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Bad News for Earth, Climate Change Denialists, and Hats

July 8, 2014

In a recent discussion of the health of the earth on his show, Last Week Tonight, John Oliver attempts, within five minutes, to tackle the entirety of the “scientific controversy” on climate change. In doing so, he runs headlong into an issue which rhetoricians and scientists have been puzzling over for years: exigence.

Oliver opens by quoting a recent interview with President Obama, who states, “This isn’t something in the distant future. Climate change is already effecting us now.”

“Now,” says Oliver, “that is a pretty smart move Obama. Because we’ve all shown we can’t be trusted with the future tense.”

Oliver is a pretty savvy political commentator, and he uses the full leeway granted by HBO to push the show, both in terms of topical choices and the language used to discuss these topics. But, in this instance, Oliver has chosen to focus on the problem of “now,” or what rhetoricians might refer to as exigence.

Exigence, or the demonstration of urgency or need, is a rhetorical tool that is employed every day in countless situations. You know the saying, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease?” Well, the squeak is exigence; it’s a sign that a particular wheel needs immediate care or something bad might happen (like your wheel falls off and your car explodes in fiery catastrophe). If you close your eyes, you can just make out the mechanic wiping his hands on a greasy rag, saying, “Them other wheels are fine for now. Wait ‘til they start to squeak before you grease ‘em. Save a few bucks that way.” Then he spits into an oil filter (apologies to any car mechanics reading this for stereotyping; grad students are way more vocal and way less useful).

In this case, Oliver uses “now” to open the discussion concerning both the burden of scientific proof, and the complications of creating exigence for a problem that, in many ways, is inscrutable amongst the noise of the rest of the world’s pressing issues.

Oliver cites a recent Gallop pole that claims that 1 in 4 Americans are unsure if climate change exists. And, according to Oliver, this holds the same weight as a poll asking: “Are there hats? Yes or No.“

He states, “The debate over climate change should not be whether or not it exists, but what we should do about it…The only accurate way to report that 1 out of 4 Americans are skeptical of global warming is to say, ‘A poll finds that 1 out of 4 Americans are wrong about something.’”

Part of the problem that Oliver mentions is that despite the overwhelming amount of consensus that exists within the scientific community, the media portrays the debate in a balanced way that not simply puts the parties on equal ground (despite the dearth of scientists who disagree with climate change), but removes the exigency of global warming.

To respond to this misrepresentation by the media, Oliver presents his own “Statistically Representative Climate Change Debate,” wherein the host pits 97 scientists who believe in climate change against 3 denialists. The results, predictably, are overwhelming.

But while Oliver does an excellent job of demonstrating what the consensus actually looks like, the problem still remains: how do we transition from a scientific consensus to responsible political action?

The answer, at least in part, comes from creating exigence where it matters most: the American public. Lingering doubts over a lack of scientific proof simply cloud the ever-warming water, while also foregrounding the importance that we, as a country, have grown to place on scientific proof. Unlike a lab experiment, this is science on a global scale, and what constitutes “Capital P Proof” becomes less clear across each additional incident and circumstance.

Creating exigence for the need for climate change legislation, then, becomes the most important issue, because Proof—that is, evidence that is scientifically and mathematically unassailable—is likely never going to come. It’s up to us, the constituents, the taxpayers, the non-scientific community, to come together and demonstrate exigence through unity, through the vote, and through our collective voice.

And remember, if polled, always say yes to climate change, even if you say no to hats.


If you want to know more:

  • For an idea of what the “normal” televised climate debate looks like, here’s a link between scientist Bill Nye and “climate realist” Marc Morano which is exemplifies the typical 1 on 1 portrayal that Oliver is trying to combat with his statistically significant debate:
  • Naomi Oreskes, a history of science and earth science professor at Harvard University, has written an excellent article on the scientific consensus, wherein she discusses the ways the scientists have trouble articulating the consensus, while basically proving the consensus’ existence. The article, titled “The Scientific Consensus: How Do We Know We’re Not Wrong” can be found in the book Climate Change: What It Means for Us, Our Children, and Our Grandchildren, edited by Joseph F.C. DiMento and Pamela Doughman.
  • For more information on rhetorical exigence, see Loyd Bitzer’s “The Rhetorical Situation” where he first mentions exigence in his definition of a rhetorical situation: “Let us regard rhetorical situation as a natural context of persons, events, objects, relations, and an exigence which strongly invites utterance” and later as a factor that “amounted to an imperative status” (5).

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