Factual Error

On Tuesday, May 6, the third National Climate Assessment report on climate change was released. As might be expected, attention was drawn in the media to the fact that it was the first report to show the current effects of climate change on our planet rather than predicting what those effects might be in the future. I was surprised, though, to hear of a heated exchange on CNN about the report. Apparently, Bill Nye was on CNN’s Crossfire where he found himself not only debating with the Heritage Foundation’s Nicholas Loris about the implications of the report, but also withstanding a tongue-lashing from Crossfire host S.E. Cupp for being, like other “science guys,” a bully.

I’ve watched the Crossfire clip a number of times, and if anyone is engaging in bullying behavior—and I don’t think anyone actually is, the term “bully” is becoming a vaguely defined label slapped on any and all actions that people don’t like—it is Cupp. She completely dominates the conversation, directing no small degree of ire at Nye.

S.E. Cupp from CNN's CROSSFIRE

S.E. Cupp from CNN’s CROSSFIRE

However, the exchange is frustrating on all sides. Cupp frustrates because she frames the presentation of scientific facts as “bullying.” I don’t remember any of the science describing climate change, going back to the days when it was referred to as “global warming,” as being bullying. It was sometimes dire, and the recommendations for reducing human impact on the climate were unpalatable to most Americans—not just vested interests and their ideological mouthpieces, though it certainly included them as well—because it required sacrifice. Her proof that scientists have been bullies? Loris defending his skepticism of the report by declaring, “I’m not a denier, I’m not a skeptic.” Loris was forced to say this, Cupp insists, “because the science group has tried to shame anyone who dares question this.”

Though I’m not exactly sure what Cupp means by “this,” it surprises me how she misreads what Loris is doing with his denials. He isn’t trying to avoid shame—I would argue that’s because “the science group” has never tried to “shame anyone,” though they clearly get frustrated when people manipulate or ignore facts to posit untrue or distorted statements. Rather, in his denials, Loris is engaging in a tactic currently popular with those resistant to the implications of climate change: he can no longer openly deny climate change, so he concedes its truth. As the NCA report makes clear, climate change is here. It’s observable. It has already affected millions of Americans and will affect millions more.

The Heritage Foundation's Nick Loris

The Heritage Foundation’s Nick Loris

As a consequence, he deflects accusations that he is an anti-science ideologue by declaring he isn’t a climate change denier or skeptic before launching into an argument that is, in essence, meant to minimize the effects of climate change. There is no evidence that hurricanes are becoming more severe, he demurs, nor that the intensity of tornadic activity is increasing. And despite Nye’s claims that scientists are in consensus about the causes and consequences of climate change, Loris insists that not all scientists are.

It must be pointed out that Loris hails from the Heritage Foundation because the Heritage Foundation is funded by the Koch brothers, whose wealth is tied in with the oil industry. So it is wise to be skeptical of scholars like Loris who, funded by the foundation, claim that the consequences of climate change are uncertain and man’s contribution overstated. Given his possible bias, it’s not surprising when Loris insists, “What I’m saying is, climate is changing — yes, man-made emission are in some part to that — but we haven’t seen these extreme event trends.” The key phrase in his concession is that “man-made emission[s]” contribute to climate change “in some part.”

More importantly and frustratingly though, immediately after denying he’s a climate change skeptic, Loris turns around and doubts that climate change will have the impact that scientists predict. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being skeptical, good science thrives on it, but from his exchange with Nye, Loris appears to have zeroed in on claims that seemingly ameliorate the seriousness of climate change despite the overall conclusion of the report to the contrary. Basically, the consensus is that regardless of whether or not current events prove all projected trends of the effects of climate change, its toll in terms of dollars and, more importantly, human lives has already been steep and will continue.

Bill Nye, "The Science Guy"

Bill Nye, “The Science Guy”

If Loris’s shiftiness regarding his stance on climate change is frustrating, so too is Nye’s response to Cupp when asked how politicians can convince Americans of the seriousness of climate change without resorting to the bullying: by sharing the facts about global warming. He says this in the middle of a debate in which he has to declare, with no little resignation, “So let’s start with, we [Nye and Loris] don’t agree on the facts. This third [NCA] report came out, saying it’s very serious, you say no. There’s the essence of the problem, S.E. The science, the researchers say yes.”

That is the essence of the problem, Bill. Facts cannot undo ideology. In fact, in his book The Sublime Object of Ideology, philosopher Slavoj Žižek convincingly argues that facts countering an ideology actually strengthen it. In other words, when confronted with scientific facts about the effects of climate change, don’t be surprised if the deniers insist it’s actually proof of a conspiracy among scientists to bully us into believing there is extreme climate change and that humans are to blame. Remember that nonsense from about four years ago when deniers claimed to have hacked into climate scientists emails and found proof that they were colluding in a massive lie about the seriousness of climate change? Though the story was debunked as soon as it appeared, it still gets mileage to this day—I can’t tell you how many of my conservative students cite it in papers denying the reality of climate change.

Climate change is serious business. Those of us who understand that had better come up with a better strategy for dealing with it than we have. The facts don’t speak for themselves and the planet can’t wait much longer.

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