The 2008-2009 alternative energy resolution provided high school debaters with an opportunity to research and discuss one of the most important issues of the day: global climate change. Summer institutes collectively spent thousands of hours researching all aspects of the climate debate and students invested many more thousands of hours preparing blocks, organizing files, and practicing speeches on these issues. The complexity of this debate had an interesting effect, however; instead of being the core focus of the season’s debates, it became only a side issue from which most teams shied away.
While climate change was not as prominent on the alternative energy topic as one might have predicted, it has become an extremely popular impact in subsequent seasons. It is now conventional wisdom that “warming is the only existential threat” and that it is the largest of all possible impacts. In order to bolster their advantages and disadvantages, teams have begun to read (often contrived) internal link chains that culminate in the ubiquitous “Tickell in ‘8” card. In combination with a “try-or-die” impact frame, this technique has won a lot of debates.
But this doesn’t need to be the case. How can debaters respond to these impacts effectively? A few suggestions are below the fold.
1. Don’t just debate the impact.
Upon hearing a warming impact, many debaters reflectively turn to their impact defense file and throw out a card or two that contest whether warming is occurring or whether it is inevitable. This can be helpful—as will be discussed below—but it shouldn’t be the only attack that is presented. Instead, debaters should dispute whether the internal link chain that leads to the impact is coherent; it usually is not.
The Tickell card is a good example. Setting aside that Tickell is not a “Climate Researcher” but a freelance journalist with no academic qualifications in climatology, his short opinion piece in the Guardian contains within it an answer to the impact card that most debaters cite. Here’s the beginning of the article and the part that is most often cited:
We need to get prepared for four degrees of global warming, Bob Watson told the Guardian last week. At first sight this looks like wise counsel from the climate science adviser to Defra. But the idea that we could adapt to a 4C rise is absurd and dangerous. Global warming on this scale would be a catastrophe that would mean, in the immortal words that Chief Seattle probably never spoke, “the end of living and the beginning of survival” for humankind. Or perhaps the beginning of our extinction.
The collapse of the polar ice caps would become inevitable, bringing long-term sea level rises of 70-80 metres. All the world’s coastal plains would be lost, complete with ports, cities, transport and industrial infrastructure, and much of the world’s most productive farmland. The world’s geography would be transformed much as it was at the end of the last ice age, when sea levels rose by about 120 metres to create the Channel, the North Sea and Cardigan Bay out of dry land. Weather would become extreme and unpredictable, with more frequent and severe droughts, floods and hurricanes. The Earth’s carrying capacity would be hugely reduced. Billions would undoubtedly die.
Watson’s call was supported by the government’s former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, who warned that “if we get to a four-degree rise it is quite possible that we would begin to see a runaway increase”. This is a remarkable understatement. The climate system is already experiencing significant feedbacks, notably the summer melting of the Arctic sea ice. The more the ice melts, the more sunshine is absorbed by the sea, and the more the Arctic warms. And as the Arctic warms, the release of billions of tonnes of methane – a greenhouse gas 70 times stronger than carbon dioxide over 20 years – captured under melting permafrost is already under way.
To see how far this process could go, look 55.5m years to the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, when a global temperature increase of 6C coincided with the release of about 5,000 gigatonnes of carbon into the atmosphere, both as CO2 and as methane from bogs and seabed sediments. Lush subtropical forests grew in polar regions, and sea levels rose to 100m higher than today. It appears that an initial warming pulse triggered other warming processes. Many scientists warn that this historical event may be analogous to the present: the warming caused by human emissions could propel us towards a similar hothouse Earth.
If this was the end of the article, one could still find several problems with it. But it isn’t the end of the article. Tickell continues:
But what are we to do? All our policies to date to tackle global warming have been miserable failures. The Kyoto protocol has created a vast carbon market but done little to reduce emissions. The main effect of the EU’s emissions trading scheme has been to transfer about €30bn or more from consumers to Europe’s biggest polluters, the power companies. The EU and US foray into biofuels has, at huge cost, increased greenhouse gas emissions and created a world food crisis, causing starvation in many poor countries.
So are all our efforts doomed to failure? Yes, so long as our governments remain craven to special interests, whether carbon traders or fossil fuel companies. The carbon market is a valuable tool, but must be subordinate to climatic imperatives. The truth is that to prevent runaway greenhouse warming, we will have to leave most of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground, especially carbon-heavy coal, oil shales and tar sands. The fossil fuel and power companies must be faced down.
Global problems need global solutions, and we also need an effective replacement for the failed Kyoto protocol. The entire Kyoto system of national allocations is obsolete because of the huge volumes of energy embodied in products traded across national boundaries. It also presents a major obstacle to any new agreement – as demonstrated by the 2008 G8 meeting in Japan that degenerated into a squabble over national emission rights.
The answer? Scrap national allocations and place a single global cap on greenhouse gas emissions, applied “upstream” – for instance, at the oil refinery, coal-washing station and cement factory. Sell permits up to that cap in a global auction, and use the proceeds to finance solutions to climate change – accelerating the use of renewable energy, raising energy efficiency, protecting forests, promoting climate-friendly farming, and researching geoengineering technologies. And commit hundreds of billions of dollars per year to finance adaptation to climate change, especially in poor countries.
Such a package of measures would allow us to achieve zero net greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and long-term stabilisation at 350 parts per million of CO2 equivalent. This avoids the economic pain that a cap-and-trade system alone would cause, and targets assistance at the poor, who are least to blame and most need help. The permit auction would raise about $1 trillion per year, enough to finance a spread of solutions. At a quarter of the world’s annual oil spending, it is a price well worth paying.
That seems simple enough, right? Humanity is totally doomed unless the world’s nations abandon fossil fuels, scrap unilateral emissions caps, negotiate a global upstream system of tradable permits, and invest the profits into a broad range of research and transition assistance programs. This internal link is several orders of magnitude larger than even the biggest internal links that teams most frequently read to their climate impacts. “The plan saves money that can be spent on renewable energy research — Tickell ‘8,” for example, is an incoherent argument.
Instead of disputing only the terminal impact, then, it would be prudent for teams to attack the coherence of their opponents’ access to the impact.
2. Force them to complete their argument.
The climate debate is complicated and can be attacked on multiple levels. Advancing analytical arguments (especially when bolstered by a time investment in the cross-ex) that put pressure on the missing components of a warming impact can pay huge dividends. At a minimum, doing so will force the other team to read additional cards. Oftentimes, however, they will abandon ship in the face of this pressure.
So what parts of a complete warming scenario do teams most often fail to produce?
Is warming happening now? How much warming is happening now? How much warming will happen in the future? “Warming bad” is not sufficient—a team reading a warming impact needs to demonstrate that warming exists and is happening at a sufficient level to trigger the impact. If it’s not, there isn’t an impact.
Is warming anthropogenic? If it does not result from human actions, then it is not a relevant impact—nothing that humans do will have a meaningful effect on it.
Is warming reversible? If it is not, existing levels of greenhouse gases might make the impact inevitable regardless of future reductions. This is especially true if positive feedbacks are occurring (or will occur in the future).
These arguments can be quickly advanced: “Their warming advantage is incomplete—there’s no evidence that warming is happening now or that it will happen to a sufficient degree in the future to trigger their impact, there’s no evidence that it is anthropogenic, and there’s no evidence that the effects of existing emissions can be reversed fast enough or in sufficient amounts to prevent the impact.”
3. Go beyond “warming takes a long time.”
Timeframe analysis is important, but the crucial component is the timeframe for reducing warming rather than the timeframe for the terminal impact to warming. Yes, climate change takes a long time—we can’t be sure whether it’s already too late or if future interventions will prevent the impact. But that alone is not a reason to ignore or discount the importance of climate change. Too often, teams rely on beating a warming impact with rudimentary timeframe analysis—“our impact outweighs on timeframe because warming takes a long time but our impact happens immediately.” Unfortunately, that’s not an argument—it doesn’t contain any grounding or a warrant that connects that grounding to the claim being forwarded.
Instead, debaters should argue that the internal link chain is long-term and that alternate causalities will overwhelm the ability of the internal link to access the impact in the interim. If carbon emissions from fossil fuel combustion are responsible for climate change, it matters—a lot—when and to what degree these emissions are reduced. Even the enactment of comprehensive climate initiatives will have only a small effect on overall global emissions—and that effect will occur over the long-term, not immediately.
Framing techniques can be effective tools here. When your opponent says “we solve warming,” don’t respond with “they don’t solve warming”—that framing presupposes that there is a singular thing called “warming” that can be “solved”. Instead, argue that “reducing global emissions by even XYZ% over the next XYZ years is insufficient to meaningfully alter the global climate” (inserting appropriate estimations for XYZ).
Finally, don’t concede their “try-or-die” framing of the impact. The fact that global climate change might result in human extinction down the road is not a reason that all other impacts are irrelevant to a decision-maker.
Debates about global climate change are important and valuable, but only if students engage in them intelligently. Hopefully these tips will help you do so.