Thursday, March 24, 2005

Public debate against Robert Balling

The following is the text of Damien's opening speech against climate skeptic Robert Balling. The debate will occur tonight at 7:30PM (pacific time) at the opening ceremony of the National Debate Tournament on the campus of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

The climate crisis has failed to make a dent in the public consciousness of most Americans. Health care, terrorism, and the budget deficit regularly outrank a changing climate in lists of public concerns. While these issues, and others, are undoubtedly important, the stakes of the climate crisis are arguably just as great or greater—but, the public debate on this issue is being systematically distorted by powerful interests. These distortions undermine the very basis for democracy which must rely on an informed citizenry.

Like any good debater, I would first like to lay out a few definitions—something I learned to do debating in a high school in Alabama. Systematic is “carried on using step-by-step procedures, purposefully regular; methodical.” Distortion is a “statement that twists fact; a misrepresentation.”

Some level of distortion may be inevitable in any debate where the stakes are large and the vested interests powerful. That the oil and gas industry are actively engaged in protecting their own interests is so obvious as to be virtually undebatable, and their influence on climate science is well-documented. Equally, the alarmism of many mainstream environmental organizations could also be accused of distorting public debate through fear. I would like to carve out a middle ground between these two extremes and focus on what I perceive to be the most pernicious, and under-covered, distortion of the climate debate: the suppression of climate information by the government and the manipulation of language by certain pollsters.

The White House, for the past five years, has suppressed government reports on climate change. The Environmental Protection Agency has three times been the target of political manipulation. In September 2002, the White House simply removed an entire section on climate change from the EPA’s annual air pollution report. Then, in the summer of 2003, the EPA issued a tentative report on the state of the environment. The sections on climate were edited by the White House to delete factual information and insert references to a discredited study by the American Petroleum Institute that were skeptical of rising temperatures. Ultimately, the EPA decided to remove any reference to climate in this report rather than compromise its’ scientific integrity. Finally, the EPA was asked by John McCain and Joe Lieberman to assess the effects on carbon dioxide emission from their proposed legislation. The EPA declined, saying it’s scientists had been prohibited from releasing or analyzing data about carbon dioxide. This led Lieberman, who is not exactly a radical lefty, to say “this is an administration that lets its politics and ideology overwhelm and stifle scientific fact." The public is the real loser, because they are denied information that might encourage them to consider the risks of the climate crisis more seriously.

Overt manipulation is easier to spot then the covert distortion of language that is Frank Luntz’s stock in trade. In 2001, Frank Luntz, a conservative pollster, sent a memo to Republicans in Congress detailing ways to neutralize the global warming debate. He acknowledges that quote “the scientific debate is closing [against us] but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science.” Luntz recommended several key rhetorical strategies in order to stall action on the climate crisis. First, Luntz said skeptics should say “climate change” instead of “global warming.” The term “global warming” has “catastrophic connotations attached to it,” whereas “climate change” suggests a “more controllable and less emotional challenge.” By portraying climate change as innocuous—like moving from “Pittsburgh to Fort Lauderdale”—any urgency to act is dispelled. Luntz apparently has taken a lesson from Orwell, but not exactly in the way that the inventor of the term “doublespeak” intended. Secondly, Luntz suggests that congress members tell stories rather than the truth. Luntz claims that quote “a compelling story, even if factually incorrect, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.” While this might be true, such a suggestion is a poor guide for public policy and a prescription for lying to protect the interests politicians serve. As a consequence, the public has been delivered a series of human interest stories about how certain congresspeople are “conservationists” and “sincere in their care for the environment” instead of an examination of the facts of the climate crisis.

The strategies of the White House and Luntz are amplified by the media. In their quest for journalistic objectivity, the media often reports “both sides of the story,” neglecting to indicate that there is overwhelming scientific consensus for those who believe climate change is occurring. What they ought to do instead is note in the final paragraph of a newspaper article that there is some dissent about the scientific consensus by a small group of scientists with many links to the fossil fuel lobby. The skeptics on climate science are like baseball fans on the first and third baselines at Yankee Stadium—they have great seats, but many of their tickets were paid for by ExxonMobil and they are still in the vast minority of spectators.

I thank the organizers of this public debate, Glen Frappier and Gordon Mitchell, as well as Dr. Balling and the National Debate Tournament, for providing an opportunity to discuss these issues. In the spirit of continuing the debate after it has ended here tonight, I would direct you to for a substantiation of many of my claims. Public debate is a crucial means by which citizens can influence the deliberative process of opinion and policy making. This is precisely why the distortion of the public debate on the climate crisis is so appalling.


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