Harry Geels: The fallacies of the extreme camps in the climate debate
This column was originally written in Dutch. This is an English translation.
The two extreme camps in the climate debate, the deniers and alarmists, regularly use dubious arguments. A second call in a short time for more realism and solidarity, based on the rules of logic.
By Harry Geels
In my column the eight shades of gray of the climate debate from 12 September 2023 I called for more nuance in the climate debate. One of the four positions I took at the time was that the social discussion is being hijacked by the extreme camps, which often use one-sided arguments. In this column I will discuss those arguments in more detail, because the number of fallacies is sometimes cringe-worthy. The idea of a (follow-up) column was partly inspired by a number of responses asking for more substantiation.
There are roughly two ways of arguing: inductive ('bottom-up', based on empirical research) and deductive ('top-down', with the rules of logic). Both have their pros and cons. The problem with 'empirical facts' is that the results depend strongly on the chosen data period and statistical techniques. Friedrich Nietzsche once rightly said: 'There are no facts, only interpretations.' The problem with logic is that the reasoning is often not pure (the well-known fallacies, but also that practice is often more stubborn than theory).
The problem with the climate debate is that we are bombarded with all kinds of research via the media and that the relevant camps engage in 'cherry picking' from the large amount of research. That confuses. That is why I will leave the empirical discussion alone for a while. Without pretending to be exhaustive, we will first start with three common fallacies used by both deniers and alarmists, then five general fallacies used by both camps, and finally a special one, the 'motte and bailey fallacy'.
Common fallacies used by deniers
It's natural variability. Some argue that Earth's climate has always changed naturally, implying that current changes are just part of a natural cycle. However, this ignores the increasing role of human activities on the environment, partly due to large population growth.
The climate models are wrong. This points out the limitations of science and the difficulty of prediction. But while prediction is indeed difficult, science has yielded many useful insights and inventions. Without a scientific compass it is difficult to sail.
Climate change is a 'hoax'. The narrative is often that there is a larger power, or an elite of supranational organizations and (large) companies that 'pushes' the climate agenda. It is more likely that a society develops slowly based on actions and counter-reactions.
Common fallacies used by alarmed people
Every extreme 'weather event' is caused by climate change. The well-known fallacy of false attribution. There have also been climate disasters in the (distant) past. The frequency and intensity of some events may be greater, but other factors may also play a role on a case-by-case basis.
A climate catastrophe is coming. Some people point out that a disaster is about to happen soon, for example if we are not fossil-free by 2050. However, this is playing on people's feelings of uncertainty, which can even cause psychological problems. Climate change is a complex long-term topic.
Alternative energy is much cleaner. A myopia has arisen on the bad properties of fossils. But alternative sources of energy also have their disadvantages. Windmills cause horizon pollution, the raw materials required in batteries deplete the earth and - although the chance is small - nuclear energy can cause a major disaster.
Other, more common fallacies
Argumentum ad hominem. Attacking the person instead of the argument, for example by calling him a 'fossil lobbyist', 'denier', 'tree hugger' or 'alarmist', to debunk the arguments coming out of that person's mouth.
The qualitative argument. Arguing that a lack of good evidence for a particular position indicates a false position. For example: 'There is no hard evidence that CO2 causes global warming, so there is no need for a fossil-free target by 2050.'
Alleged causality. Arguing that because two things happen at the same time, one must cause the other. For example: it's cold outside, so global warming can't be happening' or 'there are so many extremely hot temperatures, floods and major forest fires, so global warming is happening.'
Slippery slope. Arguing that a small action will lead to a chain of events that will end in a disastrous outcome. For example: 'If we take action to reduce carbon emissions, it will lead to job losses and economic ruin” or “if we don't act now, a disaster will happen in 2050.'
Straw man reasoning. Misrepresenting a counterargument to make it easier to attack. For example: 'Those who believe in climate change want to impose a socialist or communist government on us.' Or conversely: 'Those who deny climate change are supporters of the 'wrong' capitalism.'
Argumentum ad misericordiam. Emotions are appealed to here. An alarmist could point to all the people who suffer greatly from extreme heat and flooding. A denier might say that poor people should pay the subsidies for solar panels and electric cars that only rich people can afford.
The Motte-and-Bailey fallacy
The Motte-and-Bailey fallacy is a rhetorical tactic in which a person presents a controversial or extreme claim (the 'Bailey') in a discussion or debate, but when challenged or criticized, retreats to a more defensible position (the 'Motte'), to make it seem as if their original claim was not as extreme or controversial as it initially seemed. In the context of climate change, this fallacy can be observed, briefly from an alarmist's perspective, as an example in the following way:
Bailey statement. An alarmist might make an exaggerated or extreme claim regarding climate change, such as: 'Climate change will lead to the impending extinction of many species on Earth.'
Challenged or criticized. When others challenge or provide counterarguments to the extreme statement, the person may switch to a more defensible position, such as: 'Climate change is a problem that will negatively impact ecosystems and biodiversity if left unchecked.'
Motte statement. The person now argues from the more moderate position and acts as if he has been defending it all along.
This fallacy is problematic because it can be used to deflect a critical eye and create the illusion of reasonableness without discussing the extreme position. It is also problematic when a smart guy, trained in logic, who sees through the Motte-and-Bailey fallacy, can put the person who makes the extreme statement on the rack using the rules of logic. As far as the rules of logic and good argumentation still matter nowadays, of course. Because that is up to discussion as well.
This article contains a personal opinion from Harry Geels