Thursday, December 20, 2007

Is Global Warming a “Fact”? The Problem of Incredulity in Modern Earth Science

This one is not mine. My son, Louis Caron, is a PhD Candidate at Kings College, Cambridge, working on intellectual history and political thought. He's been looking at the debate over global warming and decided to apply Pascal's Wager to this:

The majority of legitimate Earth Scientists hold that the production of CO2 emissions from human industrial, commercial and personal consumption is a (if not the) central factor in the impending and ongoing climate change. Scientists posit that the kind of global warming we are witnessing today is a product of human activity (primarily the massive consumption of fossil fuels), as opposed to a purely natural process. They warn that our interference in the environment could have unforeseen and potentially disastrous consequences. In a report issued in 2005, the US National Academy of Sciences implored all nations to take immediate action against the production and consumption of fossil fuels and other activities that contribute to the release of harmful waste into our atmosphere. Analogous warnings have been issued by the most respected scientists, from professors in higher-learning institutions across the nation to organizations like the EPA. A rising sea level is but one inevitable outcome that would see millions of humans without resources or homes.

The effects of global warming are being endured by citizens of the 21st century. Take the Zaca fire in Southern California or the fact that we have witnessed the most severe weather reported across Asia since records began in 1880 as but two examples, then remember Katrina and the worst hurricane season on record in 2005 which included Katrina. Global warming is happening today, but the most dire will be endured by our children’s children. Reliable scientific research, research which makes full use of cutting edge data and information technology, projects a reality which our daily consumption of energy derived from fossil fuels will realize centuries from now. If most scientists are correct, our progeny will have to endure some of the greatest natural disasters the human race has ever witnessed.

There are skeptics, and a number of challenges have been hurled at these findings. The most common strategy is to label the scientific consensus ‘un-scientific’, supplying contrary scientific ‘evidence’ as proof that global warming is a natural occurrence that humans have almost no control over. At the forefront of this resistance are scientists like Patrick Michaels, who has gone on record as an outspoken skeptic of global warming. Dr. Michaels views climate change as a massive and generally benign natural process, one which no amount of human interference could possibly effect (those curious about his views can read his most recent book online at If Dr. Michael’s funding is any indication, his response has been motivated more from a political agenda (he has accepted funding from Exxon and other oil companies) then from any objective evaluation of our environment or the affect human life has on it.

Far be it for me to accuse Dr. Michaels of being some kind of ‘political warrior’ whose pockets are lined with the commercial concerns of an established but endangered oil industry. My purpose here is, first and foremost, to elaborate on the essence of the objections issued by well intentioned critics of the global warming thesis, and then to illustrate in clear terms how these critics of global warming are consistently committing a grievous ethical blunder.

The first thing we need to understand is the fact that there are good objections to scientific evidence, to scientific proof. I will list three such objections here, some of which have already been used against the evidence that so many authorities have adopted to demonstrate our role in the developing environmental crisis. Foremost is the simple fact that scientists are wrong about things all the time. There is no moment in the history of science that we might cite as an example of scientific knowledge that refers to unchallenged and absolute truth. Science is, at its core, a probabilistic enterprise. It might therefore be the case that scientists are wrong about what is causing climate change, since they will never really be 100% right, and that therefore the data being pushed by advocates of global warming should be disregarded.

Science is something that needs to be tested again and again. Yet this debate is also influenced by cutting edge scientific research, which introduces the problem of ‘Big Science’. By ‘Big Science’ I mean the kind of science that takes millions of dollars to do, the kind of science that takes years of training to execute. The fact is that we can’t really test these conclusions ourselves, because they would be too costly in terms of time and money. We simply have to trust that those who have the training and the access to the data are not trying to pull the wool over our ignorant eyes. Such trust is difficult for many to place in the hands of an educated few, and in the case of global warming it becomes all too easy (and somewhat reasonable) for people to dismiss as ‘unscientific’ that which they cannot test themselves.

Finally, there is the simple fact that though the majority of respected scientists have lent their weight to this theory of global warming, there are dissenting voices. This has much to do with the problem of assigning a ‘cause’ to a phenomenon and gets back to the first point; science is about probabilities, not hard and fast Truths. We should, however, bear in mind that no one thinks global warming is not occurring; the debate is over whether or not this is something that we can change. And because scientists might always be wrong, and because data is always open to new interpretations, it very well might turn out that the minority (spear-headed by people like Dr. Michaels and his colleagues at the Cano institute) are entirely right.

To recap: scientists haven’t given us an inconvenient ‘truth’, they haven’t allowed us to test their conclusions, and they all might be wrong. The problem is not with science or the results of the majority of scientists, however, the problem that all too many fail to realize: this skeptical stance lies at the heart of all science. Science is not a dogmatic enterprise. It doesn’t tell you what to believe. There are always dissenters and there are always problems with the data, and there are never Truths. Science is not about ‘revealing’ the way the world works, it is about understanding the world, our affect on it, our power over it. It is a human enterprise, conducted to benefit human interests, wielded (in some cases to horrible ends) in the name of political causes. Science is a tool. And the fact that the vast majority of established scientists now believe that the world is getting warmer because of human activity should compel some assent.

But clearly it has not, and so the argument cannot rest on scientific evidence alone. Critics of global warming choose to fight ‘science’ by defending inaction with other scientific evidence. Yet these critics of global warming employ their doubt of science in an arbitrary and highly selective way. They forget that Dr. Michaels is as worthy of doubt as those he has chosen to attack. Critics of global warming arbitrarily hear what they want to hear, and arbitrarily choose what they want to believe.

When it comes to the question of global warming, then, the question being asked should deal not only with scientific evidence, but also with ethics and personal action. Lets say we choose to doubt equally all scientific knowledge, rather than to simply select which kind of science makes us feel better about our future. We then have to consider the consequences of our doubt. We should keep in mind that doubt is not the same as disbelief. Doubters think things might be wrong, they work in the realm of probabilities in much the same way as scientists. Simple disbelievers assert that things just are wrong. No one engaged in this debate disbelieves all of science, they rather doubt one side of the debate or another.

Given this probabilistic skepticism, we need to keep in mind what is at stake if we hope to act in an ethical and responsible way. If we doubt the majority of scientists and bet they are wrong, we end up saving ourselves time and money. Life continues unabated with the regular and unrestricted consumption of fossil fuels. If, on the other hand, it turns out that the majority of scientific research is right, we face a future whereh our progeny will not able to afford a car because the price of food, oil and water will skyrocket as arable land and potable water become scarce. Overpopulation combined with a rising sea level will make it harder or outright impossible for them to go to the club on Friday night, or to buy nice clothes. Diseases will spread as the manufacturing capacity of drug companies throughout the US and the first world are crippled by the same fundamental changes in the economy and the climate. If we actually heed the vast majority of scientists who are not being paid by oil companies and confused government administrations, the ethical truth (one that is legitimately supported by scientific evidence) is that the longer we wait, the harder it is going to be to make a difference.

The fact that even scientists should bear in mind is that the debate about global warming cannot be resolved with science, it must refer to a political arena in which science is twisted to fit the agendas of the multitude. The fundamental problem with this debate is that this future won’t be seen in our lifetime, it will be endured by those that live to see the twenty second century and beyond. Those of us stuck in the now, and those of us who are not afraid to know, must recognize the value of scientific data in making ethical decisions, but we must also realize that the burden of choice remains squarely on our shoulders. If we doubt the vast majority of scientists, we are choosing to deny our potential role in the permanent destruction of our own way of life. If we doubt Dr. Michaels and follow the weight of the evidence, we are choosing instead to capitalize on our chance to make the best of the world we live and play in. Is this worst-case scenario really just bald-faced fear mongering? No. It is a rational and highly sophisticated prediction of the future, based on the best knowledge we have right now. This is unlike any threat we have ever faced as a race; we have to reform our own way of life to prevail, and we have to do it not for ourselves but for a better future. Science is worthy of constant doubt, but whether we believe scientists or not, it is our duty to do what we can to better ourselves and our way of life for the human race.

Louis Caron