March 21, 2007

A Winning Tactic?

Filed under: Climate Politics

On Wednesday March 14th a debate was held by the organization Intelligence Squared on the motion “Global Warming is Not a Crisis.”

Intelligence Squared’s (IQ2) mission is:

The goal of IQ2 US is to raise the level of public discourse on our most challenging issues. To provide a new forum for intelligent discussion, grounded in facts and informed by reasoned analysis. To transcend the toxically emotional and the reflexively ideological. To encourage recognition that the opposing side has intellectually respectable views. To engage the live audience as active participants who will ask questions and decide which speakers have carried the day by voting on the motions both before and after the debate.

Its debates are well-respected and broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) and transcripts and podcasts are available for anyone interested in them.

The panelists speaking for the motion were (as described by Intelligence Squared):

• Michael Crichton is a writer and filmmaker, best known as the author of Jurassic Park and the creator of “ER.” Crichton graduated summa cum laude from Harvard College, received his MD from Harvard Medical School, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He has been a visiting instructor at Cambridge University and MIT. Crichton’s 2004 bestseller, State of Fear, challenged extreme anthropogenic warming scenarios.

• Richard S. Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at MIT since 1983, previously held professorships at Harvard, where he received his A.B., S.M. and Ph.D., and the University of Chicago. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the recipient of various awards. He is the author or co-author of three books and over 200 papers. His current research is on climate sensitivity, atmospheric convection and the general circulation of the atmosphere.

• Philip Stott is an Emeritus Professor and biogeographer from the University of London, UK. Although a scientist, for the past ten years he has also employed modern techniques of deconstruction to grand environmental narratives, like “global warming.” Stott was editor of the internationally-important Journal of Biogeography for 18 years. He broadcasts widely on TV and radio, and writes regularly on environmental issues for The Times of London, among other publications.

And the panelists speaking against the motion were:

• Brenda Ekwurzel works on the national climate program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Prior to joining UCS, she was on the faculty of the University of Arizona. Doctorate research was at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University and post-doctoral research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.

• Gavin Schmidt is a climate scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. His publications include studies of past, present and potential future climates. Scientific American cited him as a top 50 Research Leader in 2004, and he has worked on education and outreach with the American Museum of Natural History, the College de France and the New York Academy of Sciences, among others. He is a contributing editor at

• Richard C.J. Somerville is Distinguished Professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. He is a theoretical meteorologist and an expert on computer simulations of the atmosphere. Among many honors, Somerville is a Fellow of both the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Meteorological Society. He has received awards for both his research and his popular book, The Forgiving Air: Understanding Environmental Change.

Before the debate began, a poll was taken of the members of audience as to whether or not they agreed with the motion being debated: Global warming is not a crisis.

The results were as follows:

Those for the motion: 29.88%
Those against the motion: 57.32%
Those undecided: 12.80%

Obviously, going in, the audience was inclined to believe that we were facing some sort of crisis when it came to climate change.

Following the panelists’ presentations and debate and after the Q&A session, the audience was again polled on the same motion. This time the numbers were:

Those for the motion: 46.22%
Those against the motion: 42.22%
Those undecided: 11.56%

Clearly, the panelists speaking for the motion (i.e. global warming is not a crisis) carried the day, picking up a full 16 percentage points and the wresting a plurality from the majority.

To no surprise, these results came quite to the dismay of the panelists speaking against the motion and their loyal followers. One of the panelists, Dr. Gavin Schmidt, is quite active in running the climate blog and used as a forum to solicit advice prior to the debate and then to share his experiences afterwards. Joining in on all of the backslapping and you’ll-get-‘em-next-time, tiger encouragement was another contributor, the University of Chicago’s Dr. Ray Pierrehumbert. Apparently Dr. Pierrehumbert thinks a new strategy is in order. Here is what he had to say about how he thinks the situation should be handled from here on out (as reflected in Comment #280 of the blog entry “Adventures on the East Side” ):

Every once in a while, a key turn of phrase on the part of the good guys, a key step out of bounds on the part of the bad guys, does have the power to completely turn around a public debate. Everybody who has ever been involved in a public debate over critical issues hopes for a moment like Joseph Welch’s obliteration of Joe McCarthy, with the phrase “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last?” That moment clearly didn’t happen in the global warming debate under discussion here, and maybe it will never happen for a problem like global warming. I do think that this case too, in the end, comes down to a fundamental lack of decency, a fundamental shamelessness, on the part of opponents like Lindzen or Crichton. My hat is off to Gavin, Brenda and Richard, who I think did about as well as can be done playing the science straight, but the response shows that some other tactic is necessary to engage the hearts as well as minds of the audience. I’m not, of course, suggesting that one play crooked with the science the way Lindzen does, but that tactics which play more to peoples’ feelings, tactics which even extend to ridicule of opponents where they deserve ridicule, may be needed to win in fora like this one. I’m not sure what such tactics would look like, but I doubt many scientists have the requisite theatrical skills.

Comment by raypierre — 19 Mar 2007 @ 11:47 pm

No Comments

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress