Do We Have To Argue? Do We Even Know How To Argue?

A few years ago I was attending an academic retreat. These usually take place somewhere outside the campus and they often involve overnight stay. They are generally organized as a forum in which to discuss an institution’s important policy issues. In this case, the subject of discussion was the changes in the institution’s general education requirements.

During lunch I was sitting near a friend that specializes in the history of the Middle East. Since I grew up in Israel (I hold dual American – Israeli citizenship) the lunch chat quickly drifted to a discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is Jewish and the student population he teaches is mixed. I asked him how he teaches such a controversial topic to a mixed student population who, in most cases, hold fossilized opinions on the topic. Since, among many student populations, climate change is as confrontational as the Middle East conflicts, I was interested in learning his practices. He smiled at me and said: “simple: I rely on original documents.” I shifted the conversation to a different topic because I didn’t want to be confrontational and point it out to him that since he is the one responsible for the selection of the original documents, his teaching is not much different from preaching.

A few months ago, an early, unofficial version of the first part of the 5th IPCC reports was released. Even before the official release of the report, the Heartland Institute released its own report that denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change. They presented it in the same format (if a bit longer) as the IPCC report. I thought that this was a teaching moment, especially because the Heartland arguments hadn’t yet been sliced and diced by the media. I wrote earlier on some aspects of these reports (October 1 and October 15, 2013). The timing was in the middle of the semester; the students read the textbook, and I gave them some quizzes to make sure that they actually understood the issues and were ready for the midterm exam. Among other things, I wanted to test how they would do at arguing the issues. To prepare for the test, we went through the arguments section of the wonderful website Skeptical Science. The site is probably the best available resource for arguments and counter arguments. In the test, I gave the students the assignment of arguing in response to one assertion each from the Skeptical Science and Heartland sites. This section of the test is shown below:

Part B

Some of the deniers’ more popular arguments against anthropogenic contributions to climate change are summarized below ( Construct a thoughtful, data based, response to one of these arguments.

a.      Climate’s changed before
“Climate is always changing. We have had ice ages and warmer periods when alligators were found in Spitzbergen. Ice ages have occurred in a hundred thousand year cycle for the last 700 thousand years, and there have been previous periods that appear to have been warmer than the present despite CO2 levels being lower than they are now. More recently, we have had the medieval warm period and the little ice age.” (Richard Lindzen)
b.      Models are unreliable
“[Models] are full of fudge factors that are fitted to the existing climate, so the models more or less agree with the observed data. But there is no reason to believe that the same fudge factors would give the right behaviour in a world with different chemistry, for example in a world with increased CO2 in the atmosphere.”  (Freeman Dyson)

Part C:
Arguments against the new IPCC recent report came out even before the original report. The two arguments below have appeared recently in Construct a thoughtful, data based, response to one of these arguments.

a.      CO2 is a vital nutrient used by plants in photosynthesis. Increasing CO2 in the atmosphere “greens” the planet and helps feed the growing human population.
b.      Earth has not warmed significantly for the past 16 years despite an 8% increase in atmospheric CO2, which represents 34% of all extra CO2 added to the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution.

They didn’t do well. I decided, therefore, to devote a significant portion of the remainder of the semester to practicing argumentation on these kinds of issues.

Well, since argumentation is an “academic field,” but is not my specialty, my logical response was to call on some experts for help. The first department that I approached was the Department of Speech Communication Arts and Sciences. The present Chair is a friend and the previous Chair was arguably the best debater on campus. Unfortunately, the previous Chair had already retired by then and the department doesn’t have anybody to teach argumentation. They have asked a lawyer on campus to give the course on argumentation (this is supposed to be their bread and butter). I knew that argumentation in law is not the same as arguing on climate change but I decided to try getting through to him. He didn’t respond to my request. Next, I tried Philosophy – I went through their course offerings – no argumentation. Our college has a very good forensics club with a national reputation. I asked about the faculty adviser to the club, but found that there wasn’t one. Fortunately, I had an Honors College Physics major that took a course with me on climate change and was member of the forensics club, and asked her to come to my class to teach the students how to argue. She did a great job.

At this junction, I decided that learning how to argue and how to construct a decent argument should be an important objective of the course that deserves classroom effort.

As I have mentioned before (March 18, 2013) I am now using Team Based Learning (TBL) to teach my class and find this method to be very effective. In the lingo of this methodology teaching relevant argumentation can count as “application.” The class is already divided to teams of 7-8 students each. I gave every team one of the Heartland arguments and asked them to construct opposing and supporting presentations for the arguments and present them to the class toward the end of the semester. A few days later I got an email from one of the teams telling me that all of them fully agree with the Heartland argument. I asked them to try harder. They did, and since they had to divide the teams into those students presenting the supporting arguments and those opposing, by the end of the semester, we reached a more or less balanced positioning. But the balanced positioning didn’t convince anybody. Something was missing here and the semester was coming to its end. It became clear to me that I was unintentionally ending with the same strategy for arguing controversial issues as my history friend had been using to teach the Middle-East conflicts – a biased selection of observations.

In the case of Heartland and the IPCC, their findings are shown as conclusions to detailed full reports that are more than 1000 pages long. Obviously, none of the students read these reports in their entirety (they took the arguments in both cases from the provided “Summaries for the Policy Makers”), so they took the claims in the arguments on both sides to be equally valid.

This semester I decided to repeat the exercise with somewhat different rules. Every time that students need to make an argument, they are advised to refer to the three basic cycles shown below. As far as I know, none of these are controversial. Please stay tuned for the results.


Deniers vs. Believers – try to convert the opposing group to your side.


  • Refute the premises of the other side
  • Support your own premises
  • Comment on the methodology of argumentation

Carbon CycleEnergy CycleWater CycleIn the next blogs I will focus on causal relation between the drought in the Western US and climate change as a case study to explore.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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7 Responses to Do We Have To Argue? Do We Even Know How To Argue?

  1. Indira Pichardo says:

    I had a conversation with my sister on climate change. First, we disagreed when she said climate change and global warming is the same thing. I told her its not and according to global warming is caused by greenhouse gases and this leads to the temperature to increase. Climate change comes from the consequences of global warming. She also thought that global warming was not part of our fault. I disagreed and said global warming is mainly caused by humans. Global warming is caused by human activities That release gases. As I went on explaining she began to agree with me and understood how global warming began.

  2. Leanna Burton says:

    While I agree that discourse and conversation needs to be had on the subject of climate change, and that arguments are necessary to effect change, I haven’t had many experiences to discuss the issue of climate change outside of class. Though I often have conversations with friends and associates on social and environmental issues, not many polarizing arguments have presented themselves in our conversations on climate change. Initially, I attributed this to the fact that I am lucky enough to often interact with people who have, either in class or independently, taken the time to research the issue and form an opinion.

    I learned from my presentation in class that like-minded people often collectively dismiss the arguments of the other side. I learned this during my presentation in class. I was originally prepared to present the argument of a Believer, because that’s what I am, but when Prof. Tomkiewicz asked me to present as a Denier, I found it difficult to come up arguments that made sense logically. This brought to light my own limitations as a Believer, because I realized I didn’t have a good grasp of most deniers’ claims.

    Convenience is the biggest reason for denying the anthropogenic causes and the negative effects of climate change. However, I do agree that the best way to argue about such an issue is to not only have a firm understanding of the proofs of my argument, but to also understand the opposite side as well, or as much as possible.

    I was discussing this dilemma in terms of this assignment with a coworker, and she showed me a Salon article about what the average American holds to be more believable than climate change. It was astounding. Apparently only 40 percent of Americans believe that climate change is an issue that was created and can be solved by human intervention. According to the article, this is only 15 percent less than the amount of people who believe that the sun travels around the Earth, and much less than the 77 percent of Americans who believe in religion.

    The article featured a taping of “The O’Reily Factor,” during which Bill O’Reily compared the conceded that climate is changing, but he insisted that the change was “natural” and part of the Earth’s natural cycle. He also claimed that believing in god and Jesus was just “easier”, and therefore more acceptable than believing in climate change.

    A response to this argument of course would be to look at the levels of CO2 in the ocean at times during which t was high in the atmosphere. Right now, the levels of CO2 are much higher in our atmosphere than in oceans, and one must also take into account that these changes in CO2 levels in the past few millions of years were not rapid, as they are today. The IPCC reported that the rise of greenhouse gases emitted by human means are the cause for this change, and their evaluation of climate models has proved that C02 and water vapors in the troposphere will increase because of anthropogenic causes.

    Personally, I believe that the science speaks for itself, but the biggest question that I’ve seen from deniers is “Why should I care?” – Some people deny with pseudo-science to avoid asking this question. While that argument seems prima facie ignorant and nonsensical, not to mention selfish, it’s worth it to consider the fact that some don’t take the future, or their children’s futures as reason enough to inconvenience their lives. This brings up the question of when the argument ends, and action on legislature to produce carbon taxes and other non-mitigation solutions.

    As a believer in the need for social, environmental and legislative change in terms of the global climate, I find it hard to believe that people could be so uninformed about an issue that seems to be a clear and growing threat to our lives on Earth. But, as I’ve mentioned here, arguments that come from misinformation, fear and denial are important, because they are the cause of actions that stand between our society and a better future.

  3. Melissa Wong says:

    Climate Change has been a controversial topic for some time now. Recently, I had a discussion with one of my fellow co-workers about Climate Change. My co-worker believed that “we” the people do not affect Climate Change in no way shape or form. He believed that the world had it’s own way of growing and changing. Like for example, how a women are made to carry a child in her womb, he believed the world we live in was made to change on it’s own. “When we experience hurricanes and storm, the world was made to go through that. It is like the world goes through it own ‘mechanical change’, which we can not control.” I explained that we, as humans, affect Climate Change in a great way. Our daily income of how much energy we use whether it is in the form of cooking, traveling or how much electricity we use, all play a major role on our climate. The industries that are built for making cars or machines also play a huge role in Climate Change. Greenhouse gases come from such industries. Because of the polutions in the water cycle, ocean current gets blocked therefore, the carbon in our atmosphere gets trapped here on earth. It is not being released into the outer atmosphere. This is what causes global warming. Most of the carbon in the atmosphere is form by CO2. Many animals died due to this. Our Polar bears are becoming extinct due to the melting of our icebergs. My co-worker did not believe a word I was saying. He stood strong of his belief. I told him to read into Professor Tomkiewicz researches. This morning, my co-worker texted me, “these studying on global warming really has my attention now.” I am guessing he is being open minded to see that we, as humans, need to start making a change for our world.

  4. Angelia Lee says:

    One day my friend and I was having a conversation about climate change ,and the ways in which it is effecting humans life. I also mentioned to her how their was just a march in September in NYC. She told me that all of the things they say about global warming is just something that the government is using as to try and get more money from people. I asked her, how could she be in such denial? It is all happening right in our face. I asked her if she doesn’t notice the unstable weather conditions we’ve been experiencing, especially with the mixture of cold and warm weather we have. I suggested that she checked out the documentary that Al Gore on global warming. once she got a chance to take a look at it, it changed her mind and outlook on climate change. She said he made a lot of valid points about the earth heating up. I told her is way we must make it business to be a where of the things that are happening around us, especially things that will effect our life’s personally.

  5. Anastasiya Kononenko says:

    Recently, me and my friend Eugene who went with me to the Climate Change March in September in NYC had a conversion about climate change and what can we do to stop it. It was interesting to talk about it with him because even though he does believe that climate is changing, he is very skeptical that we really can do something about it. I tried to persuade him that we can, indeed, do something about it using the information I got to know in my Climate Change class. But also, I was interested to understand why he is being so skeptical.
    When I asked my friend what he knows about climate change, he gave correct but very general information- sea level rise, CO2 rises, seasons are changing. After I asked my next question, “So, what do you think we can do to stop it?”, he said, “Why would I spend time doing it if I will die anyways? We cannot do anything about it.” I explained to him that if the climate change consequences will continue to occur at the current rate, not just his children or grandchildren will suffer, but it will make huge effects during his lifetime. So, I asked “how about buying hybrid cars and going to the march? Doesn’t it have an impact?” He said, “People by hybrid cars so they don’t have to pay more for the gas. It’s all business.” I couldn’t disagree with him. He said something I did not think about. That by doing march we caused traffic, cars had to go around, spend more time and more gas and produced more CO2. But he agreed that it is a good advertisement of the problem and in the long-run it might be worth it. Since he still was not convinced that we need to save ourselves, I asked him doesn’t he think we need to save other species like bears from ice melting or reduce deforestation? Eugene addressed few problems; first, we need an effective alternative source of energy. But don’t we already have solar batteries, hybrid cars? We are on the right track! But he still thinks it is unavailable to masses. The hybrid cars are 30-40% more expensive and not every household/community can afford solar batteries. But this is the price of the change, isn’t it? I gave him an example. Some of us buy organic food which is more expensive than what we usually buy. The people buy it because they want to eat healthy and they want to support farmers. Those who see the problem and want change will find a solution and not an excuse. But I could not disagree with him that low wage workers will think about needs of their families first and climate change last, so because of high price this climate protection cost, we can say it is still unavailable to most of us. “Are you ready to pay more for your bills to save our planet? If yes, how much more is acceptable?” I asked. At first he said no more than 10% of his current bill. He doesn’t trust private companies that cooperate with Con Edison because nobody can guarantee their effectiveness. But if that would be official company established by the government whose effectiveness is proved, he might agree to pay up to 30%. I asked what if he will be taxed and collected money will be used to fight climate change? “No problem”, he said, “I do not mind that part of the money that I pay will go to this problem, but I will not pay more than I already do. And if I pay, how do I know other households pay? And why is it only America cares? Russia doesn’t care!” I tried to explain him that US and Russia’s GDP is different and they produce different amount of CO2, so US should be worried first about itself. Also, if we reduce it in our household and community, we reduce it nationally and as the result globally and there is why each household’s contribution is important. The U.S. is one of the most developed and richest countries in the world, and if we have resources to cause climate change, why we don’t have them to reduce it?
    In this conversation, we both looked at the problem differently. I realized that resources to stop climate change are not as available to everyone as I thought they are. But I made my friend change point of view on some of the issues and made him think about each problem of climate change and its possible solution from different perspective.

  6. nashwan alseelwe says:

    So me and a group of friend where heading out to the city. on the train we saw advertisement about climate change and the climate march that was held about a month or two ago. I told them that im currently taking a a climate change class and im learning how it happening and how we can prevent the world from more of this bad change. I was surprised because my friends were interested and actually engaged in the discussion. we all had the same ideas and same thoughts of we have to change how we do things and try and find new energy sources that doesn’t harm the atmosphere. the hardest thing that we all agreed on was how are we as the people going to stop large companies that release so much CO2 into the atmosphere from doing so. another thing we agreed on is how are we going to get everybody to stop wasting energy that is not needed. I personally disagreed because I don think that every person on earth will change how they use their energy and as long as money is involved i don’t think companies will cut down their CO2 emission. overall we had a good discussion about it on the train and it all started with the poster we saw on the train. i think that climate change should be advertised so that people can know whats going on in the world they live in.

  7. Seat Yee Hon says:

    Student ID: 23285029 Class: CORC 3302 MW12
    Climate change deniers have claimed that:
    • The global climate is actually getting colder
    • The global climate is getting warmer, but not because of human activities
    To argue the myth that global climate is actually getting colder, according to NASA, global temperature has increased 1.4 F since 1880. Since an exceptionally warm 1998, there has been “a short-term slowdown in warming of Earth’s surface. ” Britain’s Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences said in a report. The warming hiatus may be caused by shifts in the oceans that are absorbing more heat from the atmosphere, the report said. For the second argument, the global climate is getting warmer but not because of human activities, the main cause of climate change is the increasing amount of greenhouse gases, mainly CO2 and also methane. In June 2013, the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory in Hawaii announced that, for the first time in thousands of years, the amount of CO2 in the air had gone up to 400ppm. That information gives us the next piece of evidence; CO2 has increased by nearly 43% in the last 150 years. Greenhouse gases mostly come from human activities such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation and releasing chemical wastes. In 2005, total world energy consumption was 4.6 *10^17 Btu. About 85% of the energy sources used were carbonated fossil fuels.
    The Atmospheric carbon budget
    Most atmospheric carbon is in the form of CO2. It played a significant role because CO2 is released into the atmosphere and lead to global warming. Anthropogenic contributions such as fossil fuel combustion and cement production include approximately 7.2 Gt-C per year and 1.6 Gt-C per year due to deforestation and other land-use changes.

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