Don’t talk to me about the science of climate change

We are often presented with so called ‘controversies’ in the media. That is, public disagreement by our politicians, journalists and ‘experts’ on what the truth is about one particular issue. Our instinct, when public figures flatly contradict one another, is to conduct our own research, weighing up all the evidence and counter-evidence, and decide for ourselves. This is a perfectly valid response. In fact for most controversial news items (e.g. weapons of mass destruction in Iraq) I’d argue that it is the only appropriate response. However, some issues, some controversies, are different, and climate change is one of them.

Questions of whether global warming is occurring, and whether human activity is the main cause, are at their heart scientific inquiries. The process of weighing up evidence, testing hypotheses and coming to sensible conclusions is complex for any modern science, but especially so when it involves the huge, multifaceted natural system of the Earth’s climate. The people suited to pursue this process are published scientists working in or near the field of climatology. People not suited to it include politicians, journalists, fiction authors, and members of the general public. It is thus problematic when members of the non-scientific public believe they are equipped to research and google their own answers to the question of anthropogenic climate change – particularly because evidence on such a large and controversial topic can be cherry-picked to suit any pre-decided position.

So when determining the truth is the task of scientists, and determining the politics is the task of the public, it is our responsibility to decide which scientists we should believe, and how many scientists saying the same thing are necessary to for us to do something about it. This brings me to the burden of proof.

If a large majority of the world’s climatologists and scientific organisations agree that humans are a major factor in global warming, the burden of proof is not on ‘believers’ to show that they are right. Instead, the burden is on ‘sceptics’1 to show that the majority of scientists are wrong, or even that ‘there is no consensus’. On that last point, I will now move to my argument that there is substantial evidence for believing that there is a scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change.

As we all know, there exist numerous individual scientists who both agree and disagree with the premise that humans are causing global warming. An effective way to gauge both the number and credibility of these individual scientists is to canvass the positions of the scientific organisations to which they belong. Scientific organisations and societies are beholden on the work and membership of individual scientists, and as such their positions generally reflect the views of their members.

With that in mind, here follows a sample of the list of scientific organisations/ bodies that agree that humans are a contributing factor to global warming:

In the interest of balance, I also searched for scientific organisations that disagree with the consensus. Here is all I could find: the George C. Marshall Institute, the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine, the Science & Environmental Policy Project, the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Global Climate Coalition, and the Greening Earth Society.

Of these, the Marshall Institute is a conservative think tank highly criticised by Science historian Naomi Oreskes (a speech of hers here  – watch from 29:20 onwards). The Oregon Institute was the originator of the flawed Oregon Petition on climate change (some of petition’s flaws, discovered by Scientific American, can be found archived here). The Science & Environmental Policy Project is a research and advocacy group founded by discredited atmospheric physicist Fred Singer. The American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which previously rejected the likelihood of anthropogenic climate change, now makes a non-committal statement, and the Global Climate Coalition and the Greening Earth Society are both defunct (ironically the name ‘Greening Earth Society’ now appears to be used by a non-profit organisation that agrees with the consensus on anthropogenic climate change).

So there you go. On the one hand, a huge number of reputable scientific organisations, both international and national, which agree with the consensus, and on the other hand a small number of think tanks and advocacy groups, some linked to donations from oil companies, some mouthpieces for discredited scientists, and others now defunct.

But for the sake of argument, let us assume that humans don’t contribute to global warming. The science aside, this means that all the reputable organisations agreeing with the consensus, and listed above, are somewhere on a spectrum from ‘honestly wrong’ to ‘deliberately lying to us’. Most ‘sceptics’ would probably prefer to argue for the latter, as it is a wild stretch of the imagination to claim that so many experts, independently arriving at the same conclusion, have all bungled their science.2 So we are left with an explanation somewhere in the realm of ‘the world’s best scientific organisations are deliberately lying to us.’ While not impossible, this would still require:

Sound like a conspiracy theory yet? This isn’t to say that all of the world’s top scientific bodies are infallible, or that there won’t be some cases where individual scientists agreeing with the consensus can be found to twist their results so as to match their conclusion. It isn’t even to say that all conspiracy theories are wrong. But it is to say that the basic sceptic argument about the ‘myth’ of global warming depends upon a huge discrepancy between reality and the conclusions of the world’s top scientific bodies, a discrepancy for which at present there is simply no convincing evidence.

So unless you’re a climatologist, don’t talk to me about the science of climate change. Don’t talk to me about ice ages, sun spots, hockey stick graphs, or about how cold your last winter was. As non-scientists both of us, the climate change question is not a matter of science. Instead it is an empirical examination of who is saying what, and a political discussion of what we should do about it.

1. The language of ‘sceptics’ and ‘believers’ is both annoying and misleading: First, there is no requirement of faith needed to believe that humans are a likely contributing cause of global warming. Second, a sceptic is not someone who doubts the majority, but someone who holds all positions up to critical scrutiny. In that sense I’m a sceptic – a sceptic of the conspiracy theory that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by environmentalists.)

2. The same cannot be said of dissenting scientists – the only conclusion they can agree upon is that the consensus is wrong or based upon insufficient evidence. Dissenting scientists have themselves widely differing views about what is causing global warming.

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