It is to my great shame that I confess to being a climate change skeptic. I say this with the knowledge that it is quite fashionable, these days, to style a self-proclaimed skeptic as a pariah and to castigate him for his alleged ignorance and contempt for nature. Open and honest dialogue is frustrated in this environment and generally devolves into inflammatory rhetoric and one-upmanship.
It’s not uncommon for climate change apologists to mislabel skeptics as climate change deniers. I’ll say here at the outset that I am not denying the possibility that human action might cause disruptions in the global climate. I do however strongly question the present and future severity of the issue and, more specifically, the ability of humans to make contemporary changes that will have any appreciable effect on future climate outcomes. It would seem, however, that there are some critics who are pathologically incapable of distinguishing my position with one of an impassioned denier.
Nevertheless, present circumstances lead me to make this public declaration. Were it only a matter of scientific debate, the anthropogenic climate change hypotheses would, as other scientific questions, be relegated mostly to the realm of academia and sundry dinner party conversation. As it is, the tempestuous dispute thus inspired is really only tangentially scientific, and more a debate of government policy and social ordering. Any scientific claim that inspires frenzied appeals to government force, no matter how daunting or persuasive is worth at least a second consideration.
I cannot claim to have always been a skeptic. Not long ago, in the years following the release of An Inconvenient Truth, I was a firm believer, on my way to being a dyed-in-the-wool global warming evangelist. The signs pointed to impending calamity and my anxiety on the matter was severe, to the point of actually being kept up at night on a number of occasions. I distinctly remember speaking on the phone with my best friend on the subject and telling him that I was afraid that the global society would not heed the warning signs until it was too late and that I had come to the conclusion that government action, i.e. force, was desperately needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
I say this because I am sympathetic to those who experience dread at their conclusion that climate change is spiraling out of control and that it is the fault of humans, who in their greed and ignorance have violated the delicate balance on our planet and are doomed if we do not repent and change our ways. The arguments are convincing and the problems are overwhelmingly large. The fear rhetoric is, in my mind, the biggest obstacle to a truly honest debate. My perspective on the matter shifted when I was able to look past the apocalyptic foreboding and recognize two critical issues within the greater debate: firstly, that some participants were acutely misunderstanding or blatantly misrepresenting the role and abilities of science, and secondly, the frankly horrible track record that governments have in correctly diagnosing and solving large scale social problems.
The Loaded Question: “Do You Believe in Climate Change?”
I hate this question because it is vague and not generally used to preface a debate on the merits of various data sets or climate models, but rather to sort the recipient into a particular social caste as defined by the questioner.
As John Stossel has pointed out, it’s really multiple questions:
- Is climate change occurring?
- To what extent is the climate changing?
- Are humans completely or mostly responsible for the changes?
- Should governments utilize force to attempt a reversal?
The first question is actually the least important, though I believe that most stakeholders on both sides believe that this is the crux of the debate.
It’s not important because the answer is obvious: of course climate change is occurring. The climate is always changing. It has changed in various and often quite dramatic fashions in the past and will continue to change dramatically until our sun is ultimately extinguished.
The earth has gone through extreme cycles of warming periods and ice ages. Tectonic action and erosion have moved landmasses and seas; what used to be an ocean is now a desert, what is now the Antarctic continent was once subtropical.
People ask the first question, but what they mean are the following three. When some question the last three, they are accused of rejecting the first one.
The Proper Role of Science
“[W]e have to act with more urgency, because a changing climate is already harming western communities struggling with drought, and coastal cities dealing with floods. The shift to a cleaner energy economy won’t happen overnight, and it will require tough choices along the way. But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children’s children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safer, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say, ‘Yes, we did.’”
– President Obama, State of the Union, January 28, 2014
Climate change is a highly complex natural phenomenon. The debate with respect to the mechanisms or extent of change is not “settled”. It never will be settled. No scientific principle period ever has or ever will be settled, at least not in the sense of the traditional usage of the word.
Science cannot be used to prove anything. This is not due to technological or experimental limitations, or due to any lack of creativity on the part of scientists, but is an inherent weakness of inductive reasoning. Scientific assertions can only be supported by evidence or they can be disproven. Even tried-and-true laws, such as that objects with mass are always attracted to one another through gravity, may one day be disproven. It’s not at all likely to happen, but the law of gravity is only true insofar as we observe it to be true, and our observations are extremely limited and often crude.
Anthropogenic climate change models do not come remotely close to achieving the level of substantiation or precision as other scientific theories. Good theories must have not only explanatory but also predictive value. Climatologist Roy Spencer points out the failure of any climate model to accurately predict the tropical tropospheric temperature fluctuations. Other climate change hypotheses of natural sources have been offered, such as the cosmic ray theory, solar output, volcanic and tectonic activity, and magnetic field variation. That these and other explanations are so flippantly disregarded seems to indicate that the politically correct climate scientists care more about reputation and grant money than honest debate.
Theories of all kinds are constantly being modified or abandoned altogether. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn identifies scientific paradigms and how scientists adhere to the paradigm du jour until a fresh perspective on the evidence prompts a paradigm shift; the most recognizable example being the Copernican revolution from a geocentric model of the universe to a heliocentric model. Kuhn writes:
“Scientists work from models acquired through education and through subsequent exposure to the literature often without quite knowing or needing to know what characteristics have given these models the status of community paradigms.”
In other words, prevailing paradigms are often taken for granted. Scientists, good ones, should always be skeptical of prevailing paradigms. A vital part of science is to question assumptions to avoid the crippling vice of confirmation bias. This is not to say that every skeptical scientist will disprove every model or theory or shift every paradigm, but that without skeptics and contrarians, the discipline of science is severely weakened.
When the president says, “…the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact,” or when climate scientist Michael Mann (inventor of the “hockey stick” graph) writes pejoratively of skeptics as “a fringe minority,” they are being decidedly anti-scientific. The history of science is marked by such figures as Galileo, Wegener, Darwin, and Mendel; men who were at first criticized or derided, but whose theories eventually gained general acceptance. Perhaps today’s so-called climate skeptics will one day have their alternative hypotheses held up as superior. Or perhaps they are mistaken and the likes of Mann and Al Gore do have it right after all. In either case their skepticism serves a vital balancing function in science. I’m not saying that climate skeptics are necessarily in the same camp as Galileo, but that the possibility that they are should inspire a more temperate discussion.
The statistic shown in the opening image is devoid of scientific meaning. That a majority of peer-reviewed papers assert the primacy of anthropogenic global warming does not, by itself, make it a superior theory or prove that it is true. It is merely a reflection of the current climatological paradigm in which we currently find ourselves. That which makes one theory superior to another is not that a greater number of scientists adhere to it, but that it explains the data better and has superior predicative power than its competitors. That the prevailing climate models are thus far wildly out of sync with reality suggests that alternative theories proposed by the “fringe minority” should at least be considered.
When climate scientist Judith Curry was called out by Michael Mann following her Senate testimony earlier this year, she responded with the following:
“Since you have publicly accused my Congressional testimony of being ‘anti-science,’ I expect you to (publicly) document and rebut any statement in my testimony that is factually inaccurate or where my conclusions are not supported by the evidence that I provide.
During the Hearing, Senator Whitehouse asked me a question about why people refer to me as a ‘contrarian.’ I said something like the following: Skepticism is one of the norms of science. We build confidence in our theories as they are able to withstand skeptical challenges. If instead, scientists defend their theories by calling their opponents names, well that is a sign that their theories are in trouble.”
The last thing I’ll write about scientific theories is this: data points do not prove anything. It is common to see media outlets jump on any noteworthy or idiosyncratic weather event as “caused by” or “proof of” the reality of anthropogenic climate change. These claims appear legitimate because they are difficult to argue against. When one claims that Hurricane Katrina was caused by excessive warming in the Atlantic brought about by greenhouse gas emissions created by the combustion of fossil fuels over the past century, what can you say? It is impossible to know whether Katrina would have occurred or been as strong as it otherwise would have had fossil fuels not been burned in the amounts they have since the Industrial Revolution. The strength of these arguments lies in their obscurity and the ignorance of their audience.
The weakness of these arguments can be found anytime we find discrepant climate events from Earth’s past that occurred before large-scale fossil fuel combustion. The Great Hurricane of 1780 was at least as powerful as Katrina. When claims are made that California is in its worst drought in 500 years or that global temperatures are at their highest point in the past 125,000 years, it means that 500 or 125,000 or whatever years ago conditions were more extreme before industrialization.
This of course does not disprove the anthropogenic hypothesis, but I hope that it demonstrates the need for such a hypothesis to rely on statistical trends rather than media-hyped extreme weather events.
Scientific Studies and Money
It seems that whenever a public figure advocates a free-market alternative to some government policy that they will be met with the same scathing critique: “THE KOCH BROTHERS!” Yes, if you are a climate scientist whose conclusions do not support massive government intervention, your argument is invalid because you must be funded by the Koch brothers. For whatever reason (it doesn’t matter at this point) it’s always the Koch’s. This is bad because the Koch’s only care about money and they hate poor people, obviously; just look at their smug faces! This is the favorite logical fallacy of leftist authoritarians, an ad hominem, red herring, and reductio ad absurdum all rolled into one. Even I was once accused of being a Koch-funded shill on a comment thread on some article during the last election cycle (I’m sure it won’t be the last time, though sadly, to date, I’ve yet to receive that check). It’s a poor position to argue from because of the ease with which it can be turned around.
The problem I have with a lot of anthropogenic climate change studies is that they are at least partially funded by government bureaus. While it’s true that the Koch’s and big oil companies have funded what might be called “climate skeptic studies”, the money so far invested pales in comparison to government money poured into what might be called the “anthropogenic climate change machine”.
This article cites a study that shows that from 2003-2010, groups that cast doubt on global warming brought in $7.2 billion dollars, much of it untraceable. This untraceable special-interest “dark money”, it has been claimed, gives an undue advantage to unscientific climate change deniers by inflating the importance or legitimacy of their claims. When looking at the actual amount of money being spent, this argument could more easily be applied to researchers and tech companies who receive funding from government grants. The Congressional Research Service found that from 2008-2012, the United States federal government spent $68.4 billion to combat climate change. Much of this money was spent on funding for scientific studies to confirm anthropogenic climate change or to subsidize technologies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This, of course, does not include the money spent by the IPCC or by non-governmental organizations.
The call for government intervention in controlling the climate is yet one more example of the failure of a plurality of policy-makers and pundits to recognize the perverse incentives they create and the unintended consequences that often negate all of their good intentions. Petroleum and coal have done more than almost any other substance at alleviating human suffering and poverty. While their combustion produces greenhouse gasses and other forms of pollution, the trade-offs are abundant, cheap energy which allows for the transportation of goods across the world; powers our means of constructing buildings for shelter and commerce; can be used for heating in place of far more polluting wood; provides electricity, which, among other things, allows us to refrigerate food to prevent spoilage and disease; allows for rapid transportation in some cases toward critical help or away from abject danger. The environment, for all its sea-level rise and extreme weather events, is not becoming more dangerous for humans to live in. On the contrary, before fossil fuels afforded us the means to control our climate indoors, humans were far more likely to die simply because winter happened.
Fossil fuels are, of course, finite, and in the future we will require alternatives to prevent a significantly diminished standard of living, if not total societal collapse. The sustainable alternatives we hear so much about (solar, wind, hydroelectric) are not yet even close to the level of efficiency, scalability, or energy output of fossil fuels. They too, have other negative tradeoffs such as greater pollution in their manufacture, the inability to provide continuous electricity, and damage to various ecosystems. Nuclear energy could substitute for much if not all of our electricity production, but of course the danger of radioactive contamination and the connection to nuclear weapons technology makes it politically unpopular at present. In the future, prices will signal a shift away from fossil fuel technology and towards alternatives, which will be more profitable and will improve dramatically.
Restricting fossil fuel use with carbon taxes and caps raises the price of readily available energy. Artificially raising commodity prices always hurts the poor to a greater extent as their purchasing power is far less elastic. Restrictive climate change legislation does not punish “evil” oil and coal tycoon billionaires so much as it hurts the poor who are forced to pay more at the pump and for electricity as well as for goods as transportation and storage costs go up. Those most at risk will be the truly impoverished in third-world nations who find they are unable to compete with wealthier societies and will not have access to the energy they require to build their economies and achieve a greater standard of living and lower mortality rate. We rich westerners often assume that radical economic policies will only cause us slight inconveniences that we, in our decadence, will easily adapt to, without considering the millions of poor foreigners who may suffer and die because we don’t fully think through all of the trade-offs (read up on DDT use and malaria deaths, for an example).
Climate change crusaders insinuate all of the human suffering and death that may befall us in a global warming catastrophe. I am a skeptic because I fear for all the unnecessary misery we may bring on ourselves if we value our good intentions more than the negative consequences of our actions. Economic history shows the latter to be an all-too-common phenomenon.