On September 25, 2017, Newsy reporter Zach Tombs interviewed Cornwall Alliance Founder and National Spokesman Dr. E. Calvin Beisner. Parts of that interview were included in the 13-minute documentary video Revolt: The Kingdom and the Power, by Kevin Clancy, Kate Grumke, and Zach Toombs. [Note: There is no family connection between Zach Toombs and Cornwall Alliance Director of Communications Megan (Toombs) Kinard.] We hope many people who see that video will be interested to know what else Mr. Toombs asked and what else Dr. Beisner said during that interview, so here we provide the complete transcript, followed by some evaluative comments.
The parts of the interview that were retained in the documentary are underlined, with the minutes and seconds into the documentary at which they begin and end noted before and after them. Boldfaced parts were added into an extended version of the interview posted by Newsy on December 11. (See update note at end of this article.)
Zach Toombs: So, what led you to found the Cornwall Alliance?
E. Calvin Beisner: Well, I think it was a matter of just following out, little by little, the concerns to address environmental stewardship in a way that was firmly rooted in Biblical worldview, theology, and ethics, and would use really excellent science and economics to, primarily, find ways to pursue environmental stewardship that would be very much conducive to human flourishing. We were concerned, a number of us—a variety of scholars who had been interacting for a period of a decade and a half, two decades before—that [08:42] a lot of environmental policy tends to slow or stop economic development, and poverty, we think, is a much greater risk than matters related to the environment. And so we want to make sure that what we do to be good stewards of the environment is also good stewardship for human flourishing. [09:10]
Toombs: Let’s talk a little bit about the Alliance. What are the main goals, and, practically, how does it operate?
Beisner: Well, we are, first of all, a network—we’re not a corporation or anything like that—we’re a network of just short of seventy different scholars: scientists, economists, theologians, philosophers, pastors, working together to promote three things simultaneously.
The first is Biblical earth stewardship, or what we also call godly dominion, picking up on Genesis 1:28 where God, having created Adam and Eve after His image, blesses them and says to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over it.” We think that that dominion should be a dominion that reflects God’s own dominion shown in the earlier part of Genesis 1: one in which He makes everything out of nothing; He brings order out of chaos; He brings life out of non-life; He brings great variety of life; and He brings multiplying life. It’s a very pro-life kind of thing. And so we summarize this godly dominion as men and women, made in God’s image, working lovingly together to enhance the fruitfulness and the safety of the earth, to the glory of God and the benefit of our neighbors. So really we’re trying to address the two great commandments there: to love God and to love our neighbor.
The second major goal of our work is to promote economic development for the very poor around the world. Think in terms of places like sub-Saharan Africa. And we’re persuaded, both in terms of Biblical ethics and in terms of historical evidence, that market economies characterized by private property rights, entrepreneurship, free trade, limited government, the rule of law—that such economies are far better at lifting whole societies out of poverty than are economies that are more state-directed or centrally controlled and planned. And we’re also convinced by historical evidence as well as by some basic engineering principles that economies that have access to abundant, affordable, reliable energy are essential to lifting people out of poverty. No society has risen out of poverty without that. And so we focus on the need for both the market economy and the abundant, affordable, reliable energy.
Then the third and, to my heart, the most important, is the proclamation and defense of the gospel of Jesus Christ: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He rose again from the dead according to the Scriptures. This is what the Apostle Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians is the gospel, the good news, and he tells us in Romans 1 that that’s the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. So, we try to put all of those three things together.
Toombs: So when you talk about abundant and affordable energy, in the Alliance’s view, is that energy from oil and gas, traditional means of energy production?
Beisner: We couldn’t care less what the energy source is in principle. What we care is, in terms of the engineering factors involved, where can you get the most energy at the lowest cost—looking at cost not only in terms of how many cents per kilowatt hour but also in terms of the impact on the environment, on human life, and so on. And at least in the current stage of our engineering development, the best sources in terms of abundance and affordability and reliability are nuclear and fossil fuels.
Toombs: Do you see the economics on that changing at all? And if there was a day where solar energy, for example, was the most abundant and affordable form of energy, is that …?
Beisner: Well, the day when solar energy was the most abundant and affordable form of energy was probably prior to the Industrial Revolution when bio-mass, wood, and peat were the primary source of energy—burning it on open hearths to cook our food. Solar energy is what plants use to grow. So that’s what gives us wood and then we can burn wood.
The economics—there are some reasons why solar is probably never going to be a good competitor with natural gas, or coal, or much more importantly I think, in the long-term, nuclear—may have to do with what’s called energy density and power density. The amount of energy that is contained in a given mass of some source, how densely packed that is, and the rate at which that energy can be withdrawn from that and transformed into a usable form. Solar energy is very, very energy diffuse, very low density, whereas natural gas and coal and oil and especially nuclear are extremely energy dense. And the cost of producing energy comes not in its origin, but in how you transform it from its origin to a usable form.
Toombs: So a lot of energy escapes basically in trying to transform, in trying to convert, I guess would be the word…
Beisner: It’s not so much that a lot of energy escapes. It’s that there isn’t much energy there to begin with, or there might be a lot of energy there to begin with. The energy density, for instance, of uranium, versus solar—sunlight coming in through the atmosphere—uranium is over a thousand times, over eleven hundred times as dense in energy as is solar, and so if you want to transform the source into the electricity that comes through our wires, steady. high-density, high-power, to run all of our things that we use with electricity, you’re certainly going to have a lot less work starting with something that’s eleven hundred times as dense with something like solar.
Toombs: So, changing gears a little bit: we talked about nuance and presenting different views on climate issues. And so I want to get down to the nuance of the Cornwall Alliance’s views on climate change. So [09:26] the Cornwall Alliance supports the idea that the planet is warming and supports the idea that humans contribute to that warming, but you believe that contribution might be overstated?
Beisner: Yeah, I think so. And I appreciate your asking the question that way because all too often the public just hears a polarized thing: you believe in global warming, or you don’t. And that’s not the case at all. [09:56] Yeah, we think that throughout geologic history the earth has warmed and cooled and warmed and cooled in various different cycles of different lengths driven by changes in solar output, in solar-magnetic wind output, in ocean cycles, in earth’s tilt toward the sun, in all sorts of different things. We also think that human addition of carbon dioxide and other—what are called—greenhouse gases to the atmosphere surely must have made the atmosphere somewhat warmer than what it otherwise would have been. That’s basic physics. But basic physics also says that if you drop a rock and a feather at the same moment from the same altitude they’re going to hit the ground at the same moment. Unless they’re in air. In which case the feather wafts around like this and the rock goes straight down. And if it’s windy, the feather might blow up into a tree and never come down. Right? So, the world is a far more complicated place than basic physics tells us. And when we get to the interesting questions, it’s how much warmer does it make it? And there, you can’t just depend on basic physics. You have to do a lot of observation over a lengthy period of time. And the longer we’ve observed, the better the empirical evidence seems to indicate that the warming effect of added CO2 is quite small, rather than quite large.
Toombs: And you believe that the measures that would have to be taken to counter man-made climate change basically aren’t worth it, aren’t worth the costs that would come as a result of that?
Beisner: Yeah, and I think that that’s so even if we take the assumptions of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as to how much warming comes from added CO2 to the atmosphere. Even on their assumptions, and even on the assumptions of what it would cost, for example, to implement all of the intended contributions of the 195 or so signers of the Paris Climate Agreement, being generous, assuming all of what they think, the full implementation of the Paris treaty would reduce global average temperature in the year 2100 by no more than 3 tenths of a degree [Fahrenheit]. Meanwhile…
Toombs: Is it a reduction that they want to achieve? Because it seems the slowing of warming is what they … or do you mean a reduction from the projection, the projected warming?
Beisner: Yes, what they want is to reduce the projected warming, and that’s what I mean by it would reduce global average temperature by 3 tenths of a degree Fahrenheit from what it would otherwise be from the warming. Right? Well, meanwhile, if you take all of their own assumptions about the cost of achieving those pieces of implementation it would run somewhere between one and two trillion dollars/year from 2030 to 2100, which means that we’re paying 23.3 to 46.6 trillion dollars per tenth of a degree Fahrenheit in temperature reduction. But 0.3 degree F in change in global average temperature would have no impact on any ecosystems, and certainly no impact on human welfare, so essentially I’d say that’s a bad deal: 23.3—46.6 trillion dollars for tenth of a degree temperature reduction? I just think that’s absurd. Especially when you realize that everything we spend on that we can’t spend on something else. And what people really desperately need is not 3 tenths of a degree Fahrenheit reduction in temperature; they need purified drinking water, sewage sanitation, electricity for their homes and offices and factories, they need infectious disease control, they need nutrition supplements; all of these things. If we spend it on climate control we can’t spend it on those, and that means we are consigning people to longer, to more generations of poverty with high rates of disease and premature death that always come with that.
Toombs: I want to talk about that and we’ll get back to it. But I also want, and on this note about nuance and Christians’ views on climate change it occurs to me that a lot of media representation on this issue might be oversimplified, or might point more to ideology than toward rational thought or reason. What do you think most media gets wrong about Christians and views of climate change?
Beisner: Well, if you’re familiar with the various surveys that have been done of the media elite in America many of them indicate that the vast majority, especially in the elite media like the Washington Post, New York Times, major network broadcasters and so on, not only are not members of any churches themselves, but they have no friends who are. They have, essentially, no contact with Christians. Consequently, they really don’t have a good grasp of the way Christians think, and there tends to be a sort of assumption that Christian faith is somehow fideistic, that it is irrational, whereas the Bible tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 “test all things, hold fast what is good.” It says that we should be ready at all times to give everyone an answer, a reason (the Greek word behind that is logos from which we get the word logic) for the faith that you have, which is why Christianity really is the father, the mother of science. Science developed because of the Biblical worldview that a rational God made a rational universe to be understood by rational creatures made in His image. So there’s the sort of assumption on the part of a lot of people in the media that Christianity is somehow irrational; that religion and reason are antithetical, and especially that religion and science are antithetical. Now what I think is that there are plenty of Christians who are very careful scientific thinkers, very careful logical thinkers, and so on. And that’s certainly what drives us. We realize that everybody has a worldview: a secularist worldview will drive certain approaches to science, and a theistic worldview will drive other approaches to science, but we all recognize that empirical testing is important; that you need to test hypotheses by observation against the real world. And when we do that with the climate change issue, what we come up with is the realization, for example, that computer—the climate models forecast, predict, simulate, two to three times as much warming as is actually observed over the relevant period. And as Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman put it, the key to science is you have to compare your predictions with what you observe in the real world. And if what you observe contradicts your predictions, they’re wrong, and the hypothesis on which your predictions was based is wrong, and you need to go back to the drawing board. So that’s what we suggest we do here.
Toombs: What is the Cornwall Alliance’s role in spreading that view, I mean, practically speaking, what is the Alliance doing in reaching out to faith leaders and that sort of thing?
Beisner: Well, we publish couple times a week an electronic newsletter which goes out to thousands of people who subscribe to it; we have a website with hundreds and hundreds of articles and a fair number of major papers on it; we’ve done some videos, documentaries, and the various scholars in our network write op-eds for newspapers and online publications—things of that sort from time to time. We’ve provided expert witness testimony for Congressional committees.
Toombs: Any lobbying?
Beisner: No. Absolutely no lobbying. We do not lobby. We’re a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and whereas I think IRS allows a tiny bit of lobbying there, we just don’t do it at all.
Toombs: But within that network are people like Dr. Roy Spencer, people who are pretty prominent skeptics, I suppose you’d say, of the mainstream climate science. On policy, does the Cornwall Alliance want to keep the US out of the Paris climate accords?
Beisner: Yeah, we’ve made no bones about that; we’re quite clear. We think that the Paris climate treaty is very ill-advised in that it has enormous costs with very little benefit.
Toombs: Does it worry you to look at, to compare the nations that have signed on to the accord and those that have not? I mean, we don’t have a lot of company.
Beisner: Not much. The vast majority of the nations that have signed on are developing nations; their individual contributions, their intended contributions, are for the most part insignificant as far a global CO2 emissions are concerned. They are entirely voluntary. And I think that most of them signed on because there is a major aspect of the Paris treaty that involves a payment of money from the developed countries to the developing countries. So that’s what they get out of it. But they’re also totally voluntary; there’s no enforcement mechanism, and so I expect that the Paris treaty will do no better than did the Kyoto Protocol, and, frankly, the United States was only one of a handful of nations that achieved the emission reductions intended under the Kyoto Protocol, and it wasn’t even a party to the Protocol, but it did it because its economy managed to find more efficient ways of providing energy, especially switching from coal to natural gas.
Toombs: Does Cornwall oppose a carbon tax?
Beisner: In principle? No. The issue becomes what do we expect the carbon tax would achieve, and what would be the rationale for a carbon tax. Now, the rationale is that there is what is called a “social cost” of carbon and this is figured out through, frankly, a Byzantine, complicated set of modeling of economies, of energy, of climate, of all sorts of things, and that assumes that the net effect of our use of fossil fuels to produce energy is negative for the world. That is, all of the benefit we get from the energy itself, plus whatever negatives there are from getting that energy whether its ecological disruption at a mining site, or in particular they’re talking about the warming effect of added CO2 in the atmosphere or the effect on rising acidity of the oceans, all of the total effect on humanity is negative. Now we know that there’s enormous positive effect from the energy that we get; that’s what gives us electricity. If you don’t have that you don’t keep medications cool and they spoil; you don’t keep food cold and it spoils, right? So the real question is what are the negative effects on the environment? And we’re persuaded that the negative effects on the environment are extremely small, and indeed, we think that, probably, they’re positive rather than negative. And this comes because we want to include, in our recognition of what CO2 in the atmosphere does, its fertilizing effect on all plant growth. For every doubling of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere you get an average 35% increase in plant growth efficiency. Plants grow better in warmer and cooler temperatures, in wetter and drier soils, they make better use of soil nutrients, they resist diseases and pests better, and they improve their fruit to fiber ratio. The result is, more food for everything that eats plants, or eats something that eats plants. And the poor in the world benefit from that more than anybody else because as crop yields rise in response to rising CO2 food prices decline.
Toombs: A scientist that we spoke to at NASA for a separate report, not the one that we’re talking about, pointed to droughts as a result of increased warming planet-wide which obviously effect crop production negatively. What would your response be to that?
Beisner: Well, the models can tell us that some areas of the world are going to have more rainfall and other areas of the world are going to have less rainfall as global average surface temperature rises. They are not skillful enough—the models—to tell us precisely where each of those things is going to happen or to what extent. But again, models are hypotheses and they must be tested against real-world observation. And so far real world observation finds no trends upward or downward in the frequency or the intensity of droughts or flooding. Furthermore, they find no trends upward or downward in frequency or intensity of extreme weather events, whether it’s tropical cyclones—hurricanes, typhoons—or thunderstorms, or tornadoes, or anything else. I’d love for you to speak to Dr. David Legates, who is a Senior Fellow at the Cornwall Alliance. He’s a climatologist at the University of Delaware who has specialized in tracking the data on floods and droughts in the United States and around the world. There’s just no trend. And that suggests the models probably exaggerated the impact of warming on those things.
Toombs: So you, both the Cornwall Alliance and evangelical Christian groups that are on the other side of this issue, seem to have similar motivations in fighting for the world’s poor and voicing concerns over the impact on the world’s poor but in different ways. Do you think these groups have the right motivations but you disagree with them regarding the means, I suppose?
Beisner: Yeah, I don’t question the motivations at all. We have the same goal. We want to see people around the world living healthy, long, happy, abundant lives. Jesus said I came that they might have life and that they might have it abundantly. That’s what we want, and I’m sure that’s what people at Young Evangelicals for Climate Action want, or the Evangelical Environmental Network want. The question is how do we achieve that, and we disagree as to what are the means to achieve that.
Toombs: I think at least part of Cornwall Alliance’s motives have been questioned by those groups though regarding, especially, when the question of funding comes into play because some of those groups would say, would point to your funding structure and say this influences the way Cornwall Alliance operates. What is your response to that?
Beisner: The vast majority of donations to the Cornwall Alliance come from individuals, individual private persons, and I’m not aware of anybody that’s donated more than a few thousand dollars in a given year, certainly not a major percentage of our budget. We do not identify donors because some radical environmental organizations have been known to harass, to intimidate, sometimes to vandalize the property of, and sometimes even to physically threaten people who support climate change skeptics like us. So, for that reason we don’t identify.
Toombs: What is the issue with this James Partnership? Is that involved in the funding structure for Cornwall?
Beisner: The James Partnership is the 501(c)3 non-profit organization under which the Cornwall Alliance operates. And there are three parts to the James Partnership: Cornwall Alliance is one. Churches and Villages Together is another. Churches and Villages Together is a ministry that creates partnerships between churches in America and churches in remote villages in East Africa, especially Uganda and Rwanda, for a combination of pastoral training, micro-enterprise start up and development, environmental restoration and protection projects, church-planting, and evangelism, all those things wrapped up together into one. And the third part of James Partnership is called One Voice Films, that is the ministry that creates film product like the documentaries that we’ve done such as Where the Grass Is Greener: Biblical Stewardship versus Climate Alarmism, and that also produces other kinds of Christian films all the way from brief spots to theater-release drama movies.
Toombs: One thing I’ve heard talking to Christians, even within my own family, about this issue, when you bring up climate change, often the response is, well, it’s in God’s hands, which, everything is, but I think that in a way can promote inaction. What is your response to that sentiment, I mean, what would you say to that?
Beisner: When I pray “Give us this day our daily bread,” I don’t sit on my hands and wait for it to fall out of the sky, and I don’t know any Christians who do. And unfortunately I think there has been this caricature of Christians that their belief in the providence of God, or God’s control over all things, results in a do-nothing attitude. That neglects the fact that the Bible teaches that the God who controls all things uses means. And among those means are hard work for our daily bread, and carefully studying the climate systems so that we can understand the consequences of choices we make. But basically, that whole thing, I think, is a caricature, not accurate at all.
Toombs: Well, I think, when you look at, for instance, what the Apostle Paul has said about not waiting, not sitting on your hands …
Beisner: He did say, for instance, if anyone will not work, don’t let him eat.
Toombs: Sure. At the same time, do you believe that there are some people, I mean, my own father, for example, I think, views issues that are at this scale, issues of global consequence, as something that man does not necessarily control or have an impact on. You think that’s just not a widespread theory or belief?
Beisner: I frankly have no idea how widespread that is. I know it’s not the attitude of the Cornwall Alliance or anybody associated with the Cornwall Alliance. Now I can say this: that I think that the larger the scale of things the more difficult it is for us to know enough facts relevant to how an entire system works for us to have great confidence in any process that we might devise to try to control things at that scale. For instance, the climate system is probably the most complicated physical system we’ve ever studied with the exception of the human brain or DNA. [09:57] There are thousands of feedback mechanisms in the climate system. The vast majority of them, we don’t know their magnitude. And for many of them, we don’t know if they’re negative or positive. And so the notion that we know well enough how this chaotic fluid dynamic system is going to respond to adding a certain amount of CO2 to the atmosphere I think just goes beyond what our physical knowledge is capable of giving us [10:32] at this point …
Toombs: And that’s what I’m getting at, I guess, in bringing this up …
Beisner: … and so, to that, it’s a rational response to say, “You know, I think it’s a really interesting thing to study, and the more we learn about it the more willing we might be to try to do something about it, but [10:33] at this stage our knowledge of it is so small we have to say, ‘All right, so far as the physics is concerned it is a chaotic system; so far as theology is concerned, we know that God is in control of chaos [10:46]’”
Toombs: What steps for environmental stewardship does the Cornwall Alliance promote, because it is an alliance for environmental stewardship?
Yeah we’re very much in favor of various different recycling issues: “use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without,” the old saying that my parents had in their generation growing up through the Great Depression, makes good sense. You don’t want to be wasteful. Don’t leave the lights on when you’re out of the room. Don’t do jack-rabbit starts and sudden stops in your car, that just wastes fuel. You know, when you can, ride a bike on your errands instead of driving your car; I like to do that. We’re all in favor of reducing litter …
Toombs: … different measures, you mentioned recycling. …
Beisner: … for instance regarding energy production. There are real pollutants that come from the burning of coal and natural gas and oil; those are things like fly ash and carbon monoxide and sulphur oxides, things of that nature, heavy metals. …
Toombs: … We’ve been in West Virginia. We’ve reported on some of the issues—around mountain top removal, for example, and particulate matter getting into people’s water or air—I mean, these are issues that the Cornwall Alliance …
Beisner: … particulate matter, toxic gases, things of that nature, yes, those are real pollutants and we need to minimize those as best we’re able. And frankly, in developed countries, we do that very, very well. What comes out of the cooling towers of coal-fired electric generating plants is basically water vapor and a little bit of CO2 and there is negligible particulate matter, negligible toxic gas, negligible toxic chemicals, things of that nature. Those, we do need to control, and it’s possible to control those. We do it very well in developed countries. Developing countries will do it better and better as they gain the wealth necessary to afford the technology to do it.
Toombs: We’ve talked about Genesis 1 and the dominion verse and the Apostle Paul. What are some of the Scriptures that the Cornwall Alliance points to that drive the Cornwall Alliance operations?
Beisner: Well, certainly many. Genesis 1:26–28, of course, is a very important passage: God created man in His own image, in His own likeness, created male and female, told us to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, to subdue it and have dominion over it. Genesis 2:15, God placed Adam and Eve in the garden (actually, initially just Adam) and told him to, or placed him there to, cultivate and guard it. That indicates that there is the possibility of harm to God’s creation, and we need to be guarding it, we need to be taking care of it. There are various other passages that are important, too.
Just this morning, in my personal devotions, I was reading Psalm 107, and it’s a wonderful Psalm, telling all the redeemed of the Lord to say so, and then it gives various examples of people whom God has helped out in various different circumstances: refugees, wanderers in wilderness who hadn’t found a city and God provides a home for them, or sailors on the sea in a great storm that threatens to wreck their ships and God takes care of them, and so on. And then the Psalm ends with a passage that says that where people are—where a whole society—is deeply rebellious against God, God turns rivers into deserts and gardens into dry places, and He actually, in judgment, causes environmental destruction. And then He says, and where people are obeying Him and are faithful to Him, He turns deserts into gardens and dry places, He brings springs there. Now, that’s not only an indication that God is actively involved through His providential work in the quality of our environments in response to our moral behavior as individuals and as whole societies, right? It also indicates that there is something preferable to a well-watered place versus a desert place. Now, I love the beauty of the Arizona desert, for instance, right? But there’s something in that text that indicates to me that there’s something better about a well-watered place than that. Precisely why, I’m not even sure I understand that.
Toombs: Better, from a moral perspective?
Beisner: I’m not sure. It’s how God values it. And I don’t mind saying I don’t understand some of these things. But this is there in the text. Or we have in Jeremiah, for instance, over and over again, just in the first twenty chapters of Jeremiah, there are dozens of spots in which God specifies various different sins that are prevalent in the society of Israel/Judah of that time. Those sins include idolatry, adultery, murder, theft, false witness, all sorts of things like that. And interestingly enough, repeatedly in those chapters, God connects environmental disasters there with that sinful behavior of the people there. And so, we need to recognize that, frankly, it’s not only how we mine coal or what we do with our plastics that affects our environment, it’s also how we think about and how we act toward our fellow human beings in terms of, do we tell the truth? Are we faithful in our marriages? Do we kill people with no just cause for doing so, such as aborting babies? These things are important and God tells us in the Scriptures that He actually He controls the world in such a way that there are consequences to those.
Toombs: All right, well, thank you for your time. I appreciate it and appreciate you sitting down with us.
We’re thankful to Zach Toombs and his co-authors for seeking out the Cornwall Alliance and allowing us to tell some of our story. As always when producing a very short documentary from long interviews with several people, it’s impossible to include everything. (Out of approximately 5,400 words in the interview transcript, the video included only 240, or about 4.4 percent—i.e., it left out 95.6 percent.) Some distortions are almost inevitable—which is why it’s always best, after watching such videos, to search for more of what each person interviewed has said elsewhere, or to learn more about the organization for which he speaks, so that snippets presented without context don’t leave one with a caricature.
Generally we thought the tone of the video’s treatment of the Cornwall Alliance friendly.
Was it, though, “fair”?
The documentary didn’t convey falsehoods about us. It did, however, use two logical fallacies. First, a debater’s fallacy called poisoning the well: “To commit a preemptive ad hominem attack against an opponent. That is, to prime the audience with adverse information about the opponent from the start, in an attempt to make your claim more acceptable or discount the credibility of your opponent’s claim.” Second, argumentum ad hominem circumstantial: “Suggesting that the person making the argument is biased or predisposed to take a particular stance, and therefore, the argument is necessarily invalid.” Both of these fallacies were embodied in the video authors’ pointing out, before viewers could hear any of the reasons we offer for our position, that some money from fossil fuel industry comes to the Cornwall Alliance. (We give them credit, though, for specifying that this was only “a very small amount” of the money industry gives to organizations or individuals who support a given position on climate change.)
We might develop that point a little further. The tacit assumption of the video is that anyone who receives money to help him convey a message is likely to be insincere, parroting a message of which he isn’t himself convinced, and perhaps offering evidence that he knows is false or misleading, and therefore his arguments need not be engaged (the fallacy of argumentum ad hominem circumstantial). That’s the typical assumption behind the figure of speech, “Follow the money.” While some people do compromise their honesty for the sake of money, and it’s legitimate to test to see whether in a given case this has happened, not all do, and it is illogical (the fallacy of hasty generalization) to assume that a given person or organization given money to help it spread a message is morally compromised.
Consider a doctor who firmly believes that a given treatment will cure a given disease and wants to spread that message to as many people as possible. Should he be written off as dishonest because he accepts donations to help him spread it?
If a person has a message he believes will help others and someone else offers to give him a megaphone, should he reject the megaphone to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest? What if the one who offers the megaphone stands to profit from the spread of the message? That circumstance reasonably suggests some extra measure of caution, but it doesn’t justify a presumption of guilt.
The Cornwall Alliance is convinced that the use of fossil fuels as energy sources has enabled, and for generations to come will and should continue to enable, billions of people to overcome poverty and the high rates of disease and premature death that inevitably accompany it, and that these and other benefits far outweigh the harms associated with their use. We believe those harms—whether particulate matter, toxic gases, or heavy metals in emissions that constitute direct health risks, or pollution and land degradation associated with mining, transport, and refining, or greenhouse gases produced in burning them and whatever amount of global warming and its consequences might follow—can and should be reduced through proper emission controls, mining techniques, etc. We have offered extensive scientific, economic, theological, and ethical arguments in support of this conviction (e.g., here, here, here, here, here, and here), written, reviewed, and endorsed by hundreds of highly qualified scientists, economists, theologians, and ethicists. Further, both as individuals and as a body we were making these arguments long before we ever began to receive any financial support for our efforts, from anyone, with or without ties to any industry. What is more likely? That in response to offers of financial support we began spreading a message we didn’t believe, or that because we were already spreading a message that others with means also believed, they offered to help us do so? And if the latter, is there anything morally wrong with that?
We might argue, too, that the video fell short of being “fair” in that it didn’t treat the Cornwall Alliance and those who disagree with us (Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, Katharine Hayhoe, the Evangelical Environmental Network) evenhandedly.
It included no information about their funding sources, though even cursory investigation would have revealed that supporters of renewable energy have given them (and others like them) significant sums. It did not “poison the well” with regard to them.
This lack of evenhandedness was apparent, too, in how it identified the climate scientists shown.
When it introduced Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, an advocate of the perspective opposed to Cornwall Alliance’s, it identified her as “a climate scientist and a professor at Texas Tech University,” with video in the background of the university’s football stadium. That prepares viewers to think of her as highly credible.
But when it showed video of Dr. Roy W. Spencer, it didn’t identify him as a Principal Research Scientist in Climatology at the University of Alabama. It didn’t identify him as U.S. Science Team Leader on NASA’s Aqua satellite global temperature monitoring system, and recipient of NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award (with colleague Dr. John Christy) for work developing global temperature monitoring from satellites. It didn’t mention that he has been a climate scientist for many years longer than Hayhoe. Instead, it identified him as a “skeptical researcher” while showing video background of his walking onto the stage of a meeting of the International Conference on Climate Change hosted by the Heartland Institute—about which the video had already poisoned the well by describing Heartland as funded by the fossil fuel industry (without mentioning that such support is a tiny percentage of Heartland’s revenues or that Heartland has assisted in the production of voluminous scientific and economic studies supporting its views)—and referring to him as part of “the small but vocal community that doubts manmade climate change” (itself a misrepresentation—Spencer does not doubt manmade climate change, he simply thinks its magnitude and consequences smaller and less harmful than some others think)—with a caption under his name saying simply “Skeptical scientist and Cornwall Alliance member.”
Even more important, while it quoted Hayhoe’s reasons for embracing her views about climate change at length, it never quoted Spencer at all. Instead, it quoted only Beisner’s reasoning, identified him only as “a theologian” (neglecting his qualifications, established through books and articles he’s written, in economics and some environmental science), left out (as the transcript above shows) the most important scientific reasons he stated, and packaged the excerpts of his reasoning in a way that misleadingly suggested that his theology substituted for science. In context with the identification of Hayhoe as a “climate scientist,” that will prompt viewers to consider him not a credible source.
The result is a documentary that, on the surface, gives the impression of evenhanded treatment of both sides while subtly manipulating viewers to believe one and reject the other.
Update: December 12, 2017
Newsy posted an extended (8-minute) version of its interview with Dr. Beisner on December 11, 2017, here. It added another 630 words from the interview (now in boldface above), so that the total used by the two videos together comes to 870 out of 5,400, or 16%.
While we appreciate its offering somewhat more of the context of Dr. Beisner’s comments, we would point out that the National Climate Assessment that interviewer Zach Toombs says was released in November by the Trump Administration was produced by Obama Administration appointees and in near-final form before Trump’s inauguration, making it inaccurate to ascribe it to the Trump Administration.
We would also point out that Toombs’s repetition of the common claim that the “vast majority” of scientists disagree with the Cornwall Alliance’s view that human action is not the primary driver of global warming rests on faulty studies of scientists’ views that meteorologist Dr. Neil L. Frank (former Director of the National Hurricane Center and then Chief Meteorologist of KHOU-TV) critiqued in the article “What’s Wrong with the Claim that ‘97% of Climate Scientists Agree’ about Global Warming?” Climate scientists—and other scientists—hold a wide variety of views on the relationship of human activity to global climate change, and the percentage that would agree that human activity is the primary driver of climate change dangerous enough to warrant spending trillions of dollars to mitigate it is far too small to characterize as a “vast majority.”
Finally, it’s worth noting that neither Newsy’s original video nor the expanded version quoted what is perhaps the most telling point Dr. Beisner made relevant to the scientific debate:
empirical testing is important; … you need to test hypotheses by observation against the real world. And when we do that with the climate change issue, what we come up with is the realization, for example, that computer—the climate models forecast, predict, simulate, two to three times as much warming as is actually observed over the relevant period. And as Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman put it, the key to science is you have to compare your predictions with what you observe in the real world. And if what you observe contradicts your predictions, they’re wrong, and the hypothesis on which your predictions was based is wrong, and you need to go back to the drawing board. So that’s what we suggest we do here.
The effect, as Newsy clearly intended, is to present the Cornwall Alliance as scientifically deficient or even anti-science—an effect achieved only by leaving out such important words.