What About Whataboutism?

In comments under his article How to destroy the claim that the west must cut CO2 emissions, Robin draws our attention to an article in The Conversation, claiming:

Climate change: multi-country media analysis shows scepticism of the basic science is dying out

Well, maybe it is dying out, or maybe it is being wiped out. For there is a difference between changing your mind and not being willing/allowed to speak your mind, I think you’ll agree.

The article gets off on the wrong foot as far as I am concerned with its reckless use of the pejorative “denialism”. It even has “climate change denial” as one of its tags. The author, James Painter, describes how he and his team watched TV, scouring news coverage for any sign of climate scepticism. Well, they found some, although the spin they are putting on it is that the deniers have given up arguing that climate change is not real, happening now, and human-caused (note to Painter: this denier has never denied that). Instead they/we have switched to denying that the proposed actions to “tackle” climate change have any merit. The deniers argue that such actions will have marginal benefit and eye-watering costs. With good reason in my estimation. And in particular they engage in “whataboutism” by pointing to China and making the claim that, since China is refusing to join the decadent West on its self-destructive path, we ought to pull on the reins a little. In the realm of the climate enthusiasts, this rejoinder is considered a logical fallacy, which can therefore be summarily dismissed.

We found a wide variety of claims, but the most common concerned the high cost of taking action and “whataboutism” (typically questioning the need to take action when other countries such as China were not doing enough).

In the source article that Painter is promoting, this is said (quotes below are also from this paper or its SI):

The two main discourses on right-wing channels were economic cost (6 out of 11 programs—55%) and questioning the need to take action when other countries such as China were not doing enough (6 out of 11 programs—55%), often described colloquially as “whataboutism”

Don’t get me started on “right-wing” channels. OK, do. In the UK, four channels were surveyed. Three in the “mainstream” – BBC, ITV, and Channel 4 – and one “right-wing” – GB News. There is apparently no such thing as a “left-wing” broadcaster. In the article’s SI, of the mainstream channels, it is said:

The three stations are regulated by Ofcom for impartiality.

No such disclaimer is applied to GB News, a potentially misleading omission. This “right-wing” channel employed some guy called Farage and had some denialist organisation called the GWPF on one day:

In March 2022 Farage called for a referendum on the UK’s Net Zero Policy. In its first week, the channel gave space to groups exhibiting climate skepticism including representatives of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, who stressed the costs rather than the benefits of taking climate action.

Wow. On one rainy Tuesday, someone stressed the costs of climate action. How very farouche of them. How about every channel regularly discussing the costs AND benefits of climate action rather than ignoring the former and exaggerating the latter?

I could go on, but I won’t. I will close this part of my diatribe by clipping out a frankly hilarious development in denialism – the denialism of silence:

It is also worth highlighting that Fox News unexpectedly displayed a relative absence of coverage [of IPCC AR6 WG1]. This finding is supported by other research, which suggests that other right-wing media outlets in the USA were unusually quiet on the report. Qualitative (interview) work would be needed to corroborate whether this “denialism by silence” was an intentional editorial policy.

LOL, as the young folk have it.

Anyway, back to whataboutism. Enthusiasts do like to accuse sceptics of this, often puffing out their chests, having scored a telling rhetorical point. Unfortunately for them, “whataboutism” is not always a logical fallacy. Take the climate sceptics’ favourite proposal/whatabout pair:

“We should be doing more on climate change.”

“What about China?”

Is the rejoinder valid? This is an important question, since the sceptics’ reference to China is typically labelled as whataboutism as an attempt to invalidate their argument without having to actually discuss it. The result sceptics fear is irrational policies crashing through with all opposition silenced.

Here’s another, similar couplet, proposal and whataboutism response:

“We should be doing more on workers’ rights.”

“What about the slavery of the Uyghurs in China?”

Valid retort, or not valid?

Well, since we can do nothing about the Uyghurs, it sounds like the sceptic here is arguing that it is right that we should do nothing for our workers’ rights either. That is clearly nonsense, because we (as a nation) can only benefit from improved workers’ rights as they apply to our workers. In other words, our actions benefit us in this example if they are good. Our workers’ rights can be discussed in isolation of the workers’ rights of any other country.

Now back to the climate whataboutism. Here, the sceptic’s rejoinder is valid – obviously so. This is because our action on climate does not only benefit ourselves, but the cost is all ours. Whatever (I think hardly measurable) climate benefit our individual action achieves, it will be spread across the surface of the globe. Thus China will benefit from our actions, and we will benefit from China’s. (In fact, it’s obvious that China will benefit more from our actions than we will!) It is therefore valid to demand either that similar actions to ours are taken globally, or that we reduce our own ambition to match that of the international community. If we take radical action to reduce a small part of humanity’s carbon dioxide emissions, this will result in a tiny and probably too-small-to-measure climate benefit, which will nevertheless be distributed among all peoples, whether they are the subset suffering the concomitant pain of these actions or not. It is obviously only fair if we all move together to the same target at a similar pace.

Taking a third example, whatabout local pollution, like phosphorus? Phosphorus is mined and used in fertilisers and then for one reason or another ends up polluting watercourses.

“We should take action on phosphorus pollution in our rivers.”

“What about China?”

In this case the criticism is not valid, because we benefit from our own actions to reduce pollution locally. We both bear the cost, and reap the rewards, of our policy. Therefore, if the policy offers a net benefit, we should adopt it. The retort makes no sense.

Perhaps you are wondering, why didn’t Jit use the example of CFCs? They spread generally, like CO2, and yet they were banned under the terms of the Montreal Protocol, so would our sceptic have been right in 1986 to respond to the proposal:

“We should take action on the ozone layer.”

With the whatabout:

“What about China?”

Well, yes: if China was planning on greatly increasing its use of CFCs while the UK was planning on adopting the ban unilaterally. But even if that had been the case, the sceptic’s whataboutism would still have been weak here, because there are adequate replacements for refrigerants like freon, so that unilateral adoption by the UK would not have mortally wounded us. But China, like all countries, signed the Protocol, and CFCs were banned, and the ozone hole disappeared, and Greenpeace members hung up their placards and took up gardening, or something.

In other words, it will always be legitimate to point out the slackers in a communal effort, no matter the scale. The closer to a “tragedy of the commons” situation we get, the more valid the whataboutism. At the other extreme, if we bear all the costs and reap all the benefits of a policy, whataboutism is not at all valid.

So, whataboutism is a valid criticism of policy under some conditions. To fail to see that takes some effort by the climate enthusiasts. Wielding the term as a pejorative feels to me to be an attempt to dismiss an argument with an arm-wave, to declare it not valid, and move on as if the criticism had never been made. I have the sense that for some folk, there is no possibility that a criticism of climate policy can ever be a valid one. That does not make for good policy.

An entire branch of science seems to have sprung up, devoted to rubbishing the arguments of climate denialists by hook or by crook. One only has to skim through Painter et al’s references to see that. One does wonder whether perhaps the denialologists could be doing something more useful.

Do let me know in comments if my reasoning is faulty.

Featured Image

The featured image is what Dall.e came up with for “tragedy of the commons.” One might also see it as a portent about what life might be like in the UK in 2050 if we stay on the Net Zero course.

via Climate Scepticism


April 21, 2023 at 04:37AM

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