Thursday, December 03, 2009

An open letter to so-called 'climate change skeptics'

As I've been posting recently on climate change-related issues, I've been getting a lot of flak from wingnuts who are claiming that climate change is a cult, some kind of a modern environmentalist religion, bent on encouraging reckless and unnecessary governmental interventions into the economy and society. More recently, the denialists have felt emboldened by the revelation that a few scientists at the Hadley climate research unit in Britain have been fooling around with some of their data. They claim that this represents the "nail in the coffin of anthropogenic climate change". They claim, further, that it is they, the climate change deniers, who are in fact the true bearers of the properly skeptical scientific method, whereas all the thousands of other actual scientists who have been involved in climate research for decades are just a bunch of socialist conspirators.

Now, in general it's a waste of time to argue with people who are ignorant, insane, or deliberately mendacious -- which are really the only three possible ways to explain these opinions. But since this political movement is feeling its oats this week, I think it's worth writing an open letter to the self-styled "climate change skeptics." Here goes:
I should begin by confessing: I was a skeptic for many many years myself -- for most of the 1990s, in fact. I just didn't think that the puny human race could possibly affect something as mighty as the planetary climate. Could we humans actually be a geologic force? It seemed absurd on its face.

Then I sat down and actually read the third IPCC report (2001). Have any of you high-minded "skeptics" have actually read any of the IPCC Reports, or any other serious climate science studies? (Or do you learn all your "science" from the op-ed pages of the WSJ and talk radio? Just askin'.) If not, I recommend it. Because I have to tell you, it's impossible to read that report and come away unconvinced that our fossil fuel-based civilization faces anything other than a very serious long-term problem with the climate.

In truth, I would mainly feel sorry for you skeptics, if your political effect weren't so pernicious. It's like you're a bunch of kids sitting on the beach who've built a huge sand castle at the water's edge at low tide. Along comes another kid who says -- hey, you guys are going to have a serious problem when the tide comes in. It's not "dogma" or "religion" on his part that makes him say that. Nor does it make you clever to argue that the parents disagree about just how high the tide is going to be; or to holler about the local fisherman lied last week about the tidal schedule; or to tell your little brother, who's crying about the impending doom to his castle, that a "tidal wave" isn't actually caused by tides; or even to observe that the local tides have been a lot lower than expected the last few days. All those sorts of argument -- which are precisely the kind that you deniers generally make -- is mere sophistry, and it would be simply laughable if the problem weren't so serious.

But it is serious, and you guys are a bunch of ostriches.

Let's be absolutely direct: the statement that human civilization faces a very serious long-term climate problem isn't a matter of dogma, and it isn't religion -- even if, as you rightly point out, some people treat it as such. Rather, it's simply a matter of reading the evidence. That evidence is incredibly broad-based, and has been produced by literally thousands of scientists working in more than a dozen fields, ranging from atmospheric chemistry to glaciology to palynology to ecology to archaeology.

Are there some liars and frauds among these? No doubt. Are there a few individual credentialed scientists who deny the theory of climate change wholesale? No doubt. But that proves literally nothing about the collective body of evidence -- a body which points entirely in the same direction, even if all the precise feedback mechanisms of this incredibly complex thing called "the climate" are not fully understood in all their interrelated detail.

The bottom line is simple: if humans keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at the rising rate we're doing now, then the planet's climate is going to change as radically as it did at the end of the Pleistocene. Will that mean the end of homo sapiens? Highly unlikely. Will it mean the end of modern civilization? Almost certainly.

Now, with that said, there's plenty of room for debate about what is to be done about this challenge, who should do it, how fast it needs to be done, and so on. I'm actually with Bjorn Lomborg (and if you don't know who he is and what he says, then you don't even belong in this conversation) on a lot of his criticism of the more alarmist wing of the climate change debate.

But to deny the fact of anthropogenic climate change itself is criminally insane or ignorant.
In truth, allowing deniers to have a voice in the policy debate about what to do about climate change makes as much sense as allowing Christian Scientists to have a voice in health care reform. Alas, there's a huge constituency that desperately wants to believe that climate change science is bunk, because they (very rightly, in my opinion) realize that dealing seriously with GHG emissions will require dismantling or at least radically scaling back their fossil-fuel-intensive way of life. But that motivation doesn't make their beliefs honorable, much less correct.


Anonymous said...

I'm skeptical that "climate change" is happening, or that it's human caused, yet I'm neither insane nor mendacious. No, I haven't read the IPCC report. But I understand computer modeling and I understand GIGO. The models that we have today can't even predict next week's or next year's climate, let alone the next century's. Give us a model whose predictions actually come true and I'll come a lot closer to believing you understand the climate. (And make that model and its input datasets openly published -- so that anyone can rerun the "experiment" on their own computers -- or doesn't the scientific method require that any more?)

Anonymous said...

claiming that the world will end unless the entire public does exactly what you say, is getting pretty tiresome. Howabout I get to be the dictator for awhile?

Or maybe climate scientists just think we should pour resources into climate scientists. That other stuff about destroying the modern economy, they don't really care about that, it's just liberal nutjobs "reacting to" their publications.

John said...

"claiming that the world will end unless the entire public does exactly what you say..."

He didn't say that and I'm not gonna quote what he said. And this is really what this whole thing's all about. Some people who are so chickenshit that they're afraid to read. Don't wanna read, don't read. If you know jack, shut the fuck up.