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Mike Stark

Mike Stark

Posted: March 27, 2007 09:21 PM

Global Warming? Phooey!


It's just not sound science.

Yeah, that's what I expected to hear when I went to a Federalist Society's event that featured Myron Ebell of the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

Well, that's not what he said. I'm not really sure what he said, actually. And I think that's the point.

You see, there's a new tactic being used by those obsessed with Al Gore and new ways of obtaining Exxon-Mobil's money.

Confuse. Confuse. Confuse.

It works like this:

Global warming is a huge, multidisciplinary science involving atmospheric scientists, astronomers, biologists, ecologists, physicists, chemists and a whole bunch of scholars that come with 6-syllable titles I just can't pronounce. For me, and just about everyone else, we're forced to accept that we can't possibly know everything, but when over 10,000 peer-reviewed papers are published and they all point to the same conclusion, well... we trust that the scientists are correct.

Not the folks at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. Instead, they look at the forest, find a mushroom and say, "Sheesh, that's not a tree!! How can this possibly be a forest? Oh, I see... well, so it is. Aha! That proves my I think point!! This mushroom is growing on a dead tree! This forest cannot possibly be a threat if the trees are dead! In fact, this dead tree makes for wonderful fertilizer. We should all celebrate dead trees!! Oh, yes, I see. There are a lot of live, sturdy trees around here, aren't there? Well, you know, all the same, this isn't a forest - it's merely a grove. And, by the way, if it was a forest, it'd cost a lot of money to chop it down."

Seriously. That's Myron Ebell's strength of argument.

He points to data point after disputed data point (the mushrooms) in his efforts to intimate that global warming may not be real. You rebut his data, or present irrefutable data of their own (the tree the mushroom is growing upon), and he moves the goal-posts to suggest that even though global warming is real, it's certainly no threat requiring any kind of action. In fact, if global warming is real, we're going to witness a wonderful resurgence of plant life and biodiversity as the carbon dioxide and warmer temperatures combine to form a vigorous greenhouse effect!! (the fertilizer argument). You bring him back to earth by mentioning the migrating parasitic species, deadly heat waves, dying coral reefs and increased freak weather spells (sturdy trees). He minimizes the troubles (cold kills more people than heat, changing climate brings opportunity as well as costs, etc) and falls back on his favorite war-horse - the cost implications of actually doing something about the problem.

I sat through nearly two hours of that pattern playing Solitaire on my computer. You see, I know the right. I expected this treatment.

I was mildly disappointed that the allies I brought with me to the discussion insisted on asking policy, scientific or political questions that Mr. Ebell was clearly well prepared to parry. This is after all, what he does for a living. Like an octopus, he's particularly adept at clouding the waters with ink. Which made it particularly funny in an ironic sort of way when a pen exploded in his pocket just before he took my question.

He had run out of ink!

"Mr. Ebell, I'm sorry, but I feel like I walked in on you in bed with my wife and you just spent the last two hours asking me if I was going to believe me or my lying eyes." The crowd (and remember, this was a Federalist Society event) chortled.

"I mean, heat waves killed hundreds or thousands in Europe and Chicago. Coral reefs are dying off. Bark beetles are devastating forests they've never been found in before because the temperatures were to cold to sustain them. I don't have to go through it all, you've heard it all before... data point after data point after data point says global warming is a problem."

"Further, Exxon-Mobil recently admitted to spending $16 million dollars to cloud the science - to propagandize against global warming. And your firm, the supposedly non-partisan Competitive Enterprise Institute was one of the greatest recipients."

"Which leads me to my next point - your claim of non-partisanship. I've heard Senator Inhofe, Richard Pombo, Tom delay when he was there and many others mis-state the science, often while quoting your organization. But I'm looking at your web-page right now, and I see story after story that supposedly debunks Al Gore. Why haven't you ever had anything bad to say about a Republican? Because to a simple guy like me, well, when I look at the big picture, it looks as if you folks care less about the truth than you do about furthering a pro-business agenda."

{This is when Mr. Ebell excused himself to wipe the ink off his hands. He turns to address my questions in reverse order.}

First he claimed that, "Oh my gosh, I welcome your examination of my motives, but we are a very small operation. When you compare our resources to NRDC, Sierra Club and Greenpeace's, well, we just can't afford to chase down every inaccuracy and we really need to focus..."

I interrupted: "You mean, Exxon/Mobil doesn't have enough money to get their message out?" (More laughter.)

"Well, I don't know..."

Me again: "Didn't they just break every record for quarterly profit by any company, ever, in any quarter, ever?"

"Uhm, yeah, they may have, but it is good that you ask these questions and I think you should be. But you know, cold kills a lot more people than heat, so while we may have the heat waves, humans are adapting at living in heat much better. Not too many people are moving to Minnesota or North Dakota, but Phoenix is booming."

I couldn't take it. "Wait a minute - are you standing next to my bed in my bedroom asking me how you could possibly be sleeping with my wife while wearing those ridiculous underwear?" More laughs.

Mr. Ebell was a professional though. He stuck to his script and refused to be thrown off. He was rattled - he clearly isn't used to being held accountable in such a broad, expansive way. He's much more comfortable arguing the nuances, highlighting outlying studies and pointing up micro-inconsistencies that support his case. So that's what he went back to doing.

Upon reflection, I really think there are a couple of lessons for progressives to be found in this five minute exchange.

First of all, when arguing with somebody that either has no credibility or is not arguing a credible position, don't donate the credibility they need to be seen as your equal.

You see, by calling his credibility into question immediately - and not letting him up for air - well, I've got no proof, but I really think that everyone in the room knew that Mr. Ebell had been bettered. When we ask policy or science questions of these charlatans, we give the impression that we care what they think. We don't. We know they are rank liars, we're just wondering if they'll be able to spin a sufficient answer. But these guys get millions of dollars a year from the largest corporate titans precisely because they have the skill to ink up the issue. Why let them show off?

Secondly, don't go out of your way to be nice or polite. Hell, I won't afford these profit-gandists any respect on my blog, why the hell should I do it face to face? A large part of their professional career derives from their ability to mock me and the things I believe in. The Competitive Enterprise Institute once liked global warming to "being invaded by space aliens" for example. By addressing these people with the indignant scorn they deserve, you project the moral superiority of your position. To many times it seems that Democratic and progressive pundits are more interested in being our opponents friends than we are in vigorously arguing the issues. In this media environment - when equal time is given to global warming deniers... well, we just can't afford the small talk.

In the end, these guys are not good people. This isn't a case of principled people disagreeing. At this point in the global warming debate, the only principled disagreements to be had revolve around what we should be doing to address the crisis. The Myron Ebells of the world - the die-hard denialists... well, we need to move them off the stage by marginalizing them at every opportunity.