George Will Gets It Wrong… Again

ignoratio elenchi n.
A logical fallacy of presenting an argument that may in itself be valid, but has nothing to do with the proposition it purports to prove. Also known as “irrelevant conclusion”. [Lat. ignorance of refutation.]

George Will is at it again with his OpEd piece "Fuzzy Climate Math" in yesterday’s Washington Post. He makes a lot of pronouncements about global warming, and gets it all wrong. Although I already gave Richard Lindzen an Ignoratio Elenchi Award this week, Mr. Will’s piece is too deserving to go unrewarded.

Much of Mr. Will’s rhetoric is devoted to trashing the Kyoto Protocol, and using its flaws to imply that U.S. action on climate change is pointless. He’s said this before (see my response to another article by George Will). To summarize my response:

  • The Kyoto Protocol is a done deal, and no one is suggesting that the U.S. sign on to it.
  • Congress is considering several climate bills at this moment, and not one of them proposes that the U.S. join the Kyoto Protocol.
  • The discussion now is not about the Kyoto Protocol or whether the U.S. should have a comprehensive climate policy, it’s about what kind of policy we will have.
  • There’s a mountain of evidence that the cost of stopping global warming through emission reductions would be minimal, while the cost of non-action would be huge (see my Green Technologies post).
  • Bringing up the Kyoto protocol diverts attention away from the real issues.

There are at least a dozen erroneous statements in Mr. Will’s article, but I’ll address just one more of them here. He says that since the measures like those proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in California will have only a tiny impact on global emissions, they aren’t worth doing. This is an Ignoratio Elenchi fallacy – the premise is correct, but irrelevant to his conclusion.

Avoiding the most dangerous consequences of global warming will require a steady ramping down of greenhouse gas pollution over a period of decades – likely through the end of the century. A rate of about 2 percent per year will let us reach our goal without disruption to our energy infrastructure. Although a 2 percent change is negligible in itself, over time the drips can add up to an ocean.

Look at it a different way. If you were about to take the first step in a 25 mile journey, it would be absurd for me to say: "Don’t bother taking that step; it will get you only 0.002 percent of the distance you need to go so it’s not worth the effort." That first step may not get you very far, but you have to take that first step to reach your goal.

As Gov. Schwarzenegger said in his speech today for the Council on Foreign Relations, no one thinks that California’s initiatives will solve the problem of global warming. He hopes that California’s initiatives can serve as an example to the world of what is possible.

And that’s why I favor first steps on climate change – we have to get started.

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