Tips For Answering Global Warming Impacts

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.

18 thoughts on “Tips For Answering Global Warming Impacts

  1. jkoehle

    A nice trick when in trouble is getting the other team to over-commit to a fast timeframe, then arguing that warming would be too fast to be addressed by whatever mechanism they are referring to.

    1. Roy Levkovitz Post author

      Agree completely. Teams will over-commit to the rate of warming in the CX, just make smart args about why the plan/ad on / politics da mechanism is way to slow to solve for warming.

  2. Misael Gonzalez

    Excellent post Bill! Last year and even still in college I've seen people read laundry list internal link cards that only mention the words "climate change" once followed by tickle immediately. While I won't bash on strategic use of getting to a quick a impact, it's certainly something people shouldn't get away with all the time.

  3. Lee Quinn

    I asked Bill this at the Samford tournament this weekend and he put this up immediately. Obviously he deserved his educator of the year award.
    This was immensely helpful because I feel like this is becoming more and more of a trend in high school so I'm really glad you answered it

  4. sean bram

    On the subject of answering the stupid Tickell card, Bjorn Lomborg destroys him in a response article a week later. Please find better warming impacts.

    Lomborg 8 – Director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, Bjorn, “Warming warnings get overheated”, The Guardian, 8/15,
    These alarmist predictions are becoming quite bizarre, and could be dismissed as sociological oddities, if it weren't for the fact that they get such big play in the media. Oliver Tickell, for instance, writes that a global warming causing a 4C temperature increase by the end of the century would be a "catastrophe" and the beginning of the "extinction" of the human race. This is simply silly. His evidence? That 4C would mean that all the ice on the planet would melt, bringing the long-term sea level rise to 70-80m, flooding everything we hold dear, seeing billions of people die. Clearly, Tickell has maxed out the campaigners' scare potential (because there is no more ice to melt, this is the scariest he could ever conjure). But he is wrong. Let us just remember that the UN climate panel, the IPCC, expects a temperature rise by the end of the century between 1.8 and 6.0C. Within this range, the IPCC predicts that, by the end of the century, sea levels will rise 18-59 centimetres – Tickell is simply exaggerating by a factor of up to 400. Tickell will undoubtedly claim that he was talking about what could happen many, many millennia from now. But this is disingenuous. First, the 4C temperature rise is predicted on a century scale – this is what we talk about and can plan for. Second, although sea-level rise will continue for many centuries to come, the models unanimously show that Greenland's ice shelf will be reduced, but Antarctic ice will increase even more (because of increased precipitation in Antarctica) for the next three centuries. What will happen beyond that clearly depends much more on emissions in future centuries. Given that CO2 stays in the atmosphere about a century, what happens with the temperature, say, six centuries from now mainly depends on emissions five centuries from now (where it seems unlikely non-carbon emitting technology such as solar panels will not have become economically competitive). Third, Tickell tells us how the 80m sea-level rise would wipe out all the world's coastal infrastructure and much of the world's farmland – "undoubtedly" causing billions to die. But to cause billions to die, it would require the surge to occur within a single human lifespan. This sort of scare tactic is insidiously wrong and misleading, mimicking a firebrand preacher who claims the earth is coming to an end and we need to repent. While it is probably true that the sun will burn up the earth in 4-5bn years' time, it does give a slightly different perspective on the need for immediate repenting. Tickell's claim that 4C will be the beginning of our extinction is again many times beyond wrong and misleading, and, of course, made with no data to back it up. Let us just take a look at the realistic impact of such a 4C temperature rise. For the Copenhagen Consensus, one of the lead economists of the IPCC, Professor Gary Yohe, did a survey of all the problems and all the benefits accruing from a temperature rise over this century of about approximately 4C. And yes, there will, of course, also be benefits: as temperatures rise, more people will die from heat, but fewer from cold; agricultural yields will decline in the tropics, but increase in the temperate zones, etc. The model evaluates the impacts on agriculture, forestry, energy, water, unmanaged ecosystems, coastal zones, heat and cold deaths and disease. The bottom line is that benefits from global warming right now outweigh the costs (the benefit is about 0.25% of global GDP). Global warming will continue to be a net benefit until about 2070, when the damages will begin to outweigh the benefits, reaching a total damage cost equivalent to about 3.5% of GDP by 2300. This is simply not the end of humanity. If anything, global warming is a net benefit now; and even in three centuries, it will not be a challenge to our civilisation. Further, the IPCC expects the average person on earth to be 1,700% richer by the end of this century.

    1. collin roark

      Spencer’8 – climatologist and a Principal Research Scientist for the University of Alabama in Huntsville
      [Roy W, Ph.D. in meteorology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1981, former Senior Scientist for Climate Studies at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, where he and Dr. John Christy received NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal for their global temperature monitoring work with satellites, “Climate Confusion”, page number below]

      The media can always find an expert who is willing to provide some juicy quotes regarding our imminent environmental doom. Usually there is a grain of truth to the story which helps sell the idea. Like a science fiction novel, a somewhat plausible weather disaster tale captures our imagination, and we consider the possibility of global catastrophe. And some of the catastrophic events that are predicted are indeed possible, or at least not impossible. Catastrophic global warming—say by 10° Fahrenheit or more over the next century—cannot be ruled out with 100 percent certainty. Of course, neither can the next extraterrestrial invasion of Earth. But theoretical possibilities reported by the media are far from competent scientific predictions of the future. The bias contained in all of these gloom-and-doom news stories has a huge influence on how we perceive the health of the Earth and our effect on it. We scientists routinely encounter reporters who ignore the uncertainties we voice about global warming when they write their articles and news reports. Sometimes an article will be fairly balanced, but that is the exception. Few reporters are willing to push a story on their editor that says that future global warming could be fairly benign. They are much more interested in gloom and doom. A scientist can spend twenty minutes describing new and important research, but if it can't be expressed in simple, alarmist language, you can usually forget about a reporter using it. It has reached the point where the minimum amount of necessary alarm amounts to something like, "we have only ten years left to avert catastrophic global warming." A reporter will probably run with that. After all, which story will most likely find its way into a news-paper: "Warming to Wipe out Half of Humanity," or "Scientists Predict Little Warming"? It goes without saying that, in science, if you want to keep getting funded, you should find something Earth-shaking. And if you want to get your name in the newspaper, give a reporter some material that gives him hope of breaking the big story.

      1. Anon

        This is not a reason why their claims are wrong, just a reason that journalist articles on warming are biased.

        The best way to win the debate is to argue that X says Y will happen and X is the best because Z. This is because it's not possible to analytically explain the effects of CO2 on the entire climate of the Earth in 8 minutes, so we are forced to resort to defenses of certain methodologies and indicts of others.

        1. collin roark

          it goes so far as to say that catastrophic predictions should be viewed with skepticism which is helpful – especially against idiots like tickell

  5. Ryan Galloway

    I agree with Sean Bram–people should read the Lomborg article to answer Tickell on point.

    I also with teams would debate some of the internals in the Tickell card, specifically the warrants about the impact of sea level rises, adaptation to sea level rises, etc.

    Teams with a little climate knowledge can go a long way on either side of this debate.

  6. Travis

    I don't think this is as helpful as it could be. I teach my teams that when the neg reads a warming impact this is a great place to gain some ground on the block's time skew of the 1AR. The Tickell evidence invites a No Internal Link that can be expanded with a single card in the 1AR. The 2AC trick, however, is to read a CO2 good argument. The Block will then spend time answering it and reading at least a Warming Bad and a CO2 Bad argument. The resuscitation of the Internal Link will be given lower (often inadequate) attention. The 1AR can then efficiently collapse to the Internal Link claim and the debate at the link level.

    I like Bill's comments but they seem too focused on the truth of the debate and not the gaming/efficiency of the debate.

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