Global warming – and its associated term – climate change – is one of the most important yet divisive issues of our time. And make no mistake, both terms are scientific and a solid scientific consensus has emerged from a convergence of data from many different fields of inquiry.
Yet there are a good many people dedicated, dogmatically so, to denying various aspects of climate change. There are global warming deniers, denialists that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (or at least produces negligent atmospheric effects) and they all, therefore, share the belief that human activity is not to blame for climate change.
It is important to point out that people who deny scientific findings are denialists and not skeptics. A true skeptic adheres to the scientific method and therefore is skeptical of claims that stem from beliefs inconsistent with the science. Skepticism is a positive venture, precisely because it is about the pursuit of truth and knowledge through the scientific method.
Denialists Of All Stripes
Many denialists are in fact conspiracy theorists, and once the conspiracy belief system is swallowed then all that exists is the conspiracy. This is a common trait in all forms of denial, whether they be holocaust, aids denial or global warming. Some think science is just wrong while others take that extra few hundred miles of faith leaping to imply, or flat out claim, a grand conspiracy. And grand the conspiracy would have to be considering the amazing number of individual agents with separate spheres of influence that it would take if true. A scientists analysing ice core samples in Antarctica have very little to do with a climatologist studying rainfall and climate of the Amazon rainforest. Yet, their conclusions might feed into the same hypothesis and in fact, this is what we find when we look at their research. We will look at this in a moment. First, let’s address what global warming deniers are really saying:
- GW deniers believe their own stories are better informed than the science gathered by numerous climatology organisations, endorsed by peer review and all of the academies of science from the major industrialised nations.
- Many, not all, GW deniers dismiss the notion that, the increase of the CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere as a result of industrialisation has accelerated climate change processes.
- GW deniers cherry pick short term trends as proof that GW isn’t happening. Meanwhile, glaciers and ice shelves continue to recede at an alarming rate.
- Some GW deniers go to the extreme end of confirmation bias and distortion of facts by claiming that CO2 isn’t a greenhouse gas – they claim it has a limited radiation forcing effect. This is apparent justification to just leap in and burn as much coal and fossil fuels as we like. This claim also ignores the fact that, regardless of GW, more methane, CO2, nitrogen and sulphur oxides in the atmosphere is not a healthy thing.
- Another popular claim among GW deniers is the idea that climate change happens anyway. Yes, this is true, however, implicit in that argument is the supposition that humans have no impact on the climate change process. This is claimed despite the fact that industrialisation has changed the composition of the atmosphere dramatically. Concentrations of CO2 and methane have increased by 36% and 148% respectively since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-1700s.
- The possibility of one person knowing enough about the research that feeds into climate change theory is very slim. Yet, GW deniers seem to think they do know enough. The endeavour of one particular scientific theory maybe so all encompassing that it is impossible for one person to call themselves an expert in the field. This is a strength of science though, because research from multiple disciplines can feed into a theory – each branch contributing its own findings. It is unscientific to have hubris and think you know it all.
Climate change models are the best extrapolations we have of future climate trends. Climate models are dependent on the best data possible and therefore change as new information arises. This revision of climate models is seen as a weakness by GW deniers, so they engage in combat with nonsense arguments like “we can’t even predict the weather for tomorrow accurately (so how can we trust these climate models that are constantly changing)” . Weather is spontaneous and while predictable to an extent, the variable can change very quickly. Climate trends can be analysed and because they are long term projections, we can make informed assessments of climate data. The trend will have a saw tooth effect, the complexity of climate variables ensures that it won’t be a smooth trend, but the overall pattern, revealed by some models, shows a possible 4% warming by 2050. This would be dire for human populations as it would force mass migrations from uninhabitable zones to cooler, wetter regions.
One final word on climate models. Notice how these models require data and therefore change as better data is discovered. Notice too how the beliefs of GW deniers are not contingent on new information and therefore will seldom change. “But we’ve been in a cooling period since a peak average global temperature in 1998”. So what? This is cherry picking data from a small dataset. How can 10 years of apparent lower average global temperature represent a long term trend of global warming? There will always be fluctuations. Selecting data and saying “ha ha – gotcha” is very unscientific. This is exactly what astrologers do when describing predictions made by the stars, all the while ignoring the misses. Arguing from the fallacy of small numbers is a feature of pseudoscience.
Now is not the time to ignore the climate science. As with any science, there are detractors and the suspicions of the political motivations. It is obvious that some things will have to change and privileges lost. Many are therefore resistant to changing wasteful habits. Those profiting from fossil fuels will lose out. Humans aren’t really good at change. We get comfortable and that security blanket is hard to leave. Changing isn’t an option any longer. The best methods of knowledge gathering and testing have been applied to real world trends and have revealed a startling trend towards a dramatically different world. We turn against such knowledge at our own peril.
As I conclude this story a New Scientist article has outlined the changes Earth will undergo by 2099. The conclusions aren’t encouraging. I also found an article that also expands on this story.