Climate Change Skeptics
Let me start off by saying that it is our ethical duty to question authority and, generally, I like skepticism. I’m a skepticism pusher. But I don’t like it when people use the label of skepticism (or science!) to promote their agenda.
Climatologists are not always going to get everything right, and both carbon activists and energy companies want us to make policy decisions based on their predictions. This is what happens when you combine the three main ingredients of ideology and praxis in the 21st century:
Climatology is a very complicated discipline steeped in complexity. As a sociologist, I am no stranger to complex causality. Sometimes you don’t know whether A caused B or B caused A. I understand that studies of complex phenomena are a collection of trends, probabilities, and assumptions.
Complexity is more than just a word meaning “diverse and interconnected causes” ; it is also a whole emerging mathematical discipline on its own (known to most moviegoers as “Chaos Theory”). Feedback systems, attractors and wave transformations play havoc with predictions. Simple predictions are just not possible; so laymen can easily draw any conclusion from the research out there now. The best example is why we changed the term “global warming” to “global climate change.” On the whole, the world is warming. On average. Some regions experience more dramatic effects, like the Larsen B ice shelf or Mt. Kilimanjaro. Some areas will actually cool. Some times of year in some areas may be dramatically warmer. Some times of year in some areas may actually be more mild. One germane example: As the oceans warm, they shed more water into the atmosphere. That can add up to a lot more snow coming down in Washington, DC. More snow in DC actually indicates a warmer climate.
The reality of an issue is as complicated as the effects of human-produced CO2 emissions on climate change is hard to explain easily.
Do our CO2 emissions cause climate change? Bad question: Even the “skeptics” agree that our CO2 emissions cause some climate changes. What proportion of climate change is due to our CO2 emissions? Bad question: Just about everything is influenced by climate change because just about everything is on the ground, in the water, or under the sky. Even Earthquakes, it turns out, may be influenced by our CO2 emissions. As glaciers melt, the earth shifts to respond to higher mass in lakes and seas and lower mass on land. After the ancient glaciers melted in North America, the ground has been rising steadily.
Anyway, you get the point.
With such complexity to the results, we see four opportunities for bias: First, advocates of any position can find evidence to support their agenda. Second, scientists get a lot of things wrong when making predictions or theories about complex systems. Third, laypeople can easily get lost in all the details, and generally only see the information the press presents. And fourth, it is easy to tweak your results when so many factors are involved.
In science, a study that is referenced more is more valuable to a researcher for tenure purposes, prestige, and grant funding. A study that gets play on CNN is more likely to be cited more (though also more likely to be critically examined). It is also more likely to be used in political advocacy for one position or another. And that’s good for the study’s authors.
At this point, the voting public probably has an enormous literacy in green tech buzzwords. Carbon capture, cap-and-trade, recycling, greenhouse effect… But unfortunately, even a fairly well-read American’s understanding of these technologies does not address what is actually going on in the environment. Carbon capture technologies reduce carbon output from smokestacks. Many middle class Americans probably have at least that level of understanding. But what does that actually do for the environment? Is it like recycling a newspaper, where the cost of not doing it is relatively low and the benefit of doing it is also relatively low? Or is it like recycling an aluminum can, where the costs are higher? Or perhaps like removing CFCs as a propellant in aerosol products — a massive benefit for a very low cost? Heck, I don’t know. But the media talks about carbon capture technology all the time.
S0me alarmists in the press cast global climate change as the end of the world. It would certainly be bad, triggering starvation, hurricanes, ecosystem collapse, and so forth — but those things are already happening. We certainly don’t want it to get any worse, but sensationalism just adds to the public perception that every scientist and every green policy advocate is also an alarmist, pulling a publicity stunt, or exaggerating the reality of the situation.
The “skeptics” on the other side are just as bad, though. Even though the most common arguments against climate change have been defeated, they keep bringing them up. Now they’ve begun assailing climate science with ad hominem attacks. Contemporary journalism can’t afford to do real research anymore and the cable news shows treat every issue as if it could go either way even when it’s pretty solid, so suddenly climate change is a debate. And right wing opinion stations like Fox News even exaggerate climate change skeptics (siding against Al Gore because he wears a donkey pin) and disguise opinion as news.
It may not be the end of the word, but climate change will affect billions of people worldwide, causing the aforementioned starvation, ecosystem collapse and natural disaster. On the other hand, green legislation promises to cost billions of dollars and upset American energy companies’ very profitable status quo. I don’t mean to trivialize the energy companies’ position — they have billions of dollars at stake, thousands of jobs, and the essence of our economy. They’re motivated. Their lobbyists and PR firms are motivated, too.
Still, some companies can profit from green legislation. A lot of people have staked their life savings and mortgaged the house to get their slice of the green technology revolution. And they’re highly motivated. So are their lobbyists and PR firms. Some of those who predict disaster are genuinely concerned. Between green tech dollars and genuine and justified fear, the stakes are high on the left, as well.
The issue is too complex to fully understand as a layperson, though I won’t stop you from trying. Free thought allows for this contingency by carefully examining expert sources (authority).
* Accepting expert interpretation (authority) may be necessary, but you should question your expert. Make sure they are legitimate and respected in their field, and read their work. Do not use a news show or editorialist (or blogger) as your primary source for scientific information. Choose a scientist, economist, or environmentalist — or one of each.
* When comparing dissenting opinions (such as arguments from “climate change skeptics”), use them to challenge experts and see what the response is, rather than accepting them conditionally. To that end, find a science blog and respond there, or follow a science blog that confronts dissenting opinions with evidence.
* The media has made it hard to see what is true and what is not. Learn to pick fact from opinion in a news story, since opinion has been creeping in too much this past decade. If a fact disagrees with your understanding, take it to an expert and try to understand it in richer context.
* The muddy nature of the issue will get worse as the stakes get higher: Oil is running out, international tensions are increasing, and we’re approaching several environmental, economic, and cultural tipping points.