Misconceptions of The Climate Change Debate


Much like the topic of abortion, the topic of climate change will stimulate shouting matches and hostility between people with different views. The misconceptions of climate change could fill hundreds of pages, so this article will focus only on the misconceptions of the positions within the debate.

The general misconception is that most people fit neatly into two sides of the debate. One side supposedly believes that climate change is a non-issue being pushed by propagandists, and the other believes that climate change is a serious issue that governments across the world need to prioritize. The reality is that there are five different premises within the debate, and therefore, six different positions. This debate will become much more productive if the discussion is broken down into these five premises and addressed step by step.

Premise 1: Climate Change is Happening

The first premise is whether or not climate change is actually happening. Those that reject even this premise claim that the climate isn’t changing in any unusual or noteworthy way when compared to previous records. They believe that climate change is a non-issue. This position is typically assigned the “climate change denier” label by their opponents.

Premise 2: Climate Change is Man-Made

Next are those that accept that climate change is happening, but dispute whether it’s a natural phenomenon or if humanity plays a significant role. This position appears to be the most popular among the self-described “climate skeptics.” Those that reject this second premise tend to believe that if climate change is a natural phenomenon, it might not even be possible (or worthwhile) to stop.

Premise 3: Climate Change is Worth Stopping

If you accept the first two premises (that climate change is happening and that it’s at least partially man-made) but reject this third premise, you can call yourself a lukewarmer. Lukewarmers take the middle ground, and focus on determining how much of a threat climate change poses.

They put emphasis on analyzing the cost-benefit ratio, believing that even if humans are responsible for global warming, the benefits of our actions might outweigh any costs brought about by climate change. They also compare the future cost of climate change to the cost that would be required to stop it.

Premise 4: Government Policy Can Stop Climate Change

Libertarians that accept the first three premises will strongly disagree with the fourth. Assuming that man-made climate change is a threat to the world, governments can’t be trusted to provide an effective remedy. Considering the U.S. government is one of the worst violators of pollution law, it can hardly be trusted to save the environment. Even if government policy can contribute to slowing or stopping global warming, it’s unlikely that they would be able to do it in the cheapest or most efficient way.

It’s this group that puts the most emphasis on community action through voluntary means. They believe that climate change is a threat, but it’s up to them to take the necessary steps to save the planet.

Premise 5: Climate Change Must Be Stopped at All Costs

Of the remaining people that accept the first four premises, most will have trouble accepting the fifth. They believe man-made climate change is an issue worthy of major concern, and government policies like carbon taxes are necessary steps to counteract it, but other issues take priority.

It’s quite clear that increased access to healthcare and education will produce more waste (especially under a government system), but in their view, these issues take priority over addressing climate change. Saving the environment is certainly important to this group, but other things are important as well.

The final, most extreme group (known as climate alarmists) accepts all five premises, believing that climate change is the #1 threat to the world, and must be stopped by any means necessary. These radical environmentalists are sometimes accused of being “watermelons,” because they’re “green on the outside and red (communist) on the inside.” This is true of the most extreme of the extreme, the anarcho-primitivists, who believe that civilization itself should be abolished.

However many premises you find yourself accepting, it’s worth acknowledging that the debate is not a dichotomy. Instead of debating climate change in general, debate only the earliest premise on which you disagree.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via nkreider@nkreider.com.