Climate change rhetoric
Jun 16, 2015
Bishop Hill in Books

Philip Eubanks, a professor of English at Northern Illinois University, has written a short tome about the rhetoric of the climate change debate which may be of interest to readers. As normal for academic books, however, it's grossly overpriced so is likely to remain unread.

Eubanks is a scientific layman and is therefore inclined to take predictions of catastrophe from scientists on trust, but he is also quite capable of calling out extremism on both sides - he discusses an ad-hominem Amazon review of The Hockey Stick Illusion at one point. He's also an engaging writer and the 130 pages of the book have a chatty style that make it an easy read.

His hypothesis is that the climate debate is in a rut, with attempts to win the scientific arguments locked in a kind of trench warfare, which seems unarguable. He goes on to analyse why this is and then offers what he sees as new ways out of the debate. In a jacket quote, Brigitte Nerlich says that the book "opens up a space for mutual understanding", but in the closing pages you find that it's another of those "how can we frame the debate so that we win" efforts that amuse BH readers from time to time.

Eubanks's ideas for change include, for example, toning down the anti-humanism: might at least be useful for those in the mainstream to talk less of humanity as a disease or as agents of harm and to talk more about the human capacity to solve problems...

...and emphasising home and hearth rather than the planet:

... it may be more to the point for us to speak not about preserving the environment, which calls to mind the wilderness (which is indeed important), but rather to emphasize protecting our cities and towns and farmland.

This is fair enough, but as he continues, his own settled view of the climate debate take over and some underlying antipathy towards dissenters seems to creep in. So when he consideres that staple topic of the climate debate, the use of the d-word, we discover that he is not not a fan of the term, but before we can congratulate him we also learn that he wants an alternative, but preferably a rude one:

Should skeptics and deniers be called carbon addicts or some such disparaging term? Perhaps so. But whatever the precise phrase, it would be more direct and it would define the problem more accurately if they were challenged not about their attitudes toward science but instead about their attitude toward climate negligence.

Elsewhere he notes that we argue in order to try to plot a way forward where facts are uncertain. With that argument deadlocked in mutual rancour, an attempt to open "a space for mutual understanding" would have been a valuable contribution. But if he had really wanted to do that, he would have maintainined a studiously neutral position on the climate debate and would hardly have dedicated a paragraph to the consideration of the correct disparaging term to use for dissenters.

It's dressed up better than the previous efforts, but ultimately it's nothing that we haven't heard before.

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