In 2010 and again in 2011, I was a solitary speaker for the scientific consensus at the Heartland Institute’s International Conference on Climate Change.

More recently, I’ve been shocked and deeply disappointed by Heartland’s ugly “Unabomber” billboard campaign. Nevertheless I would consider attending the meeting again, and want here to consider the merits of rhetorical engagement with people who attend these meetings. [Editor’s Note:  Denning says he was invited to speak again this year, at the meeting in Chicago next week, but that a scheduling conflict prevents him from doing so.]

Having spoken at two Heartland Institute International Climate Change Conferences, in 2010 and again in 2011, I’ve often felt that I stumbled into a classic Monty Python comedy sketch from my youth.

In the sketch memorialized on YouTube, Michael Palin pays to have a five-minute argument with John Cleese. Despite his protests, all he gets for his money is rapid-fire contradction. Visibly agitated, he complains that he is dissatisfied.

PALIN: An argument’s not the same as contradiction. An argument is a collected series of statements to establish a definite proposition.

CLEESE: No it isn’t.

PALIN: Yes it is! Argument is an intellectual process. Contradiction is just an automatic gainsaying of anything the other person said.

CLEESE: No it isn’t.

Like Cleese, many climate “contrarians” have no overall argument. Rather, they offer a series of inconsistent contradictions to specific statements, projecting an overall sense of umbrage instead of a reasoned critique. They claim that the observations are junk, and in the next breath that the observations disprove the models. They claim that temperatures aren’t rising, then that warming is caused by the Sun, or that the non-existent warming is good for us. They remind us that arguments from authority are unscientific, then ask us to respect the authority of retired NASA managers.

Nobody (even at Heartland, it seems) disputes that CO2 molecules emit measurable heat, or that heat warms things up. But when contrarians assert that burning vast amounts of coal to power new industrial societies of billions of people won’t warm the climate, the onus is on them to provide a mechanism, a reason Earth’s climate should not warm when heat is applied though our everyday experience and common sense screams that it will.

Overwhelming Scientific Consensus … but Huge Public Debate

Some climatology colleagues have suggested that rhetorical engagement with contrarians is counterproductive, that it merely reinforces their contention that “there’s still a debate.” I respectfully disagree.

Let’s be clear: there is in fact an overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. No peer-reviewed science disputes the expectation that rising CO2 levels will cause major climate change in the coming decades. Survey data have shown more than 97 percent agreement among professional climate scientists (Anderegg et al, 2010, PNAS), and every major professional society has issued supporting statements.

But it is equally clear that there is a huge debate in the larger culture about climate change. This debate is far from settled, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon.

Climate science has no political or cultural constituency. There are at most a few thousand professional climate scientists in the U.S., quite probably fewer than the number of trans-sexual Yemeni-American Hindu Republicans. Yet tens of millions of people have strong opinions about climate change. Reasonable people differ on the severity of the climate threat, the socioeconomic implications, and especially on the best ways to respond to a changing climate.

Anthony Leiserowitz at Yale, Ed Maibach at George Mason University, and their colleagues, in their “Six Americas” surveys of the larger culture, have found a wide spectrum of beliefs even with climate change as polarizing as it seems to be in the media and blogosphere. A substantial majority lives in the “persuadable middle” of this spectrum, and it’s these people I’m trying to talk with, not the wild-eyed conspiracy theorists on the left and right.

Scott Denning photo
Scott Denning

At the Heartland conferences, I doubt even my sparkling sincerity changed the minds of Joseph Bast, Christopher Monckton, or Willie Soon. But literally dozens of people approached me in the hotel hallways and elevators, in the bar, and at dinner to say “Thank you so much for coming! I had never heard this other side of the story.” I suspect that there are millions and millions of people who feel this way. In this age of self-selected media, it’s quite common for people to make up their minds based on strongly filtered information.

Predisposed to Doubt … but ‘Reachable’ and ‘Not Evil’

Besides the Heartland conferences, I do a lot of public presentations on climate change, and I particularly enjoy engaging with hostile audiences. My experience has been that a lot of pleasant, decent people are predisposed to doubt the science. They’re not evil. They care deeply about their children’s and grand children’s’ futures, and genuinely want to do what’s right. These people are reachable, there are thousands of times more of them than there are climate scientists, and a lot of them vote. Not surprisingly, they often find unpersuasive an arrogant attitude that dismisses them as anti-intellectual fools.

National Academy of Sciences President Ralph Cicerone points out that “Scientists are necessary, but not sufficient to solve the climate problem.” Scientists in fact have done a great job of understanding this problem, but the larger culture cannot be expected to do just what scientists tell them to do, nor are earth scientists especially qualified to recommend solutions. Rather than write off millions of caring people as a result of the offensive billboards of a few, I’d rather bring them into the conversation about sollutions.

Climate Change as Third Millennium Great Emerging Theme

Climate change is almost certain to emerge as one of the great themes of human history in the Third Millennium, much as feudalism, religious wars, imperialism, democracy, and the rise of global capitalism defined the Second. This simply is not a problem to be solved by scientists, but through the vigorous engagement of every human culture.

Reasonable people differ about what to do in the face of difficult problems. Are Europe’s fiscal problems best addressed through relentless austerity, or through stimulus policies? Fools posing as “skeptics” might rather claim that there is no fiscal problem in the Euro zone. Is the threat of a nuclear-armed regime in Iran best dealt with by carefully-coordinated sanctions, or by military strikes? Would talk-show hosts give equal time to self-styled “skeptics” who prefer to claim there are no such things as nuclear weapons? Is this really the best that the political right can offer in the face of one of history’s greatest challenges?

Surely there is a case to be made by the right that effective solutions can be crafted to provide energy for billions of emerging consumers without quadrupling atmospheric CO2? At the cost of 200 years of global GDP, our ancestors replaced an energy and economic system based on manual labor and water power with all that we see around us. Who paid that cost? We did, the consumers who also produced the goods and services required. Have those on the political right grown so timid that they fear the future, rather than embracing its opportunities?

It is appropriate that in considering solutions to our carbon, climate, and energy challenges, we must consider ideas from across spectrum of ideology and culture. Regrettably, a large and powerful set of voices in the cultural conversation over climate solutions has been lost as a result of its ridiculous political posturing. Just when we need to hear about smart solutions based on free markets, contrarians have instead adopted a strategy of “argument” right out of Monty Python’s Flying Circus.

Some have argued that modern culture is a house of cards built on the multiplied value of extracted fossil energy, and that when we stop burning coal we’ll freeze in the dark. This kind of nihilism underlies jeremiads from both the left and the right. But history is long, and people have proven remarkably resilient under horrendous circumstances in the past.

Let’s understand instead that modern culture is built on brilliant ideas, creativity, hard work, and thousands of years of experimentation. A case of Enlightenment naïveté? Perhaps, but all the world’s cultures deserve a voice in how humanity responds to climate change.

Scott Denning, Ph.D., is Monfort Professor of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, where he leads a large research group using satellite observations to understand the global carbon cycle. He also serves as Director of Education of the Center for Multiscale Modeling of Atmospheric Processes. A former Editor of the Journal of Climate, he was founding Science Chair of the North American Carbon Program.