Public discourse tends to be both intemperate and imprecise. In fact, its intemperateness is directly proportional to its lack of precision. So a lot of heat is generated, but not much light is shed.
This problem not only is not new, it would appear to be perennial. Clear definitions, sound propositions, and properly framed arguments are as rare today as they were when Socrates insisted upon them in the Athenian agora.
It is a problem that affords a wonderful opportunity for newspapers to exert a positive effect on public discourse by providing the precision that is otherwise absent. Unfortunately, newspapers have not taken advantage of the opportunity, but continue instead to make their own contributions to the problem.
On the front of this morning's Inquirer, for instance, there is a teaser to a series starting tomorrow about the Gulf Stream, which, the teaser says, "has taken center stage in research in global warming."
Global warming, the all-purpose cause of every environmental disaster, whether it be drought or flood, hot spells or cold. Well, consider this: In May 2003, physicist Freeman Dyson, retired director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, published in the New York Review of Books a review of Vaclav Smil's The Earth's Biosphere: Evolution, Dynamics, and Change. It should be prominently displayed in every newsroom in the nation. Since I bought a copy from NYRB's online archives, I feel I have the right, according to fair use, to quote a couple of key passages. I highly recommend getting a copy; it's only three bucks.
Here, however, is a fine example of precision:
The physical effects of carbon dioxide are seen in changes of rainfall, cloudiness, wind strength, and temperature, which are customarily lumped together in the misleading phrase "global warming." This phrase is misleading because the warming caused by the greenhouse effect of increased carbon dioxide is not evenly distributed. In humid air, the effect of carbon dioxide on the transport of heat by radiation is less important, because it is outweighed by the much larger greenhouse effect of water vapor. The effect of carbon dioxide is more important where the air is dry, and air is usually dry only where it is cold. The warming mainly occurs where air is cold and dry, mainly in the arctic rather than in the tropics, mainly in winter rather than in summer, and mainly at night rather than in daytime. The warming is real, but it is mostly making cold places warmer rather than making hot places hotter. To represent this local warming by a global average is misleading, because the global average is only a fraction of a degree while the local warming at high latitudes is much larger. Also, local changes in rainfall, whether they are increases or decreases, are usually more important than changes in temperature. It is better to use the phrase "climate change" rather than "global warming" to describe the physical effects of carbon dioxide.
Given that Mars and other planets also show evidence of warming, it should be obvious that the phrase "global warming" is less a mental shortcut than a mental short-circuit. And though what Dyson says in this paragraph may not seem all that significant, he goes on to explain a good many other related matters -- also quite precisely -- leading him to conclude:
The biosphere is the most complicated of all the things we humans have to deal with. The science of planetary ecology is still young and undeveloped. It is not surprising that honest and well-informed experts can disagree about facts. But beyond the disagreements about facts, there is another deeper disagreement about values. The disagreement about values may be described in an oversimplified way as a disagreement between naturalists and humanists. Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is respect for the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Excessive burning of fossil fuels, and the consequent increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide, are unqualified evils.
Humanists believe that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and we are now in charge. Humans have the right to reorganize nature so that humans and biosphere can survive and prosper together. For humanists, the highest value is intelligent coexistence between humans and nature. The greatest evils are war and poverty, underdevelopment and unemployment, disease and hunger, the miseries that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms. As Bertolt Brecht wrote in The Threepenny Opera, "Feeding comes first, morality second." If people do not have enough to eat, we cannot expect them to put much effort into protecting the biosphere. In the long run, preservation of the biosphere will only be possible if people everywhere have a decent standard of living. The humanist ethic does not regard an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as evil, if the increase is associated with worldwide economic prosperity, and if the poorer half of humanity gets its fair share of the benefits.
This is a serious matter. It deserves serious discourse, not reliance on bumper-sticker memes.