Friday, June 10, 2011

Is climate change science inconclusive?

In my Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece on climate change I wrote:

“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.


markz said...

Sorry, but if you believe electrons exist (and how can you prove that) the same process tells you anthrpogenic climate change exists.

It would be nice if we could just talk nicely to deniers and the problem would be solved. How many influential people from Amy pankhurst, Nehru gahndi, Amrtin Luther King et al have been told "don't upset anyone, it will make you're quest harder", and how many of them knew that approach would get them nowhere.

Deniers need to be held rsponsible for the effects they will inflict on future generations.

Juzzeau said...

I'm not suggesting that anyone should stop talking about climate change because it's upsetting. But I do think that upsetting people should only be a by-product, not the aim of the discussion. I believe that anger does drive quite a lot of activism, but not the most effective or sustainable forms.

Jason said...

Thanks for this. But I need some clarification. Are you making a dichotomy between people who can understand a given scientific issue and people who can't? If so, it's worth considering that any scientific issue is made up of lots of details, and a generally well-educated person might be able to understand (and judge) many of the details even if not all of them. And I think this can be important.

There's a possibility that disclaiming any authority on scientific issues is more to do with laziness than with ignorance!

markz said...

"I believe that anger does drive quite a lot of activism"

Hmmm, from a philospher an equivocal. means nothing, statement I'm afraid.

It may be true, I can see that some of those who can perceive the implications of the warning we are getting from reputable scientists are angered that it is accpetable to say "well if you upset my view of reality I will deny your right to do so".

But could you quantify how those who disagree with denialists are responsible for the reinforcing the denislist position by exposing "anger" (and how this "anger" is manifest?)

Jason said...

Hi, markz. I don't think Juzzeau said that "those who disagree with denialists are responsible for the reinforcing the denislist position".

BTW, if you like Martin Luther King, you might like this, if you don't already know it:

Anonymous said...

I just read Friday's bit in the SMH and came here to state that the people I know who do not agree with climate change do so on the basis that they find the science totally unconvincing. However it seems I have been beaten to the punch. So I will comment on your comment to those comments.

It is wrong for you to say that you have to believe the scientists because you recognise that you are ill-qualified to decide for yourself. Views like this are a big part of the problem. Just like you don't need to be a textile technologist to realise the emperor has no clothes, it is easy to see through the so-called climate change science if you put in the effort (dare I say the moral effort).

You, my friend, are being lazy. There are many many scientists that are not on board with this nonsense. A good indication of this is that we are all being told now that only "climate scientists" are able to talk on this authoritatively. What a load of garbage. Saying 97% of climate scientists agree with anthropogenic climate change is exactly the same as saying 97% of marxists think socialism is a good idea, or 97% of keynesian economists agree with John Maynard Keynes.

Wake up and smell the roses. This is a crock, and the sooner it is dropped, the better for all of us. There are real problems out there to worry about.


Peter said...

As far as I can see, most of the lifestyle changes demanded of us by climate change (however caused) are morally desirable ones, and the message I hear (though there may be others) from those who would deny climate change seems to be just that we should be able to carry on as usual.

Climate change is a threat to unbridled capitalism and consumerism, so of course those who stand to gain from either or both will tend to have strong motivations for denying or downplaying it.

Even if the science was proven to be wrong I'm not sure it would make any difference to my belief that reducing our energy consumption is a good thing ...

Anonymous said...

I can't let this sort of brainless talk go on without challenge. Peter, could you please explain why it is that the lifestyle changes demanded of us by climate change (however caused) are morally desirable? And while you are at it, what exactly the problem is with unbridled capitalism and consumerism. Has it occurred to you that not everyone agrees with these sentiments? You can't make statements like that without some sort of logic to back it up.


Juzzeau said...

Hi Jason and Fred, thanks for your comments. It is possible I'm being a bit lazy! But in commenting that I know my own limits as far as analysing scientific evidence for climate change I was thinking of people like Alan Jones, who it seems to me are getting sucked in by false arguments (not to say that there aren't any more credible ones around), and are too arrogant to realise that they're out of their depth.

Regarding the comparison between the commitment of scientists to climate change and that of marxists to socialism, a big part of my argument is concerned with challenging this. I don't think that the conventions of science are the same as those that guide commitment to political or religious positions, and nor should they be. To suggest that the work of climate change scientists is equivalent to the work of adherents to a political ideology is a mistake, in my view.

Markz, my comments about activism come out of conversations with friends who are environmental activists, not from philosophical speculation. To disagree with skepticism about climate change is not in itself any sign of anger, but to call someone who is skeptical a "denier" or "denialist" seems aggressive to me (as just one example). I'm not saying you or other people shouldn't be angry, but I am suggesting that the energy of anger needs to be transformed before it can become politically useful.

Juzzeau said...

Hello again Markz, I had some more thoughts about what you're saying. Maybe we're talking at cross-purposes. I wonder if you feel that I have unfairly attacked the very people I should be supporting - ie the ones who not only believe that climate change is real but are prepared to get up and do something about it. If I gave the impression I was criticising these people, I'm sorry about that. I have a lot of admiration for this kind of commitment.

My point was not to attack the kind of belief that motivates positive action. Rather I was dismayed by the amount of personal attacks that were creeping into the debate (admittedly more from the side of those who question the climate change science) and was advocating that we try to shift the tone of the discussion to focus it on promoting cooperation and effective action.

Anonymous said...

Hi all. The problem with people being motivated to get up and do something about the climate change that they so passionately believe in is that the thing they they want to do is to convince the government to do something to me. This is immoral and offensive to me. I have no problem if people who believe in climate change want to drive Priuses and stick solar panels on their rooves. Go for it I say. But leave me out of it please. I am far from alone in being one of the people that know without any shadow of a doubt that this whole anthropogenic climate change thing is absolute nonsense and for that reason I hope you can understand why I am justifiably very angry. You discuss political activism. What exactly do you suggest I (and people like me) do? The government and the media have this whole symbiotic thing going whereby to justify their own existence they (the government) must be continuously doing things to people. It is one thing to convince the government to add new laws and taxes - that's what they love to do. Getting the government to NOT do something is is a much harder task. Those in government are so addicted to power that they cannot bring themselves to lay off. I am being shafted again by a government (and media) full of idiots and I am certainly very angry about it.

Anonymous said...

Hi Juzzeau. I think I understand your point about differentiating between science and idealistic commitment however I do think there is a hint of naivety in your argument. It would be nice to think that scientists are completely value-free and assess only scientific evidence without any ideology intervening however this is pretty clearly not the case. In fact I think my analogy is spot on. The fact that institutions have now invented the "climate scientist" and the "environmental science degree" speaks volumes. How many of these new climate scientists do you think are anti-human-induced-climate change? In my kitchen at work the other day a young lawyer told me that she knew human induced climate change it was true because she learned about it in her environmental science degree (I thought, but didn't say, "of course you did dear"). These people are not in their offices and labs doing their science free of any ideological bent. To think otherwise is certainly naive. 77,000 scientists in the USA have signed a petition saying that the science that supports AGW has no basis in fact. It is easy to find papers and even youTube clips of well credentialed scientists such as Ian Plimer, Bob Carter, Richard Linzden who explain in detail why it is wrong. I personally know a handful of experienced scientists who say the science that is behind this stuff is dodgy. It is beyond me as to how people can reject these experts out of hand but then be climbing over one another to believe other scientists whose only evidence lies in computer models that predict the future - models mind you that for every year since their inception have been spectacularly wrong. The only explanation is that they have a desire, if not a psychological need, to believe it. In fact I challenge all of you to consider carefully if you might fall into this category. This is one of my main contentions. People like me are fighting against the tide, not because we are wrong (there is no doubt that we are right) but because there are just too many people, including in the government, the media and those in their comfortable middle class do-gooder personas that are heavily invested in this AGW stuff being correct. If this were not the case, those like Juzz, who admit to not being equipped to assess it, should fall evenly on both sides of the argument, but they don't. Those that can't or don't want to put the effort in to draw their own conclusion seem to fall heavily on the believer side.

Juzzeau said...

Hi Fred, you mention the investment the government and other people have in regulating society, but surely the greatest vested interests are in maintaining the status quo, not seeking costly and difficult change. This is an argument that tells against those who resist the evidence for climate change, not in their favour.

You might want to consider the work of Naomi Orestes, a science historian who shows how the dissensus on climate change has been manufactured for political reasons. Even if you agree with the politics of the people who are distorting and disputing the science, surely you can't endorse their methods. It doesn't do libertarians any credit to be associated with this kind of thing.

Juzzeau said...

Sorry, that should have been Naomi Oreskes.

She has a book called Merchants of Doubt, co-authored with Erik Conway. There's also an article by her in the April/May 2011 issue of Cosmos magazine.

Peter said...

Assuming that the earth's resources are finite, which I would have thought was a fair assumption, and given that even at present they are unequally shared, then surely there is a strong case for those of us who can reducing our consumption in order that both those who share the world with us now and those who come in the future will have the possibility of getting their fair share ?

So, as I said earlier, whether the science of climate change is correct or not, the changes it demands of us are surely ones which are ultimately to the benefit of all - both those living now and those generations still to come ?