Getting off the Carbon Box: Genuine Argument on Climate Change

How do we engage students in genuine argumentation on serious issues that shape their futures?  If we care deeply about these issues ourselves, how do we keep an objective stance so students can search for the truth  without trying to argue the instructor’s stance?  What if the evidence on the issue is so compelling on one side of the topic that it seems to silence argumentation itself?  I’ve been contemplating these questions as I think about one of the most significant challenges today—climate change.

John Gage,  in A Shape of Reason, defines a “question at issue” as a question that “people might answer in different ways,” thereby providing the motivation for argumentation since there is no clear-cut answer (49-50).   I further clarify the definition for my writing students as something over which reasonable people might logically disagree.  As a composition instructor who embraces the concept of a “question at issue,” I take an objective tone as much as possible, even more so on issues I care deeply about.  If I stridently advocate my position on the topic, students may think they need to regurgitate my beliefs to get a good grade, an idea that makes obsolete the concept of writing as a search for the truth and a vehicle to promote critical thinking.

Climate change is a problematic topic.  After all, few reasonable people can dispute sound scientific evidence that global temperatures are warming, that the climate is changing, and that the changes are anthropogenic.   When students do engage in the topic as a question at issue and attempt to argue against global warming, inevitably they get themselves into logical quandaries.  For example, novice writers often fall into the trap of dismissing climate change as an elaborate hoax orchestrated by scientists eager to retain grant money.   Assuming base motives with no plausible evidence to back up the argument leads these thinkers inevitably into an ad hominem fallacy.  Even professional essays fall into this trapFor example, in an essay I use on the topic, Joseph Bottum and William Anderson concede that climate change discussions lead to “an astonishing tangle of mostly ad hominem arguments” (336.  Because I want students to engage in genuine argumentation rather than fall into a logical trap, global warming does not on the surface seem like an effective topic on an authentic question at issue.

However, when framed correctly, the topic of climate change can offer opportunities for thoughtful writing that explores various sides of the issue.  For instance, instructors can provide facts that show global warming as a given but have students explore the scope of the problem and consequences, the concept of a tipping point (or point of no return), and the viability of proposed solutions.  In this exploration, students will encounter authors who optimistically encourage everyone to do her part by reusing, reducing, and recycling, and other theorists who grimly argue that only wide-scale global solutions will make any difference.  Students might discover that proposed solutions, like biofuels, are quite complex, because the energy spent to produce the fuel may compound the problem.  Investigating the scope of the problem and viability of solutions offers the opportunity for an in-depth analysis rather than a logically flawed argument.

Additionally, examining evidence on climate change can be a good exercise in information literacy.  More specifically, I ask students to consider Al Gore’s claim in An Inconvenient Truth that in the 928 peer-reviewed scientific journals on the issue, zero disputed the claim that humans are causing global warming whereas 53% of articles in the popular press imply global warming is a theory.  In a research exercise, students critically evaluate credibility, purpose, and audience in different types of periodical articles on the issue of climate change.  I have them compare the use of evidence in a peer-reviewed journal to the evidence in a magazine and to analyze tone to detect bias. Additionally, when we read articles on the topic in the reader I use for the course, America Now, I have students assess the credibility of the source.  We also look at websites on the issue to evaluate credibility, evidence, purpose, and audience.

Chris Mooney’s article “We Can’t Handle the Truth,” which I teach when using the tenth edition of America Now, offers another option on the topic that speaks to the heart of argumentation.  Mooney argues that when people’s deeply-felt beliefs are threatened, reasoning shuts down (332).   He begins his essay with an example that most reasonable people can agree with, a cult waiting for the end of the world.  When planet earth fails to destruct upon schedule, cult members still cling to their beliefs by rationalizing their way out of the dilemma.  Mooney concludes, “The devastation of all they had believed had made them even more certain of their beliefs” (324-325).  Climate change deniers are no different than these cult members.  After all, they are rationalizing in the face of compelling evidence that challenges their belief systems (330).  Mooney finds this practice to be part of human nature rather than a feature reserved for conservative thinkers, and shows how on the left many avow vaccines cause autism despite strong evidence to the contrary (331).  Nor does Mooney dismiss these thinkers as ignorant.  In fact, the more educated a climate denier, the more likely he is to argue his case (330).  For apolitical students, Mooney offers examples from everyday life such as the lover who refuses to believe his spouse is cheating on him despite the other man’s underpants in his bed or the parent who challenges the principal’s claims that her son is a bully.  To believe such claims would destroy their identity as a beloved husband or good mother (326).   Mooney concludes, “If you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction” (332).

In teaching Mooney’s essay under the climate change unit, I give students the option to write on argumentation itself to examine how to persuade someone who won’t accept evidence and, even more significantly, to explore how and why argumentation involves much more than just logic and evidence.  Mooney’s conclusion echoes the approach adopted by those of us who teach Rogerian rhetoric.  Based upon the work of psychologist Carl Rogers, such an approach asks rhetoricians to build common ground first, which works well in teaching the concept of ethos.  Next, writers objectively state an opposing audience’s concerns.  Finally, they argue their position with the attention to shared values. Thus, writers are motivated to create “a humane rhetoric that has as its goal cooperation and communication rather than intimidation and coercion” (Hairston 373).

By exploring such an approach to argumentation, writers gain a more complex view of rhetoric that can apply to anything as grand as global warming or as intimate as a dispute with a roommate.

Works Cited

An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Warning.   Dir. Davis Guggenheim.   Perf. Al Gore.

Paramount, 2006.  DVD.


Atwan, Robert, ed.  America Now.  10th ed.  Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2013.  Print.

Bottum, Joseph and William Anderson.  “Unchanging Science.”    Atwan 333-339.

Gage, John.  The Shape of Reason.  2nd ed.  London: Macmillian, 1991.  Print.

Hairston, Maxine.  “Carl Rogers’s Alternative to Traditional Rhetoric.”  College Composition and     

Communication 27 (1976): 373-377.  Print.

Laskow, Sarah. “Debunking ‘Green Living’: Combatting Climate Change Requires Lifestyle Changes,

Not Organic Products.”  Atwan 341-344.

Mooney, Chris.  “We Can’t Handle the Truth.”  Atwan 323-333.



Here are examples of the assignments I’ve discussed in this essay:

Writing Project #4: Saving the Planet: Is It Too Late?

Part One: Article Evaluation (4o points)

Using the library databases, find one article about climate change from a scholarly journal and one article on climate change from a magazine or newspaper article.  Follow this format for your evaluation:

  1. Begin with a MLA Works Cited entry for your scholarly journal article. (3 points)
  2. Write a 5-10 sentence summary of the scholarly article. Begin with the thesis and objectively overview key points to write a summary. (10 points)
  3. Next, write a MLA Works Cited entry for your newspaper or magazine article. (3 points)
  4. Write a 5-10 sentence summary of the newspaper or magazine article. Begin with the thesis and objectively overview key points to write a summary. (10 points)
  5. Compare the credentials of the author of each source. Look at their expertise in the field. (2 points)
  6. What stance does each article take on the issue of climate change? (2 points)
  7. Compare the research in each article. How much evidence do the authors present to support their claims?  Is the research primary (conducted by the authors themselves) or secondary (reporting on someone else’s research) or both? (6 points)
  8. To what extent is the article objective, forming conclusions based on sound evidence and logical reasoning? To what extent does the article seem to present bias?  If you do detect bias, analyze a passage to support your claim.  (4 points)

Part Two: The Essay (1,200 word minimum) (100 points)

Write an essay responding to one of the following options.  Include a list of Works Cited identifying your sources.  See the MLA Climate Change Works Cited handout to help you.

  1. Compare the analysis of how we form ideas about issues discussed by Mooney in “We Can’t Handle the Truth” with the arguments presented by Charen, Bottum, and Anderson. Are Charen, Bottum, and Anderson confirming what they already believe, or is their reasoning fairly unbiased, based on logic, sound evidence, and reliable sources?  If you do detect bias, what might be the source of it?  Use examples from these essays and your research to support your thesis.
  1. Chris Mooney’s essay “We Can’t Handle the Truth” argues that when our beliefs are threatened, we are usually not persuaded by logic and convincing evidence. Apply Mooney’s theory of “motivated reasoning” to your own examples.  Here you may want to look at situations where you or someone close to you received information that challenged fundamental beliefs and analyze rejections of sound evidence.  (See Mooney’s examples of cults and vaccine rejections and think of similar examples).  To what extent are we persuaded by logic and evidence?  What happens when our beliefs are threatened?  How can we persuade without threatening an audience’s beliefs?  Be sure to offer a critical reading of Mooney’s essay.
  1. Looking at Mooney’s contention that “if you want someone to accept new evidence, make sure to present it to them in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction,” write an essay on an issue of your choice to an audience that disagrees with your point on the issue. To write such an essay, begin with common ground and values, show the audience members you understand their point of view, and present your sound evidence in a way that doesn’t challenge their beliefs.  You may want to pick one of the issues Mooney discusses in his essay (cult belief, climate change, motivations for the Iraq war, autism and vaccines) or an issue close to your own life.
  1. What are local impacts of climate change on your community? What are the global impacts?  To what extent will global warming affect the way your life and the lives of the next generation, both within your local community and globally?   Use appropriate essays, lecture notes, your research articles and other resources on D2L, and An Inconvenient Truth to support your argument.
  1. Using the essays in this chapter, recent news coverage of climate change, your research, lecture notes on D2L, and the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, discuss if it is too late to solve the problem of global warming and climate change or if viable solutions are still available. Your essay should consider the causes of the problem, the scope of the problem, and efforts to slow down climate change.
  1. Several essays in this chapter, lecture notes, and An Inconvenient Truth imply acknowledging climate change requires not simple changes, but a dramatic overall in behavior, business and the economy, and government regulation. What are small scale changes in combating climate change?  How effective are they?  What are large scale changes?  Are they viable?  How might the implication that large changes are necessary cause some to reject sound scientific evidence of climate change’s causes and consequences?  Additionally, use your research to answer these questions in this essay.