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The Pigeonhole Problem

20 May 2021 | Backgrounders

The Pigeonhole Problem Backgrounder



The climate change pigeonhole problem is that people believe you have to fit into one. You’ve probably seen how the game is played. You’re either on my side or you’re in a pigeonhole with a nasty label. There is no middle ground, and it’s all black or white. If you don’t agree that climate change is an imminent catastrophe, and you don’t support radical policies to slash fossil fuel use, then you’re a denier. You clearly don’t believe in science, and you don’t care about our children’s future.

John Robson

But that’s just name calling and bullying aimed at stopping people from asking legitimate questions and debating the issues instead of character or motives. It’s no accident that “denier” calls to mind “holocaust denier”. The term was deliberately chosen to be as toxic as possible to scare people into being silent.

So to get around the pigeonhole problem, we need to find new ways to describe the range of opinions on this issue without resorting to insults. If you want to think for yourself and make up your own mind without being abused for it, stick around. Because I’m John Robson for the Climate Discussion Nexus and this is a CDN Backgrounder on solving the climate change pigeonhole problem.


Suppose you’re new to this topic of manmade global warming, or “anthropogenic climate change”. After looking at some of the complex issues you figure you’ll just go along with mainstream expert opinion, as you would if you wondered, say, how far the moon is from the earth or why the sky is blue.

John Robson

But the problem here is you’ll soon discover, if you don’t get shouted into a pigeonhole first, that the mainstream on climate change is actually a large and complex river with many currents and eddies. If you pick any specific topic such as whether climate models are accurate, or how ocean currents affect climate, or even whether global warming is good for plants, you’ll discover that there isn’t just one orthodox view. There’s a broad range of opinion among scientists as well as in the large informed and, for that matter, uniformed community.


Past reports of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have concluded that the climate is warming but that not all the warming is man-made. They say that at least some of the warming over the past hundred years is natural. They also say that at least half the warming is probably man-made but only the part that happened in recent decades. The warming before 1950 may have been mostly natural.

John Robson

That’s the past. But what about the future? Well, here the IPCC view is that global warming over the next century could be very small, or large, or somewhere in between. Its experts are nowhere near unanimous that disastrous warming is coming. And as we pointed out in our video on the catastrophe question, the IPCC also says that the economic impacts of warming over the next century will probably be small compared to most other changes in society, the economy, and technology.

Not overwhelming. Not dominant. Quite small. What’s more, the IPCC says the effects might even be beneficial in some places, or very costly or, again, somewhere in between. In short, it recognizes a great deal of uncertainty in the science and, therefore, in the economics of climate change.

You see, this so-called mainstream actually encompasses an enormous range of views including many that are commonly called skeptical, as well as others that are alarmist or even one might say panicky. So why all the name calling? It usually happens when someone wants to score cheap points and shut down discussion by accusing their opponent of holding ridiculous opinions instead of addressing arguments on their merits.


It's always possible that someone outside the mainstream is actually right. There are famous examples of this from history. But the point here is simply that the mainstream, on this issue, is very broad and includes a wide range, from people who don’t think climate change is much of a problem all the way up to committed alarmists.

John Robson

Now in case you’re thinking that I’m being hypocritical here, that the term alarmist that I’m using is name calling, it’s not. I use it to describe people who believe the climate situation is so urgent that we should all be alarmed. I don’t use it as an insult, I use it as an accurate reflection of the views of people who, I believe, if you said to them, “Does man-made climate change alarm you?” would say “Yes it does.” And if you said “Should other people be alarmed?” they’d say “You bet they should.” Now if I ask you that question and you say no, then fine, I wouldn’t call you an alarmist. It’s a descriptive term not a pejorative one. And I want to emphasize here that when I look at the mainstream, there are people in the mainstream who are alarmists and there are people in the mainstream who aren’t.

Now at this point, someone’s going to say hang on, you’re just not being honest here, the mainstream doesn’t run where you claim. It’s overwhelmingly convinced of the alarmist side. What about the claim that 97% of scientists agree that climate change is “real, man-made and dangerous”? Answer that, you denier. With pleasure.


We actually dealt with that claim at length in our video on the 97% consensus myth. The truth is there is a high level of agreement on the basic scientific issues. But when you look at the specific claims about global warming being a crisis, the evidence of agreement quickly breaks down. There simply is no mainstream consensus about a climate crisis either way.

John Robson

So, if we decide to dispense with the pigeonholes and the insulting labels, how might we instead usefully categorize legitimate differences of opinion around the issue? And here there are two questions that you need to ask yourself. And the first one is: How well informed are you about the issue, really? Maybe you’re somewhat informed on climate change. You’ve been doing some reading online and you’ve asked some questions. Or maybe you’re well informed. Maybe you’ve read a lot, including journal articles. Maybe you’ve looked at the data and — and this is very important — maybe you’ve weighed conflicting evidence.

Because if you’ve diligently looked at the issue but at only one side of it, the one you initially found congenial, you shouldn’t check the well-informed box. As John Stuart Mill warned us back in the 19th century, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side, if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”


Once you’ve decided, honestly, how well informed you are, the other question to ask yourself is how optimistic you are about the future under global warming. Again, there is a range of informed opinion here. You might decide that carbon dioxide is not a big problem, and may even be a net benefit to the world because of its positive effect on plant growth. Or you might think that there might be some problems from a warming earth, but we can handle them through adaptation, and efforts to stop them will probably cost more than they’re worth. Or you may be more worried, down to the extreme pessimist who thinks carbon dioxide will do such severe damage to the planet that we have to take drastic action to save civilization and entire ecosystems — and take it now.

John Robson

All these positions, all of them, are in the mainstream. There’s evidence to back them all up and there’s evidence to call them all into question. And wherever your views fall there’s a place for you in the discussion — provided you’re willing to be civil.

Now since you’ve asked — perhaps you’ve already gathered it from this channel — I consider myself an informed optimist. I’ve studied this issue extensively over many years, I’ve looked at the primary literature, I’ve talked to the experts, and I’ve examined the data. And I believe the best evidence we have today tells us that human carbon dioxide emissions are probably having a small impact on the planet but that the natural warming trend that has been going on since at least the 1860s didn’t suddenly change its cause in 1970. And I also believe that whatever changes warming does bring are within our capacity to adapt to, even if they’re not in fact beneficial from the get-go.

Now, I’m cautiously optimistic. I’m aware that nature has produced sudden climate changes repeatedly in the past and those that happened fast are problematic. Nature, not man, could uncork a nasty surprise, and I do worry about it, even though there is nothing we can do to prevent it and not much we can do to predict it.

On the other hand, there is one area where I lean towards pessimism, and that’s climate policy. I think ill-informed or ill-judged climate policy poses a far bigger threat to human well-being than climate change does, especially the man-made kind. And you can also put me down as concerned about the tone of the debate. And not just from the other side I might add. Some of the comments in support on our channel get deleted right away with good reason.

So, that’s where I am. And you by contrast might be an informed pessimist. And that’s fine, a lot of people are. We can disagree while recognizing that we are both situated in the mainstream and that each of us hold views that have evidence to support them. And then, surely, we can debate the issue without calling each other names.

You know for the uninformed pessimists and optimists out there, I am going to say quite frankly, if you want to express your views publicly it's a good idea to become informed first, especially about views other than those you now hold, in fact. And a good way to become informed is to join the discussion online at climatediscussionnexus.com.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel and like us on Twitter and Facebook. And if you find our work valuable, go to our donate page and become a supporter.


For the Climate Discussion Nexus I’m John Robson, and I’m no pigeon.


6 comments on “The Pigeonhole Problem”

  1. Much of the pigeonholing problem arises from the fact that, for most people, climate change has nothing to do with science but has become a religion. Very few climate alarmists have looked at the IPCC reports in detail, or any other related data sources (try http://temperature.global/ for a start). Science deals with facts, and you can be either right or wrong about something (is the Moon 300,000 or 400,000 km from Earth?) without it seriously impacting your self-worth. In contrast, religion deals with feelings and being told that your feelings are false or absurd is a direct threat to your self worth. Once you have bought into the climate change narrative it takes considerable courage to admit that you were wrong, and that the alarmist view is on rather shaky ground.

  2. As a Canadian and an agronomist, if we have warming, I look to the south and see many crops that we can easily adopt for our food supply. Alternatively cooling makes me look north. Quite frankly I don't find tundra and pine needles appealing.

  3. There is a frenzied attitude to this subject, as with Covid people have been driven to hysteria and lost all sense of reality. Science has been thrown into disrepute and it’s difficult to establish which interested parties are behind the hysteria. As with Covid I have friends who can not see sense and are not prepared to discuss either subject, they have been convinced there is an imminent catastrophe and have closed their minds to the actual science and real time unadulterated data.

  4. I believe the problem lies with the largest apologists for global warming, climate change or whatever you want to call it at the moment, are creative writers and journalists (but I guess I repeat myself) not the actual 'scientists'. The current and obvious trend to redefine words to make anyone who doesn't believe in them stupid based upon the meaning of the words and not the obvious misuse of them. For example, man made global warming to climate change. No one disagrees with climate change, it happens all the time. The implication of the word climate change with its implications of man made global warming. - Yeah I have to disagree. Pretty soon the apologists will just scream 'climate!' Expecting that to mean the entire sum of man made global warming. Then the lemmings step up to berate all those who disagree.

  5. As with covid, we've seen hysterical adults mindlessly inflicting severe emotional trauma on an entire generation. Until this is addressed as a crime, it won't stop......especially if the adults involved are being paid to do this as is the case with teachers.

    Then the question will be, who will help to heal the trauma?

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