What is it about the global warming debate that spurs people to demonize each other by playing the Nazi card?
“Mussolini had his blackshirts. Hitler had his brownshirts. Now we have to deal with the U.N. greenshirts, and they are every bit as dangerous,” one blogger intones in a post that derides Maurice Strong and Al Gore for supporting wind farms as a way to reduce carbon emissions.
The “Greenshirt” versus “Climate Change Denialist” bit has been going on for quite some time, and I had no intention of posting about it today until I spotted the following message sent to a list-serve I subscribe to. It was from Muriel Strand, who runs a blog called Sacramento’s Sustainable Future (I have her permission to reprint it here):
“One way to explain the oddity of scientists who deny the magnitude of the human forcing function relative to all other planetary trends and variations is to say that, ‘yeah, and some historians are Holocaust deniers.’”
We can dismiss the greenshirt post as bloviation. Meanwhile, depending on where you sit politically, Strand’s comment may seem civil and reasonable in comparison. But it makes no less a fallacious comparison — one that actually inhibits reasoned and civil discourse.
After all, if you are, say, a meteorologist who just does not buy the output of climate models because you have been burned by model output many times, you will have no incentive to engage with someone who thinks you are no better than a Holocaust denier. It may well be true that this meteorologist is ignoring multiple streams of evidence, and in so doing could be encouraging an outcome that one might legitimately compare to the Holocaust. But if all that is the case, what’s your best approach as someone who cares about avoiding the worst outcomes of climate change?
It turns out that a significant percentage of television weather forecasters express some degree of skepticism over the IPCC’s conclusions. A survey of 121 weather forecasters by Kristopher Wilson of Emory University found that 34 percent disagreed with the IPCC’s conclusion that global warming is unequivocal. (For a more detailed description, go here.) Of course they’re wrong, but what purpose does demonizing them serve? Doing so won’t get us any closer to effective solutions to climate change.
Wilson has argued that Americans get a significant amount of their science news and knowledge from television meteorologists. So if your goal is to spur action on global warming by improving public understanding of climate science, is your best approach to compare them to deniers of such atrocities as injecting gasoline into the hearts of living people, placing homosexuals under heat lamps until their skin fried, and deliberately harnessing modern industry to exterminate six million people?
That’s certainly not going to help television meteorologists convey climate science more accurately.
So why does the Holocaust denial comparison keep coming up? Roger Pielke, Jr. at the Center for Science, Technology & Policy Research addressed this issue here, invoking something called Godwin’s Law, which states, “As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches one.”
When discussion gets difficult, people simply take the easy, tribal way out. It’s much easier to invoke Nazis than do the truly difficult work of acknowledging the humanity of your adversary and engaging in honest debate.
I do see a significant distinction, however, between comparing the effects of doing nothing about climate change to the horrors of the Holocaust, versus comparing people who disagree with the IPCC to Holocaust deniers. The former dramatizes what science suggests could happen if we do nothing to stem our ever increasing emissions of greenhouse gases. The latter seeks to shut down discourse by demonizing people.
NASA climate scientist James Hansen came in for bitter criticism when he made the former comparison. Here’s a snippet of what he said:
“If we cannot stop the building of more coal-fired power plants, those coal trains will be death trains – no less gruesome than if they were boxcars headed to crematoria, loaded with uncountable irreplaceable species.”
Hansen is not accusing anyone here of being just like deniers of Nazi atrocities. He is trying to shake up his audience with a disturbing image that he believes is consistent with scientific findings about the impact of climate change on species.
If you’re interested to hear more about this issue, Andrew Revkin addressed it thoughtfully in this Dot Earth post, as did David Roberts here at the Huffington Post. You might also check out this UCAR quarterly story on climate skepticism among meteorologists.
Lastly, I promised Muriel Strand that I would include a bit of her reply to my criticism on the journalism listserve: “It’s been a decade since a wise old coyote and activist started pointing out to me how people use their upset to derail a rational discussion.” I think she was referring to my comment on the listserve that comparing global warming skeptics to Holocaust deniers was offensive. In saying that, my intent was never to derail rational discussion. Quite to the contrary, my intent was to point out that rational discussion would have a greater chance of occurring if we dropped the demonization.
I suspect, though, that Godwin’s Law will continue to prevail.