letter to the editor where the writer argued that:

There is no risk and even though I am no expert on infrastructure, I am sure that the City’s engineers built the system to withstand anything nature could throw at it.

I support his right to his opinion. However, it’s personal and unsupported. In critical decision making, I would never give his view equal weight to those of professionals that work with these issues every day.  

Fear and the Games People Play in the Climate Debate

We should always remember that people play these games in the climate debate because they are afraid. They fear for their livelihoods; they fear for their home, and they fear for the security and safety of their loved-ones. Consequently, in this environment, folks will take solace in any argument that soothes the fear, and they will share stories that support this position. As climate professionals, we do well to remember that our message is very scary. Emotionally, folks simply just do not want to believe this message. 

False equivalence and false balance allow us to argue with our feelings. Generally, it simply feels better to deny climate change. Unfortunately, bad weather does not care about feelings. Nor does it respect politics. It strikes conservatives and liberals in the same way. In this sense, there truly is a balance in this discussion. 

Fear makes us all vulnerable to the false equivalence and false balance arguments. While we cloak the arguments in a facade of logic, they are at their root, emotional.  Thus, in a debate fraught with emotion, these fallacies are tools that allow us to sooth our fears and, at the same time, appear educated and logical. 

Responding to the Games People Play in the Climate Debate

What should we do about the games people play in the climate debate? I see this as a four-part action list; I summarize as:

  • Listen
  • Respect
  • Engage
  • Walk Away

First, we need to listen carefully to the positions folks present to us in the climate debate, both for and against climate change. We need to keep an eye open for false balance and false equivalence and be careful to not engage in the discussion at that level. Otherwise, the discussion degrades to school-yard bickering that solves nothing:

Says who! Says me! Oh yeah! Yeah!

Second, seek a level of respect for where the other person is coming from. Do they have legitimate fears? Understanding this context goes a long way toward mutual respect and meaningful discussion. Third, when I recognize that the other person presents an honest view, even though I may not agree, I engage with them. In this discussion, we can seek mutual understanding and try to find ways to address climate risk that lessen their fears and address their concerns.  

[su_pullquote]Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience. Mark Twain[/su_pullquote]

Finally, the world is full of “trolls” who just want to hear their own voice. The want to stymy discussion and they want to “win” the conversation. I walk away from this discussion. I have better things to do than waste my breath in this sort of argument – once again school-yard bickering with no foreseeable positive outcome. Don’t waste your time.

What About Responding to False Balance?

Similarly, I listen carefully to opinions expressed in the media. Generally, I assess the source and motivation for the views given. I remind myself that not all experts are created equal and try to give more weight to the views expressed by true experts. Otherwise, I simply enjoy the show, indulge my righteous indignation, and get on to more productive things.    Notably, some folks openly share their views and fears, and are genuinely looking for answers. In that case, I aim to offer a rational, balanced, viewpoint and remain open to changing my view based on the perspectives they offer. 

It’s All About Listening

We must listen for and identify games people play in the climate debate. Generally, where appropriate we can challenge differing opinions. Where it isn’t appropriate, don’t engage at all. It is a waste of time and breath.

A robust and respectful dialogue, one were we keep talking, is important. That is how we will solve this problem. But, in the interim, let’s not get tangled in the sticky web of intentionally flawed logic.  

Call to Action

You are not alone.  There are folks here to help you out.  Seek the advice of climate risk and resiliency experts.  Do not be afraid to engage in the debate.  We all have something valuable to offer. 

We provide ongoing commentary on these issues.  Feel free to contact us, we are always happy to discuss your climate, risk and resiliency.

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