Anthropogenic Global Warming: A Consensus in Crisis
Worries and debates emerge from supporters of human-caused global warming – not just skeptics. How does this resemble the creation-evolution debate?
Disclaimer: This is not an entry about whether human-caused global warming is true or not, since the issue is off-topic for this site. Instead, it takes a look at how “scientific consensus” is manufactured and publicized in the climate debate. Something as complex as a global phenomenon is a good test case in philosophy of science. The global warming debate has some similarities with evolutionism (hear discussion on ID the Future podcast). It is overlain with huge political and economic ramifications, fraught with large uncertainties and contradictions, and maintained as scientific fact by the consensus yet fiercely criticized by a relentless group of skeptics. Both show a rough fit with political views: the liberals tend to advocate evolution and global warming, but the conservatives tend to be skeptical of both. Both issues have extremists calling the other extreme crazy. Here, we will look at a few news reports from inside the consensus that reveal a strange mix of dogmatic certainty and empirical worries – another trait characteristic of the evolutionary consensus.
The official word: The IPCC issued its latest report on climate change in late September, but it didn’t seem to change the political climate. Supporters still support the IPCC, and skeptics still criticize it. Various reactions appeared in the press: Live Science asserted in an Op-Ed piece, “With IPCC report, climate change is settled science.” Two authors appearing on PhysOrg asked a very different question: “Is it time to ditch the climate ‘bible’?” They see the IPCC monstrosity in need of reforms and a break-up. The IPCC authors claim they are 95% certain that humans are causing global warming, but how can such a subjective judgment be quantified without bias? It really should hinge on the strength of the evidence itself, not the feelings of leaders of an organization whose jobs arguably depend on keeping the previous conclusions intact. (Imagine the horror if they concluded, “Our previous conclusions were all wrong; humans are innocent. There is no irreversible warming trend. We can all stop worrying and go home now.”) News of the IPCC report seemed less momentous this time – perhaps because of the IPCC’s history of scandal and the lack of cooperation by many governments to submit themselves to draconian carbon limits.
Appeals to evidence: In a PNAS Commentary, Gerald R. North wrote about “More evidence for anthropogenic influence on climate change.” He dissected a study by Santer et al. who estimated air temperatures at three layers during the satellite era. (This citation can be considered a within-consensus example of how observations are gathered and interpreted as evidence.) North’s conclusion that Santer’s group provided empirical evidence was moderated by acknowledgement of the complexities involved:
The dynamics of climate in the Arctic are very complex, and our present climate models may need significant adjustments in both the large-scale atmospheric dynamics and the air sea/sea ice, and of course the old nemesis: clouds. This last notwithstanding, the recent studies of Santer et al. show that there is a statistically significant anthropogenic signal that can be detected in the system over the last several decades. Of course, all statistical studies are dependent on a statistical-model construct or framework, but this one seems rather well tested and has been exposed to public scrutiny over several decades. The study by Santer et al. in PNAS joins the many other independent ones that have recently accumulated, all pointing to the significant role of human influences on climate change.
In short, the article is all about North’s personal feelings. The complexities and uncertainties “notwithstanding” (showing his value judgment on what evidence to keep and what to throw out), North believes Santer’s statistical model construct or framework “seems rather well tested” – another value judgment. Should a public worried about economic costs just trust North’s feelings, or hear another side? Where is the other side in PNAS? It’s not there. We might compare this offer of evidence with studies alleging support for Darwinian evolution, such as claiming to find a signature of natural selection among lizards on Caribbean islands. An evolutionist might appeal to “many other independent” studies “all pointing” to the consensus view (an example of a glittering generality statement), supporting the grander position that humans evolved from bacteria. Who would have the time to inquire into the reliability of all the other studies, even if they were listed?
Untestable models: “Without plants, earth would cook under billions of tons of additional carbon,” Science Daily said, based on a study at Princeton on the effectiveness of plants as carbon sinks. That may help us all appreciate plants more, but how could such a statement be tested? We can’t strip all the greenery off the planet to see what happens. Even if studies show significance in local areas (such as deforested areas), how can one extrapolate the findings to the globe, without knowing all the feedbacks and compensating factors? And isn’t global carbon roughly a constant? Again, the conclusions were based on models – but models are simulations of reality, not reality itself, which is often much more complex than any model humans can devise. It would seem the headline accomplishes in emotion what it fails to achieve in evidence.
Causes or correlations? Are moose deaths in northern American forests tied to global warming? New Scientist teased with that puzzle. Like an article on PhysOrg about microbes under the seafloor, many studies offered as evidence for global warming seem very difficult to prove. Another PhysOrg article shows strong debate about whether global warming is increasing wildfires, but ends with a UN climate chief using scare tactics to argue we’re running out of time to take drastic action. Matt McGrath noted on the BBC News that this lady, Christiana Figueres shed tears over how lack of action is condemning future generations, calling government inaction “completely unfair and immoral.” Emotional outbursts are no substitute for convincing evidence. Would it dry her tears to read a new report in Geology about carbon dioxide emissions from undersea volcanoes? It says, “Thus, the contribution to the carbon cycle on Earth of the large amounts of CO2 that have been emitted from the deep-sea floor by petit-spot volcanism has not previously been recognized.” Maybe she should vent her emotion on volcanoes instead of humans.
Shifting evidence: “Cows’ carbon hoofprint is smaller than thought” reads a headline on PhysOrg. This is but one example of evolving weights given to factors affecting climate models. It wasn’t long ago that cow methane emissions (essentially, cow farts) were viewed as a major factor affecting the climate. Recall another uncertainty, too: Gerald North’s reference to “that old nemesis: clouds.” Cloud effects on climate are very difficult to incorporate into models, but must certainly account for a lot.
The uncooperative pause: There’s trouble in the consensus camp. Everyone acknowledges that global temperatures hit a plateau around 1998, and have not shown a warming trend for about 15 years now. In addition, warming over the last 50 years has been lower than current models predict. What does it mean? Is it a temporary hiatus (a “speed bump” on the way to a warmer world) or a falsification of the consensus view? PhysOrg acknowledged that the pause has occasioned thought for alarmists and skeptics, but gave pride of place to supporters of global warming, who criticize the “denialists” of using the data for political motives. On September 19, Nature News sought to explain “The cause of the pause” as a normal decade-long oscillation within a long-term warming trend. The BBC News, on the other hand, noted that skeptics are using the pause as support for their view. In another BBC News article, Matt McGrath noted serious errors the IPCC made in previous reports. He listed 5 key questions the IPCC needs to address to reinforce its credibility – number one being the 15-year pause.
Information or manipulation: Believers in human-caused global warming are often so concerned about the future of the planet, they are frustrated at the skeptics who don’t see things their way. Like Science Daily says, “People don’t put a high value on climate protection,” even after more than a decade of information and warnings. How can consensus scientists convince them? One would hope they would present convincing evidence logically, considering criticisms fairly. Instead, some are thinking of ways to manipulate the other side, controlling the conversation in strategic ways that deflate the skepticism. Nature just favorably reviewed a book that was “strong on strategy” but light on evidence. Another example of strategizing appeared on Science Daily: “How Do We Talk About Climate Change? The Need for Strategic Conversations.” A look inside the short article reveals a bias toward winning the skeptics over to the warmist side. Given that the advice comes from the journal “Environmental Education Research,” the conclusions are predictable:
Arguing for the need to focus on “solutions rather than on catastrophic consequences of climate change,” Wibeck suggests effective methods for moving forward with climate change communication, emphasising a need for strategic interaction between communicators and educators, arguing that it is necessary if the public role in challenging global climate change is going to increase.
This is a form of the “nudge” strategy Cass Sunstein made famous. Don’t alarm or provoke your enemies; nudge them with gentle talk about solutions everyone can agree on (as long as “the public role in challenging global climate change is going to increase” in the end). Like “Evolution for Everyone” (11/01/2005), this is manipulation, not education. If a position is true, it ought to be able to withstand vigorous civil debate about the evidence.
Forcing compliance: As with evolution, the government sometimes wants to mandate compliance with one position. It’s instructive that, worldwide, government investment in carbon reduction is lagging, according to PhysOrg, in spite of all the consensus warnings. But in the US, the Supreme Court will be hearing a case about whether the EPA has authority to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant – a role the unelected EPA has arrogated to itself, causing grief to businesses. Will they relent on news reported in Live Science that US carbon emissions have decreased by 3.8 percent? Critics note that humans breathe out this “pollutant” and plants use it to grow and produce food. Even so, the relative number of carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere is so low, it could be compared to 4 seats in a 10,000-seat stadium (0.035%). On Mars, it would be 9,600 seats (96%), but Mars is freezing. In Current Biology, Michael Gross shows more of the anti-business, anti-growth mentality of the left by fighting fracking in terms of global warming, with the scare title, “Dash for gas leaves Earth to fry.” Scaring or nudging – neither is a substitute for convincing evidence.
Let’s model the IPCC: Jeff Tollefson at Nature News discussed something different: an initiative by social scientists to analyze how the IPCC arrives at its conclusions. In a study reminiscent of the 1990-era social-constructivist investigations of science, a Princeton group wants to put the IPCC under a lens and study its processes of information manufacture. The social scientists become the experimenters, and the IPCC experts the lab rats. How ratty they behave remains to be seen, but the sociologists feel the public deserves to know what goes on inside the “black box” that formulates such sweeping conclusions. Transparency will be healthy, they believe; for instance, they want to know why the IPCC decides to ignore large chunks of data to focus attention on other factors. What goes into the sausage behind the kitchen doors before it is served? Most outsiders have no idea. “Clarifying the process might make the IPCC’s assessments seem a little less like magic — and a little more like sausage-making,” Tollefson ended. Yes, real science is often like sausage-making. The public deserves to read the label and give it a taste test.
Who’s denying science? In old-fashioned warfare mode, Stephan Lewandowsky aimed his guns at the science “deniers” (a handy loaded word, conjuring up a holocaust denier or other undesirable image; see how some Darwinists use it on Evolution News & Views). Writing for The Conversation (posted also on PhysOrg), he said, “You’d be forgiven for thinking science is under attack.” His first example: “Climate science has been challenged by deniers and sceptics” – implying that denying human-caused global warming is the same as attacking science itself. A similar tactic is used by evolutionists who view anyone skeptical of Darwinism as a “science denier.” Lewandowsky briefly considered the possibility that political leftists can be science deniers, but his verdict came down on right-wingers allegedly because of their worldview bias. Using another tactic of lumping skepticism of evolution with “weird” beliefs (flat-earth, unicorns or whatever – the association fallacy), he ended by saying, “When worldviews and conspiracies determine people’s attitude towards science, it is perhaps unsurprising that simply providing more evidence isn’t enough to alert people to the risks they are facing—be it from smoking, HIV, or climate change.” His propaganda tactics apparently didn’t nudge anyone. The article was followed by dozens of hot-headed comments.
You are welcome to argue whatever position on climate change you find best supported by the evidence, but we hope this look into an unrelated battle between supporters of a scientific consensus and its skeptics has been instructive on several levels: the manufacture of evidence and judgment of its validity, logical fallacies and propaganda tactics employed, political ramifications, educational strategies, the role of consensus (12/27/03), the sociology of science, and worldview effects on how issues are perceived. It should be clear that the origins debate is not the only issue with non-empirical baggage. Baggage is necessary, even unavoidable, but let’s leave as much unnecessary baggage behind as we can when evaluating evidence. Why did the vulture have to drop one of its dead squirrels when boarding the plane? It was only allowed one carrion. Let’s all carry on our scientific reasoning as logically and evidence-guided as possible.