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Todd Whitcombe: Logic, facts rarely work to change people’s minds

Few people – politicians included – are willing to do so.            
John Rustad, then the minister of Aboriginal affairs, speaks to the crowd during a Moose Hide Campaign event at the B.C. legislature in Victoria in 2015. Rustad has been ousted from the B.C. Liberal cabinet over his views on climate change. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

“Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.” Jonathan Swift, “A Letter to a Young Gentleman”.

This 1721 quote is a bit archaic but it was echoed in Bad Science by Ben Goldacre: “You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.”

These sayings come to mind in thinking about MLA John Rustad being removed from the B.C. Liberal Caucus. Given his stance on important issues, asking Rustad to leave was the right move.

The major reason is his position on climate change. In a CBC story covering the dismissal, Rustad is reported as saying he believes climate change is happening and humans are contributing. However, he argues the role of carbon dioxide emissions in climate change is a “theory” and “should be open to debate.”

No. In this case, the debate is long over.

The scientific work carried out by thousands of scientists around the world all comes to the same conclusion.

Emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, various oxides of nitrogen, and other greenhouse gases are contributing to a restructuring of the flow of heat through the atmosphere and, as a result, steadily increasing atmospheric surface temperatures leading to changes in climates.

That sums it up, but it is more complicated. To break it down a little, we know carbon dioxide is a molecule containing two oxygens and a carbon atom, arranged like O=C=O.

We know the molecule has three vibrational modes. These absorb particular bands of infrared radiation causing the molecule to jiggle and gain energy.

We know the rate at which heat (infrared radiation) from the surface of Earth flows into space is controlled by atmospheric conditions. For example, when we have cloud cover it makes for a warmer night than when we don’t. Increases in carbon dioxide act like more clouds.

We know exactly how this works. It is not a theory open to debate. Anyone thinking it is needs to change their mind. But few people – politicians included – are willing to do so.            

Let’s finish with a quote from John Kenneth Galbraith: “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy with the proof.”

Rustad included.

Todd Whitcombe is a chemistry professor at UNBC.