When asked to debate global warming at St Andrews, I was delighted. Unfortunately, my opponents turned me into a bug-eyed fanatic
Perhaps I ought not to have accepted the invitation to debate climate change deniers. I’m a novelist and writer by trade. But I’m also passionate about the environment, so when the University of St Andrews invited me to speak for the motion “This House Believes Global Warming is a Global Crisis” earlier this year I accepted. I had never taken part in a university debate before—shouting at the radio was scarcely adequate training.
In the debate, Richard Courtney spoke first for the opposition. A lifelong “big coal” man, he appears to have modelled his public speaking on end-of-the-pier comedians. He was outdone, however, for bravura nuttiness by Nils-Axel Morner, a Swedish geologist who played up to his audience so outrageously that one almost wondered at the absence of balloon animals.
My fellow proponents of the motion were Ross Finnie MSP and Mike Robinson of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. They had given measured speeches within their allotted seven minutes, yet I could sense that mild-mannered reason might not prevail against pantomime.
I was speaking last for the motion and the most tenacious of our opponents would follow me. This was Christopher Monckton, Third Viscount Monckton of Brenchley: failed politician and Sudoku genius. He appears occasionally as an “expert” on such US television programmes as Fox News’ Glenn Beck Show, where he spouts pseudo-science with a ferocity that has earned him, one climate scientist friend tells me, the nickname Count Cuckoo.
“How do you deal with someone like that?” I had asked my friend before the debate. He replied: “Don’t ask me—I’d rather wrestle a pit bull.”
There is an inherent dilemma in tackling climate change deniers. Engage with them and you give them credibility; ignore them and they will claim to have you running scared. Richard Courtney has published his account of the debate online, and his post is pasted in full on blogs such as ilovecarbondioxide.com and Stop the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union). As one might deduce, the names of these blogs are revealing. Climate change denial involves a weird cabal of conspiracy theorists, extreme libertarians and cold warriors in search of a new bogeyman. That this lefty conspiracy includes such well-known Marxist organisations as the Pentagon and the papacy is overlooked; but then denialists are expert at ignoring whatever displeases them.
The loud assertion of fake, untested or scientifically discredited claims is precisely the tactic they employ to overwhelm and bamboozle their audience. I should know: in the course of the debate, we found ourselves visiting a topsy-turvy world where Arctic sea ice is thickening even as it vanishes; where Greenland is called Greenland because a few hundred years ago it was positively leafy; where global warming is really global cooling and where the greenhouse effect—which doesn’t exist—is fortuitously keeping new glaciations at bay.
Having had to endure this stuff, I was quaking with indignation when I came to speak, almost shouting down attempts at intervention. “Sit down,” I said to Courtney, “you’ve made enough of a fool of yourself already.” I looked like the kind of bug-eyed fanatic I was actually opposing. They had got me: I may have brought passion and fiery rhetoric to our side of the debate, but exposure to nonsense had turned me into the Mad Hatter.
My worst mistake came when I pointed out that my opponents were not scientists. Monckton interrupted to claim that they were. “So was Dr Mengele,” I shot back. But this allowed Monckton to stand up and demand a point of order with all the indignation he could muster. He has a plentiful supply and it carried him through his own summing up: a wild denunciation that combined McCarthyite name-calling with pompous Latin.
In the end, our motion won 57 votes to 42 against, but there were sufficient abstentions to prevent it from being carried. I didn’t think this reflected well on the young minds at St Andrews. Then again, Monckton and Courtney had brought about a dozen friends with them to bolster their vote. They celebrated as if they had won the lottery.
We gathered afterwards in an Indian restaurant, where each side avoided sitting with the other. One of the students, a fogeyish buffer, told me cheerfully: “Of course they were talking nonsense but I voted for them all the same because—well, they were so entertaining that I thought I ought to encourage them.”
I can now offer the following hard-won tips for anyone considering debating climate change deniers:
- If you must, consider ingesting some form of tranquiliser.
- Study the stagecraft of Bernard Manning.
- Be up-to-date: know your Aristotle!
- No matter the provocation, avoid Nazi analogies like the plague.
- Bring plenty of friends.
- Just don’t.
For more information on the climate change debate click here.