“I doubt that many people question the truth of climate change because they truly find the science inconclusive.”
Quite a few people wrote to me to dispute this claim, saying that the science is not settled, there is still room for doubt that climate change is a problem that we need or can do anything about.
In response to these people, I take back my claim – there are obviously a significant number of people who do find the science inconclusive, and who have real doubts about the trustworthiness of the mainstream scientific community and their declarations regarding climate change.
As I said to my friend in the record shop, who is a scientist, I’m not a “believer.” I don’t espouse quasi-religious faith in climate change science, or in scientists (sorry, Neal). I’m open to the idea that reasonable questions and challenges can be addressed to the scientists who maintain that climate change is real and caused in significant part by human activity.
But I’m also happy to leave this discussion to the scientists, and to show what I consider to be rational and friendly (rather than blind or mystical) faith in their expertise. Right now, the Climate Change Commission and a large majority of scientists agree on the reality of climate change, and that’s good enough for me. It has to be, because I know I don’t have the scientific training to look into the science directly. To attempt to assess all the evidence for myself would be a mistake that would be likely to lead me into confusion and false conclusions – I’m humble enough to recognise my limits in this regard.
Contemporary science is a highly complex and interdependent form of knowledge. It is not something that each individual can assess independently, making his or her mind up based on direct experience and individual use of reason. This is another reason why climate change science should not be treated as if it were a religion.
In the case of religious or moral knowledge, it is legitimate and important for each individual to make up their own mind, based on their own interpretation of teachings, use of reasoning powers and reflection on direct experience. While the support of good friends is essential for anyone’s personal ripening and not everyone is at the same level development, you have to seek spiritual enlightenment or grace for yourself, you can’t delegate that task. Similarly you have to make moral decisions for yourself, otherwise they’re not fully moral.
Everyone is capable of making moral judgments about climate change, even if only a few of us are qualified to make scientific judgments about it. More that this, we are all obliged to address the moral challenge posed by climate change, and I think the volume of debate about it shows that many people feel this keenly. This issue raises important questions about how we relate to one another, and how we operate as a moral and political community (or interacting series of communities). It also raises the question of how we relate to the authority of science.
I think it is this last question, about the authority of science, that underlies the splitting of speakers on climate change into opposing camps of believers and skeptics. To my mind, this suggests that for both sides, science is taken to be a new form of religion, to be defended or challenged in the same way that a religious faith might be. This is where I see people on both sides of the debate making a crucial error. Modern science is not religion (or it's an "inverse cripple" form of religion, to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche).
No matter how strong the science on climate change is or becomes, it will never give us the answers to moral questions about how to communicate about it, how to respond to it personally, or how to shape collective identities with the power to do something effective about it at local, national and global levels. On these sorts of questions, I agree that the science is inconclusive.