I am an environmental skeptic. I adopted this position first after reading Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which was a highly entertaining and controversial novel. Crichton is not a scientist, but he is science-savvy enough to have an ounce of credibility. In retrospect, I think that a big part of the facts in this book was wrong, but the main message, which is clearly explained in an appendix at the end, was very relevant.
Establishing the reality of global warming and predicting where it will take us is a matter of scientific investigation. However, the potential implications of global warming have the power to instill fear for the future of humanity. The potential dangers of global warming should be an incentive for rigorous and objective investigation. This is the only way to truly establish the situation we are in. It can put us in the most informed position to decide what to do about it.
This is what should be. What is and what should be are two completely different things. In fact, what should be is even wildly different from one person to the next. If we ever hope to reach agreement on anything, we should focus on what is.
The situation is that we have a war of opinions about global warming. At one end of the spectrum, we have the alarmist environmentalists prophetizing the impending doom of mankind. On the other end, we have the climate change deniers, for whom scientists are just a bunch of self-interested pricks with a hidden agenda. In the middle, we have people who don’t know and the people who just don’t care.
The real trouble starts when authoritative figures start claiming knowledge about the issue. Al Gore released a doomsday movie called an Inconvenient Truth in 2006. Whether or not the facts reported in the movie are right, the movie wants us to fear global warming. That is no pathway towards having a clear picture and finding a sensible course of actions.
On the other side of the debate, we have Bjorn Lomborg who just released a movie called Cool It!. He has a skeptical stance on global warming issues, arguing that the situation is a lot less dire than we have been led to believe. At first sight, that seems like a more rational point of view. However, when one starts looking more deeply into the references that Lomborg is using to make his argument, one finds that they are not supporting his claims at all. Once again, independently of him being right or not, that is no way to reach clarity and find correct solutions.
Crichton’s warning in the appendix at the end of State of Fear was about the danger of politicized science. The authority of science is a political power that cannot be abused. When studies are funded in order to demonstrate a point that will be used to further one’s agenda, the integrity of science is deeply undermined. The public may first believe these studies, but controversy over them will soon arise, since the scientific community never let these studies go without scrutiny. The public soon finds out that they are being misled by somebody, and they can’t see clearly past the controversy. Trust in the scientific endeavor weakens, and trust is hard to get back once lost.
This is the situation I find myself into when I contemplate the climate change controversy. However, the major part of the misleading is being done by public figures like Gore or Lomborg. They both have credibility in the public’s eye, and they contradict each other. As for the scientific effort in climate change, I still believe it mostly shows uncompromised integrity, especially recently. The picture we get from it is mostly empty of claims about what we should do, and filled with “we don’t know”.
Here is a short list of five articles concerning global warming that appeared in the last month:
- Complex interplays between sea-ice cover, winds and air temperature makes global warming consistent with colder winters in the northern hemisphere (link to article).
- A comprehensive review of last four decades of literature on temperature studies reveal that warming of the troposphere is ongoing, and the observations have been modeled accurately. There is still disagreement regarding predictions (link to article).
- Micro-organisms responsible for degrading carbon stored in the ground are much more active during winter than previously thought (link to article).
- Ice-sheets are predicted to respond quicker to global warming when the heat transfer of liquid water is taken into account (link to article).
- Small chaotic changes are responsible for dramatic episodes of climate change, as opposed to well-identifiable causes (link to article).
Every month, some new effect is reported that is having implications on global warming models. We are not close to an answer as to whether global warming will cause our modern world to go awry or not, but we are making progress. Lomborg and Gore are both very hasty on jumping to conclusions. I can understand the sense of urgency, but funding should go to the climate science community instead of going into potentially pointless policies. I am not saying that since we don’t know, doing nothing is the best course of action. I don’t think that putting more effort in getting past “we don’t know” is doing nothing.
The climate change controversy is the toughest controversy out there. I describe myself as an environmental skeptic simply because of the highly politicized aspect of the issue, and I question anyone who plunge into the debate with an air of conviction. It is safe to be sure that global warming is happening. It is still unsafe to be sure of where it will go and what we should do about it.