A modest proposal for modesty in the global warming debate

One ground rule for intellectual debate is acknowledging that honest agents of goodwill can disagree. This is a simple and necessary requirement, which most of us consent to, at least formally.

Nevertheless, it is sometimes difficult to concede that our intellectual adversaries may, like us, be individuals who are honourable and principled. That their intelligence, experience, and imagination compels them to conclusions which differ from ours is frequently a difficult pill to swallow.

Nowhere is this simple truth more starkly exemplified than in the climate change debate. From the beginning, it has been marked by that unseemly rancor and ill-will we most often associate with religious disputation.

Among the apologists for anthropogenic global warming (AGW), there is a regrettable tendency to attack the character of their opponents, rather than answer their objections. For defenders of AGW, the default mode of responding to critics has tended to either a smug condescension or outright ridicule. Anyone who dares take issue with, for example, the holy writ of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, must be either cognitively impaired or morally suspect, doubtless in the pay of some disreputable organization.

Moreover, in the eyes of the alarmists, skeptics are not only factually wrong, but are deeply wicked and immoral, deserving of righteous and horrible punishments. Here, for example, is the British journalist, George Monbiot: “… every time someone dies as a result of floods in Bangladesh, an airline executive should be dragged out of his office and drowned.”

Not to be outdone, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, denigrates those who would stray from climate change orthodoxy: “They are people who deny the link between smoking and cancer; they are people who say that asbestos is as good as talcum powder – I hope that they apply it to their faces every day.”

This childish rant is unworthy of a man charged with his responsibilities. As the chair of the IPCC, Mr. Pachauri ‘s hyperbolic tirade impoverishes the general discourse around climate change, not least by licensing others to engage in such hot-headed outbursts.

But self-righteousness and vitriol is not confined to the defenders of AGW. Skeptics have also been guilty of extremist rhetoric and over-the-top comments. For example, Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma maintains that the threat of catastrophic global warming is the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”

Neither side, it would seem, has a monopoly on intemperate pronouncements. Too frequently, the climate change “debate” has resembled a dialogue of the deaf. What is most needed — by both the public and politicians — is a cant-free debate about the truth and the evidence of climate change. Let me suggest two crucial steps to a more civil debate.

First, the dogmatic assertion that the science around anthropogenic climate change is “settled” or that there is a “consensus” view among climate scientists needs to be laid to rest. These claims are the source of much bitterness and bad thinking, and both are demonstrably false.

What is true is that a majority of climate scientists believe that climate change is the result of anthropogenic causes. A 2007 study by Bray and Von Storch found that of the hundreds of climate scientist surveyed, about two-thirds agreed that the climate was changing due to man-made causes. This is a noteworthy majority.

But a majority is not the same thing as a consensus. Approximately a third of scientists disagreed that the climate was changing due to anthropogenic causes, or else believed that we lack sufficient evidence to make such a claim. This is a significant minority. It includes the eminent physicist Freeman Dyson, as well as senior climatologists such as Richard Lindzen and Roy Spencer. Antonino Zichichi, president of the World Federation of Scientists states, “models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are incoherent and invalid from a scientific point of view”.

Quite simply, there are numerous scientists who pose serious challenges to the majority view , and whose views about the shortcomings of climate science cannot be airbrushed away or attributed to their being corporate shills. They may, of course, be wrong. But if they are, then their opponents need to show why they are wrong. It is not enough to hurl insults.

Secondly, the notion that those who disagree with the majority opinion about global warming are therefore enemies of the environment is scurrilous. There is nothing contradictory about being passionate about the environment and skeptical about AGW. Many skeptics are ardent environmentalists who find the evidence for AGW unconvincing. Some, like Bjorn Lomborg, think that while AGW is real, it distracts from far more pressing environmental causes which are far less costly to solve — in both political and fiscal terms. Others, like Fred Singer, believe that “It’s not automatically true that warming is bad. I happen to believe that warming is good, and so do many economists.” Still others, such as Judith Curry, believe the jury is still out, so that any large-scale restructuring of how we produce and consume energy is premature.

As the great Canadian physician Sir William Osler once noted, “the greater the ignorance, the greater the dogmatism.” It is a useful adage for the climate debate. When it comes to such a multifaceted and protean field as climate science, we need to concede that there are knowledgeable and honourable scientists who take various and contradictory views. Consensus is a useful term in the political sphere, but less helpful when imported into science. Scientists present their ideas with the understanding that their ideas are to be challenged. What ideally should follow is rigourous and open discussion based on a free exchange of information.

Admittedly, finding merit in the views of those who are on the opposite side of a debate can be discomfiting. It is psychologically gratifying dividing the world into black and white. Such a Manichean division assures us that we are on the side of the angels, while our opponents lack those intellectual and moral virtues we ourselves so obviously and abundantly possess. If only they had read the same books as us, or had our experience, or were as ethical and caring as we are, or were more discerning in their judgments, they would doubtless be more reasonable about climate science, which is to say they would agree to see things our way.

The very possibility of having a scientifically informed public conversation requires that all sides be given a fair hearing. When considering competing claims about climate science, it is helpful to keep in mind the ancient motto of Great Britain’s Royal Society, Nullius in Verba, or “nobody’s word is final.” It is in effect a plea for tolerating opposing views. Doubtless when it comes to climate science, we can all agree that we should do the right thing. The problem, as ever, lies in knowing what, exactly, that is.

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