The Straw Man in Climate Argument – Moving from 1 Reasoned Concept to Ridiculous Extremes


Today, I want to consider the straw man in climate argument. I am challenged by this tactic every day. It can be subtle, and it is tempting to accept the straw man at face value. We end up going around in endless circles, debating things we didn’t say. It is a distraction and a waste of time.

So, what is a straw man argument? In a straw man argument someone distorts our position into another stance that is much easier to poke at. In our climate work we see reasoned statements warped to ridiculous extremes. The resulting straw man is much easier to shoot down.

It was a little cocker spaniel dog, in a crate he had sent all the way from Texas, black and white, spotted, and our little girl Tricia, six years old, named it Checkers. And, you know, the kids, like all kids, loved the dog, and I just want to say this right now, that, regardless of what they say about it, we are going to keep it. - Richard Nixon - On Being Accused of Misappropriating Funds

The Straw Man in Climate Argument and Extreme Statements

So, if I make a simple statement like “evidence shows the climate is changing”. Then someone may attack me for making unfair demands that folks give up their cars, their homes, and their livelihood. The inference is climate change demands dramatic and unpleasant personal choices. If the adjustments are extreme, my original statement MUST be wrong.

You note that I didn’t preach about the personal changes. I simply said “the climate is changing”. All the rest of the straw man was gobbledygook built onto my comment to insinuate I am criticizing folks’ morality and way of life. 

None of the resulting anger and criticism proves me wrong. But this is no longer the point. Instead, we divert our attention to a fight about the extravagant demands of a slanted picture of climate action.

The Straw Man in Climate Argument is Very Subtle

The straw man in climate argument is subtle. For sure, once we accept the climate is changing, we should consider how to make adjustments. To this point, the straw man is not a distortion. But then, the straw man paints a picture of economic ruin, shutting down all industry, and freezing in the dark. So, adjusting to climate change means returning to a barren and disease-filled life. ​This picture is scary. In fact, this straw man’s purpose is to whip up fear. Unfortunately, all too often it works.

The Straw Man in Climate Argument and Friendly Fire

And once again we used it against each other in our own climate advocacy. For example, for about 20 years now I have worked on climate change adaptation. From time to time, other climate specialists attack my work. They argue climate adaptation diverts us from greenhouse gas management. So, we shouldn’t do it. But I said nothing about greenhouse gas action. I said that, as an engineer, I have a duty to build climate change into my work. To do otherwise, exposes people to needless risk, leading to injury and death. Not only is this repugnant, it violates the engineering code of ethics.

​​This straw man distorts my actual position that we have to do everything we can to fix climate change. This includes BOTH curbing emissions and confronting the risks from extreme weather.

Tricks and Traps

In fairness, the sceptics sometimes promote adaptation INSTEAD of greenhouse gas action. But, presuming anyone who works on climate adaptation holds this opinion is simplistic and wrong. The troll sets the trap and we fall into it with lots of bickering and paralysis. This friendly fire hurts everyone, while the tolls sit on the sideline stirring the pot from time to time.

The Straw Man in Climate Argument, Denial and Anger

The straw man argument is a symptom of the denial and anger stages of climate grief. It shows a person is still coming to grips with an unpleasant and scary proposition. It seems weird that when we feel scared and angry; we are drawn to ideas that amplify our fear and anger. The straw man exploits this tendency.

Trolls Love the Straw Man in Climate Argument

Trolls use this tactic in two ways. First, they try to derail open discussion. They demand we defend a warped picture of our position. And we do it, because the straw man can be very subtle and the temptation to fight back is huge. Second, they love to stir up fear and anger. The straw man can seem oh so reasonable and easy to buy into. It is difficult to reason with scared and angry people.

We Need to Listen and be Clear about the Message

The average person is trying to come to grips with climate change. They don’t understand what this means for them and their families, and they are trying to figure out what they should do. We need to listen. We need to give folks air space to share their fears, for their families, for their jobs, and for the future. And we need to share our own fears to build a common understanding of our shared values and humanity. Then we can move forward. 

​We need to be clear about what we are truly saying and confirm folks understand. This demands we be patient with folks who just don’t get it. We must explain what we mean and what we definitely do not mean. If folks object to something, let’s make sure it is something we actually said and not some distorted straw man that adds fuel to the fire.

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