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A Sad Fact From Today's Bag of Hate Mail

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
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Can we talk about climate change like civilized adults? Yesterday, I wrote a column asking that question. The response from the internet suggests: "no."

I pointed out that climate activists have a lamentable tendency to slap the "denier" label on everyone who does not consider global warming to be catastrophic and urgent, even if they are completely on board with the basic argument that human CO2 emissions will warm the planet by some amount. This is a purely political attempt to delegitimize dissenters and rally supporters. It is also largely ineffective, and absolutely terrible for the public policy discourse.

I was careful to note, as I wrote, that I am not really myself a "lukewarmist" on climate change; I’m less skeptical of high warming projections than they are, and more importantly, I think that even a relatively small risk of catastrophic warming -- say 1 percent -- is worth ensuring against. It is not the conclusions of the climate activists that I disagree with, so much as their methods of advocating for them. I’d rather see fewer vilifications and more extended debate.

In response, climate scientist Michael Mann tweeted this:

Then he blocked me. You will correctly infer that I was also inundated with other interlocutors on social media and e-mail. Many of them were respectful. Others were … less so. At worst, they suggested, I was a paid shill for fossil fuel interests. (Not so. I accept no pay from anyone other than Bloomberg.) At best, they said, I was a fool who was giving aid and comfort to the enemy. My editor was thusly chided for the column: “shame on you for publishing it, especially if you have children.”

Look, I understand the bunker mentality that has beset many climate-change activists. Climate skeptics have their own set canards about how climate activists are all crypto-communists and authoritarians looking to force their political views on the world. Too many glibly dismiss climate models entirely because of their high degree of uncertainty, rather than grappling with the downside risks that these uncertain models suggest. In particular, Republican politicians, who have considerable policymaking power, have eschewed making the difficult case that whatever warming will occur is not worth taking radical action to prevent, and instead have resorted to throwing snowballs on the Senate floor.

This is understandably frustrating if you think warming is apt to be catastrophic. And the long years of hurling increasingly angry imprecations has radicalized both sides to the point where it’s hard to imagine having anything constructive to say to the folks on the other side.

I also understand that the climate-change folks get tired of being asked to lay out, yet again, why they believe what they believe. Just yesterday, in fact, I was asked, in re my opposition to Obamacare, if I just didn’t care whether people went bankrupt and died. Since I dove into health-care writing around 2007, I have been asked that question -- well, it can’t really be a hundred million times, can it? But it sure feels like it. I’ve written the answer to that question many times. I’m tired of answering the same (stupid) question. It's a variation on the recurring "Why are you a terrible person?"

There are stupid people in every policy argument. But I have never encountered a debate where all the stupid people are on one side. And you do not enhance your own side’s reputation for cleverness by dismissing your worst opponents' worst arguments; you win by engaging with your best opponents' best arguments.

The name-calling, divisive "debate" around climate change is not just bad science and bad public policy making, but as I noted yesterday, it’s not even good political tactics. If either side could point to a lot of progress and say “Yes, it’s unsavory, but it works” -- well, I still wouldn’t like it, but I’d have to concede that it was effective.

But throughout decades of increasingly angry delegitimization of the skeptics, decades in which the vilification has actually increased in volume even as most of the skeptics have moved toward the activists on the basic scientific questions, the net result in public policy has been very little.

A scientific approach would be to acknowledge that advocates' initial hypothesis -- that name calling will advance the cause -- has failed to be borne out by the experimental evidence. And to start looking for another hypothesis for how to move forward on climate change.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net