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Denial is not just a river in Egypt…

May 9, 2011

So you climatologists are saying... that the future will be like Mad Max 2: escape from thunderdome? AWESOME.

There is one thing I know about global warming and that is this: It’s really really complicated. Like super complicated. It is a field that’s far too complex and wide-ranging for a non-specialist like me to get a hold of, mainly because I’m too stupid to understand it. So it’s with a healthy dose of skepticism that I listened to the Green Party leader state confidently, the other day, that “the science is settled” on man-made global warming, otherwise known as AGW.

Actually, having watched the movie, I take what I said back. Global warming is NOT COOL.

Such a statement is worrying because it betrays a disturbing lack of knowledge about science, from the leader of a party that puts science at the forefront of its mandate. Why is Caroline Lucas wrong to claim this? Well I know I’m going to sound like a b-movie villain here, but THE SCIENCE IS NEVER OVER! NEVER!!! Or in normal speak: no discipline, whether we are talking about evolutionary biology or theoretical physics can technically be “settled” because believe it or not, theories are not 100% accurate description of how the universe works. Newton got it pretty right, and Einstein went further but our knowledge concerning gravity is still not over. What the hell is dark energy? Do gravitons really exist? It seems that with every new advance there are always new questions to answer, stuff that still doesn’t quite make sense, arguments between scientists that still need to be resolved, our knowledge is constantly being refined and revised. The theory of evolution is well grounded, but within that field there are still unanswered questions. For example: what mechanism plays the biggest role in speciation, and can we take evolutionary psychology seriously? The fact is, the universe, as we know it, is exceedingly complex. There are always weird new things to explore and try to explain. Cosmologists, astronomers and astrophysicists don’t actually know what 95% of the universe is but it’s not embarrassing, there’s nothing wrong with saying “we don’t know yet”. Politicians seem to hate it. Politics need to know things with certainty and science needs to be settled. It’s a train of thought that draws upon a misconception about how Science works and reveals much about why science and politics make such awkward bedfellows. Although it might be frustrating, the gaps in our knowledge are actually awesome. These areas of mystery lead to research grants and Nobel prizes. If science weren’t about exploring the unknown then it simply wouldn’t be science. It would be a set of answers rather than a process. It would be Dogma.

Thankfully it’s not like that, climate science included. So even though climatologists are in agreement that there has been an overall trend towards warming in the past 100 years, there is still disagreement over the following things:

  • What other things might affect the earth’s climate
  • The environmental and human impact of climate change
  • How are humans responsible for changing the earth’s climate and to what extent do we contribute to global warming
  • The future
  • And much more

As you can see not everything about climate change is entirely clear. That’s not to say scientists don’t know already a lot about climate change, but there are still questions to be explored. Similar uncertainty exists among the public. However this uncertainty is vastly disproportionate to the confidence expressed by the professionals. When science becomes highly politicised, it tends to clash with how people want to think about the world. We might be generally happy to accept other areas of science if it powers their cars or allows microwaves to work, especially if it means they can holiday in Kenya without catching certain local diseases, but when the conclusions that scientists come up with not only force us to make sacrifices, but also clash with our ideological standpoint then problems arise. These vested interests are why global summits tend to fail and why when 95% of Climatologists agree that AGW is probably real, 65% of Americans doubt that mankind is responsible in any way. It’s a failure of effective communication on the part of the scientific establishment but also a failure in critical thinking.

So why is there such a discrepancy between what the professionals say and the public believe? I do not doubt that many of these people are smart, educated people. Perfectly intelligent people are perfectly capable of holding beliefs that are, unfortunately, totally wrong. (I know, I do it all the time. I’m convinced that I never ever leave the toilet seat up.) However, what the discrepancy between public opinion and scientific consensus does reveal is the extent to which our brains can deceive us, especially when confronted with something that conflicts with a strongly held worldview or belief. Even when we look at the facts we often pick and choose what we want in order to justify our belief and totally fail to look at the overall evidence for any particular idea. Picking and choosing evidence to suit your conclusion can justify all kinds of wacky ideas. This can be seen clearly in the “evolution debate” that’s been raging in the USA since…forever. The opinion is first held and a justification, that often tries to sound scientific, is later found. Both global warming deniers and believers can often fall into this trap and if you have ever held an opinion without seriously investigating it you’ve probably fallen into the trap too (hands up if you’re guilty). This tendency to believe what you want to believe is often reflected in American polls. It is perhaps no surprise that many Global Warming deniers and doubters are either of a libertarians or conservative persuasion whilst those who support the global warming consensus are often of a more Liberal bias. Here’s a diagram.

As you can see, the recent and intense efforts of the "skeptics" has done its damage.

Why is this? Well prepare yourself because i’m about to inject this article with an unhealthy dose of concentrated speculation. Libertarians don’t want the government to intervene with their lives and view politics with suspicion. Therefore it becomes plausible that the global warming is just another excuse for the government to take your money. Liberals on the other hand, are perhaps more willing to hand their money over to what they see to be worthy causes. They are also more likely to support environmental causes. Global Warming therefore fits neatly into the world-view that advocates living in harmony with the earth and not polluting it. E.g. Caroline Lucas. In both camps you see a clear divergence of opinion on global warming. It’s either a stunning coincidence or evidence that, for many people, ideology will often trumps the facts. As noted cool guy Robert J. Ringer once said:

People say they love truth, but in reality they want to believe that which they love is true.

Voltaire said:

A witty saying proves nothing.

So yeah.

Yeah I stole this from Skeptical Science. Sorry guys.

Anyway, not everyone has an ideological stake in the global warming argument. Many, me included, simply want to know the facts, irrespective of their implications. So what are they? I’ll tell you what I do know first.

Firstly, science is not about certainty. If you want to talk about certainty approach a mathematician or a philosopher. In fact, it’s more about improving our knowledge by eliminating or narrowing uncertainty. We can know things better by eliminating the alternative explanations until only the most plausible one remains and then testing that idea. Over and over again. This is why it’s so important for a theory to be falsifiable. If something cannot potentially be wrong then it cannot strictly be considered scientific. Of course there are exceptions, but in general an un-falsifiable claim is often the hallmark of pseudoscience. So when critics claim that the science behind climate change is “uncertain” they’re really making a statement about all sciences. Some areas of climate change are actually very well understood, whilst others less so. For instance we do know that:

  1. The earth has heated up to the tune of 1.5 degrees on average in the past century. This is an average. Some areas have cooled down whilst others have experienced a more intense heating effect. Climate change is probably a better term for describing this process.
  2. Climate Scientists understand a couple of the mechanisms by which heating can occur. For instance, how greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and methane can trap the sun’s heat is very well-known.
  3. There’s plenty of empirical evidence, from sources such as NASA and the ISPCC, that show that in the past century the amount of Carbon Dioxide being released into the atmosphere has seen a very large increase.  There are multiple ways of checking for these CO2 rates, you can use the international energy statistics or by looking at the studies that examine the carbon isotopes in our atmosphere. You can check again if you don’t trust these methods, by looking at what’s happening to oxygen levels. Whats happening to our O2? Well it’s falling, a consequence of burning fossil fuels. These measurements, observations, from all over the world all point to the same conclusion: that CO2 levels are rising, rapidly. Multiple independent lines of empirical evidence are the mark of legitimate science.
  4. So when you control for small fluctuations of temperature (weather is after-all, an extremely complicated thing) a correlation is clear. Mankind’s activities correlate with the overall rise in temperature. Therefore, the vast majority of climate scientists agree that global warming is not only happening but that mankind is at the very least, partially responsible.
  5. The rising temperature is already having effects. Desertification and rising sea levels are already a problem and set to become a very real threat if the warming continues. There is no reason to believe that the warming won’t continue.
  6. This is a bad thing and we should probably do something about it.

Yet despite what is well-known, some areas of climate change are less well understood. This is what climatologists might argue about and what critics and the so-called “sceptics” often hinge their arguments upon. For instance, questions remain around how much of an influence water vapour might have, the impact of the sun’s cycles, how aerosols might contribute to a cooling effect, the list goes on. What the critics often fail to understand however, is that a poorer understanding of some aspects of climate change does not invalidate what we do know. We do not understand fully how certain traits evolved in humans (for example: why we lost our hair) but to say that our lack of knowledge invalidates the entire field of evolutionary biology is absurd. The mystery that is left does, in no way, invalidate the knowledge we have gained. Ignore Thomas Kuhn, knowledge is cumulative. Of course, if you don’t like what one Climatologist is saying then you can always ask another one. In fact if you ever disagree with your doctor I’d advise you to do just that. Scientists are after all, humans, they make mistakes and some might be totally crooked. However, after asking enough experts, what you might find is that most of them will agree with each other on at least some things. In regards to climate change the majority of climatologists agree with the following statement: “the earth is warming up and it is at least partially the fault of people-kind.” This is a called a growing Scientific Consensus. There’s no conspiracy here, just climate scientists the world over, doing their job.

So I can drive one of these around as long as I don't ever have kids? AWESOME.

An important point to make is that climatology, like medicine, is now an applied science and no longer a basic one. We are forced to make decisions in the absence of perfect data because property, business, lives and the environment are all at stake. Vaccinations sometimes have to be rushed because the risk we face from not doing anything to prevent a deadly strain of flu is far greater than the risk we face from making a flawed vaccine that might have unintended side effects. We simply don’t have the benefit of time to hash out arguments and quibble over data when it comes to vaccinations and it is the same with Global Warming. Decisions have to be made now because if we wait until we are 99.99% certain of AGW it will, by definition, be too late.  After all, no-one told the melting glaciers to wait until the deniers were satisfied with examining the nuances of temperature recording and as far as I know, the Polar Bears, whose habitat is being destroyed at a remarkable rate, remain blissfully unaware of the climate change critics arguments. We don’t know everything about climate change but we know enough. Let’s do something about it.

But what to do? I believe that what must be reasonably done is to investigate the ways we can minimise AGW but at the same time not cause excessive harm by destabilising our economy or doing anything else massively drastic. It’s the illusive middle-ground that is lost in the debates between the Greens and the Deniers and which seems to create a false dichotomy of do nothing, or panic and change everything. For instance, it would be far more effective to change how countries are powered than to change the habits of billions of humans. Similarly, the truth that no one seems to want to admit is that population growth is much more of an environmental issue than what car Jason Button drives. The carbon footprint of not having children, driving a Humvee and burning oil every weekend is less than the consequences of just having a couple of kids. Of course, no-one tells you this because policy makers want to be re-elected. However, politicians are going to have to wake up to climate change because when it comes to thinking about solutions we must  have a sense of perspective. Politics, properly informed, is the way forward. Not the casual recycling of a couple of cans.

P.s. Please still recycle your cans.

Further reading:

RealClimate

Skeptical Science

and for the sake of “balance” here’s Watts up with that. A global warming denial site.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Tom R permalink
    June 1, 2010 3:57 pm

    Excellent article! Well written, with a refreshingly moderate stance.

    Keep up the good work, Mr Martin.

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