Climate Change & Skepticism

Al Gore

Cover of Al Gore

While I am not a philosophical skeptic (I do believe that knowledge is possible), I am a practical skeptic (I require proof before I believe). While some folks are skeptical of climate change, the evidence seems adequate to support the claim that humans have had a measurable impact on the climate. Given the scale of human activity, this seems inherently plausible. The climate data and causal explanations also seem fairly compelling.

Naturally, there are skeptics regarding climate change. Some of these folks are rational skeptics. That is, their doubts are founded on legitimate concerns about the methodologies used in climate science as well as the data in question. This sort of doubt and skepticism is actually a rather important part of the scientific approach: just as Socrates argued for the importance of the gadfly in the context of society, there should also be gadflies in science. Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the same cognitive biases and frailties as everyone else (plus are especially vulnerable to certain biases).

Some folks are, however, irrational skeptics. They base their doubt not on legitimate critiques of the methodology or the data. Some of these folks base their doubt not on logic, but on their emotions. They feel hostility towards the idea of climate change and the people who claim it is real. They feel positive towards the folks who deny it. However, feeling is not a good guide to the truth. John Locke argued quite effectively for this in his essay regarding enthusiasm. However, you can test this yourself: try taking a chemistry test or solving a complex engineering problem solely by how you feel about the matter. Let me know how well that works out. To be fair, there are folks who believe in climate change based on how they feel. While I am inclined to say that their belief is correct, I am even more inclined to say that they are not warranted to hold said belief since it is based on feeling rather than on actual reasons (that is, the belief might be true, but is not justified).

Some of the skeptics base their doubt on the fact that the truth of climate change would be contrary to their interests. In some cases, they are not consciously aware that they are rejecting a claim based on this factor and they might very well be sincere in their skepticism. However, this is merely a form of wishful thinking. Other folks are well aware of what they are doing when they express their “skepticism.” Their goal is not to engage in a scientific debate over the matter-that is, engage in argumentation to achieve the truth. Rather, their objective is to persuade others to doubt climate change and thus protect their perceived interests. To be fair, there are folks who push climate change because doing so is in their own interest. As Al Gore will attest, there is considerable money to be made in this area. This, of course, does not show that Al Gore is wrong-“reasoning” this way would be to fall victim to a circumstantial ad homimem fallacy. Saying that the climate change deniers are wrong because they have an interest in denying it would also commit this fallacy (the sword of logic cuts both ways).

Interesting, while whether climate change is occurring or not (and whether or not it is our doing) is a scientific matter, much of the fighting is done in the realm of politics and rhetoric. However, factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means. As such, it is important to cut through the rhetoric (and fallacies) and get to the heart of the matter.

While the consensus of the experts is that climate change is real and is caused, at least in part, by humans, I am not an expert on climate change. But, I am rational and, as such, I will accept their view unless adequate contrary evidence is provided from unbiased sources.

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  1. Mike: “However, factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means. As such, it is important to cut through the rhetoric (and fallacies) and get to the heart of the matter.”

    I’ll leave the issue of the science of global warming alone BUT what you, along with many commentators, seem to ignore is that HOW we RESPOND to potential climate change is NOT a purely scientific issue. Science may provide predictions of the consequences of different courses of action, but, ultimately, how we respond is an issue for PUBLIC discussion and debate.

    In other words, the argument usually goes: the consensus says climate change is caused largely by human CO2 emissions, so we have to cut emissions. But the latter is not a logical, nor necessarily rational, conclusion from the former.

  2. The most vocal opponents to accepting the premise that there is global warming and humans have a part in it are the conservatives. I’m sure there are a smattering of others, but for the most part it is that one group. They’re against it for a number of reasons, but the two greatest are money (big business = pollutants + huge amounts of energy + . . . ) and hatred of science (science = questioning creationism + . . .)
    I agree with you Mike, and we must be rational about this and depend on science to – to do what? What will convincing proof be?
    A ridiculous percent of people in the US say they don’t believe in evolution with it’s approximate 1 ½ century of research around the world continually reinforcing most of that theory. What hope is there in convincing these people about anything scientific?
    In the mean time, while we wait for something definitive from science, we may lose it. For good!

  3. Hi Mike.

    “factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means.”


    But actually “who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes” is precisely where climate change POLICY is being settled. Together with “Who stands to make the most money”

    I have made a study of this over several years now, and leaving aside the actual validity or not of AGW, I am utterly convinced that the policies that have adopted it as their raison d’etre have no more interest in addressing it than a cockroach. They make sense only in terms of greed and political expediency.

    Post Al Gore, ‘Climate change’ like ‘natural’ ‘organic’ ‘green’ etc etc is simply just another way to sell overpriced product to numpties who know no better.

    Having got that off my chest, let’s return to AGW as a theory and see how it stacks up as science at all, and as a valid use of science.

    Despite its popularity, I have to say the answer is ‘badly’. It is at best a tenuous hypothesis requiring many extrapolations that haven’t been fully tested and in its original inception was – as a reasonably honest hypothesis, so ring fenced with maybes and could-bes that it was politically useless.

    Essentially it boils down to the simple fact that CO2 is an effective greenhouse gas and will if added to the atmosphere, all other things being equal and that is a BIG proviso) make the world warmer.

    Now CO2 alone at its current rate would make the world trivially warmer. A scientific oddity.

    However at the time the initial studies were done, it was observed (rightly or wrongly, but I think more or less rightly) that the world was getting a lot warmer that CO2 by itself could account for.

    When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And it was at this point that AGW made its first highly understandable mistake. by attributing ALL the late 20th century warming to CO2, it implied there was positive feedback going on, and adding in a positive feedback factors that matched the recorded temperature rises led to the inescapable conclusion that, depending on what feedback factor you added in, things were looking somewhere between extremely dodgy and up to the neck in alligator shit 50 years down the line.

    Lacking any other explanation, that feedback factor was left in. And the untestable hypothesis of AGW was born.

    Untestable? yes. We cant run a second planet as control. At the best we can say that the temperature rises match, or don’t match the predictions. Well they haven’t.. not exactly, and there are have been many numbers put forward as the feedback factor to get the best curve fit.

    And curve fit to what? all other things have not been equal, and there is strong suspicion the data has been fudged as well. One thing you can say is that over geological time there is no correlation between temperature and CO2 at all. Unless of course you happen to be starting from that assumption. I have personally seen two graphs of CO2 over geological time. One has absolutely no correlation, the other looks as though it is exactly the same graph: Indeed my suspicion is that it IS exactly the same graph with only the Y axis scale changed.

    So what is going on?

    I think its is simply this: the consequences of AGW being correct are so far reaching and scary that those who took it at face value considered that to try and knock holes in it was deeply irresponsible. Climate change HAD to be down to CO2, because there was no other mechanism anyone knew of. Political action HAD to be taken, and if the data wasn’t strong enough, it was adjusted to be strong enough.This was too important to be left to scientists to argue and have doubts about: to get worldwide action, the scientific community HAD to respond in unison as if there was no doubt whatsoever.

    Any complaints that the world had suffered climate change over the last 2000 years or so with no CO2 changes at all were brushed aside or airbrushed out.

    Because the sceptics had no explanation or that climate change either. They merely were remarking that CO2 alone didn’t fit the real data.

    And that is probably where most people who have any interest are today. There appears to be an overwhelming scientific consensus, but its been bought by applying pressure. The ends, many feel justify the means. Casting reasonable doubt on AGW puts the future of the planet at risk etc etc.

    But several things have changed this perception. Firstly an unusually cold winter – colder than the last 10-15 years in the Northern hemisphere.

    Then there is the CLOUD issue. An alternative driver for climate change that does ion fact fit geological variations BETTER than CO2 has been proposed, and vilified. Because the detailed mechanism is not yet fully established, and yet it fits as far as one can tell, rather better than the CO2 as driver.

    There is a reasonable link to that whole issue here:

    Where does that leave us?

    To be frank, I don’t know.

    What I DO know is that AGW long ceased to be about science, and has become another of those ’emotional narratives’ that the marketing men of the world so love. The invisible scary bogey man that is going to come up and bite your ass if you don’t spend money on what they want to sell you (or want you to vote for).

    Now if it’s true and a valid model and the constants all have the right value, that’s a price the scientific community is probably prepared to pay, to get the facts in the public consciousness. And the grant money in the University coffers.

    If it is not, and the CLOUDISTS are, for example, right, then its probably going to result in the biggest anti-science backlash since Galileo.

    Finally, given the point that policy is all about reducing CO2 at enormous costs that we can ill afford, is that the best way to react? Is the cost of (futilely, given China’s and India’s stance) reducing the West’s emissions, less than the cost of DEALING with them?

    And given that we have a zero carbon technology that is tried and tested and cost competitive (nuclear power) why aren’t we deploying that…?

    Once again, the emotional narrative, the invisible silent bogey man who will kill you..and a LOT of vested interest. Renewable energy In the absence of massive hydroelectric backup) works WITH oil and gas. Nuclear energy DISPLACES oil and gas. Ho hum.

    The oilmen no longer CARE about AGW,. because if AGW means gas CCGT plants to back up windmills and overall little change to emissions, they have the last laugh. If you can’t beat em, join em.

    For a few of us, there is critical thinking and analysis, and deep cynicism. For everyone else there is the joy of jumping on a bandwagon, safe in the knowledge that everybody on it cant be wrong, even if it does appear to be heading straight for the cliff edge.

    The real problem is no one is sure which bandwagon that is.

    IS AGW, as a proposition, more dangerous to civilisation than actual climate change?

    From where I am standing, its beginning to look that way.

  4. I’m sceptical about AGW (or at least catastrophic AGW) because the theory/models don’t fit the general pattern of the hypothetico-deductive method ( = guessing followed by testing).

    In fact it better fits the Baconian “inductivist” model — which makes it a pseudoscience in my book.

    Of course the bits it borrows from the legitimate science of physics — such as the greenhouse effect — are fine. But there’s more to AGW than the greenhouse effect. The attempt to “base” models on “data” — most of which are fake “proxies” into the bargain — is epistemologically hopeless.

    The politics of those who are sceptical about AGW are irrelevant. (But we might explain the preponderance of conservatives among them in terms of holism. Good science is not foundationalist, so those who grasp its structure tend to be people who recognize the importance of conservatism as an epistemic principle.)

  5. Since everything points to the same conclusion, it is surprising that peole do not see the obvious. The historical pattern, geopulsation theory, and the dampening of temp increases in recent years all indicate that we are merely reaching the peak of the present interglacial (warm) period (see Roots of Cataclysm, Algora Publ. NY 2009). CO2 rise is virtually irrelevant: It is a symptom of warming, not a cause. The warm peak of course will be followed by another glacial episode of the Pleistocne, as has always been the case for the past million years or so. In short, everything is proceeding exactly as should have been expected.

  6. maybe and maybe not.

    Chaotic systems seldom repeat exactly.

    However those delightful cynics at the Daily Mash seem to agree with you.

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