Climate change has been a constant in Earth’s history for some four billion years. It is a hot topic today mainly because people abuse language. Whether it is called “Climate Change,” “Climate Disruption,” “Global Warming,” or something else, it is really about Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW) – the theory that man’s impact on the global environment through industrialization and burning fossil fuels is leading to dangerous, perhaps even catastrophic warming of the planet.
When I first heard about global warming, I remember thinking that ponds I had taken my daughters skating on when they were little were , more than a decade later, seldom frozen in winter when I happened to drive past them. I did’t question what I read – after all, it was science – until I saw the famous hockey stick graph (shown here). And then I did have a question. (source: The Guardian UK )
I knew nothing about climate science, but I did know some history. I knew the Vikings had built settlements in Greenland starting in the late 900’s, which were abandoned by the early 1400’s. Yet the graph showed the northern hemisphere as cooler than today and today, the climate there is too cold for the crops and livestock the Viking communities lived on. My question was simply, “Gee, how could that be – what am I missing?” Just vaguely puzzled, I didn’t rush off to research an answer.
When it became clear that global warming was actually controversial, I had a second question, “Why, isn’t it scientific?” Still, I wasn’t skeptical, after all it could just be the evil oil barons or other special interests stirring things up. The controversy was more like entertainment than cause for concern.
And then Climategate happened. I’m no scientist, but I do have a degree in physics and know how science is supposed to work. This did bother me, so I took the trouble to read the leaked emails. Later I learned that the famous hockey stick had been shown to be bad science. Having been a poster child for the IPCC, the “hockey stick” had now quietly disappeared from their reports. That the hockey stick was flawed science was no big deal, what was was the fact that it took years for other scientists to pry loose the data and analysis used by the hockey stick team for independent validation – which ended up proving the hockey stick was flawed. The main flaw was that the statistical algorithms used to analyze the data produced a hockey stick even when analyzing random data.
These two events stand out because of the ethics involved. The Climategate emails showed a pattern of willful undermining of the integrity of scientific review within the climate science community. With the hockey stick, it is one thing to make a mistake – the best of scientists make mistakes, even Einstein did. But it is quite another thing to spend years trying to hide your work from scrutiny. So a third question came to mind – “What would trigger this behavior?”
Now I believe there are two very good reasons to look skeptically on the AGW argument.
Politicians and crony capitalists.
The AGW theory is very attractive to both sets because, true or not, AGW can be used to justify great increases in government spending, control over economic activity and over peoples’ lives – in short, a massive transfer of money and power from the people to the political class. If many of the proposed laws and accords are implemented, vast amounts of money will pass through the hands of governments, international agencies, crony capitalists and other groups. No true accountability can be attached to the flow, for no tangible benefit will ever have to be shown. Whatever the climate actually does, the politicians, et. al. will be able to take credit. If the climate cools, why “See, it worked!” and if it warms, why “Yes, it’s warmer, but we’ve avoided catastrophe!” The tide of money flowing will be almost irresistible (it already is) to crony capitalists seeking to use government to tilt the playing field in their favor, fund risky investments, bail out failure or to “buy” risk-free (to them) investment funds from governments by contributing to politicians’ PACs.
There is a secondary reason to be skeptical and that is government’s potential influence over science. Darwin’s work to develop the theory of evolution and Einstein’s to develop the theory of relativity, while it cost them enormous time and effort, cost the public virtually nothing. But probing and validating the implications of these theories has over time required ever more sophisticated technologies, driving the cost of doing science ever higher, and necessitating individual scientists to become members of science bureaucracies – and ever more dependent on satisfying grantors with deep pockets who may have agendas. Just as environmentalists are skeptical of research funded by corporations that may have special interest agendas, we should perhaps also be skeptical of science directly or indirectly funded by government agencies that may have political or ideological agendas.
It isn’t science if it is not skeptical. Science progresses by challenging the answers in the current state of knowledge or the blanks within it and then by challenging the results. A theory, AWG for example, is validated by testing it – verifying the underlying data, the logic used, and the results predicted or explained by the theory. Then the results are challenged through validation by independent replication. If a theory has a competing theory, both are tested to determine the one with the most explanatory power. Therefore, when, some people use assertions that “it’s settled science,” “the scientific consensus is,” or “97% of scientists agree,” as an argument rather than data based reasoned refutations to challenges then it is time to be skeptical. And when one hears of intellectuals or politicians wanting to criminalize doubt, then it is really time to be skeptical.
It’s not just “climate deniers” questioning AGW. There is a competing theory that argues the primary driver of measured climate change is variations in solar activity and the theory is supported by considerable data. A good technical description of the theory (“Bicentennial Decrease of the Total Solar Irradiance Leads to Unbalanced Thermal Budget of the Earth and the Little Ice Age” by Habibullo I. Abdussamatov, Pulkovo Observatory of the RAS, Feb. 1, 2012) can be read on line URL: http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/apr.v4n1p178 (the Russian government has yet to make AGW politically correct “settled science”).
AGW proponents make three key assertions.
One – the measured global warming has been driven by increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.
The competing theory (I’ve not seen it named, so I’ll make up one – the Solar Forcing Theory) blames variations in solar activity and consequent natural cycles that appear in the historical record and attributes some or most of the CO2 increase as a consequence of warming, not a cause.
Two – the warming, or at least a significant part of it, has been proven to be a result of human activity.
The Solar theory largely ignores this assertion since, if their primary assertion is correct, human activity has been a negligible factor.
Three – the vast majority of scientists agree with AGW assertions one and two.
The competing theory properly ignores making an argument of proof by consensus. But in fact scientists are not in agreement. Some 30,000 scientists have signed a letter disagreeing with the IPCC conclusions and the way the IPCC has conducted its studies. The frequently heard “97% of scientists agree” is also flawed, based on a skewed study. See an article in Forbes on line magazine, posted Jan. 15, 2015 by Alex Epstein. Forbes.com
Finally, with regard to key AGW assertion One, the IPCC computer climate models, the prime forecasting tool of the AGW theory, failed to forecast the current pause in warming but the Solar theory did. The global temperatures recorded by satellites over the last 15 years seem to track much more closely with the Solar Forcing Theory forecast than with the AGW forecast. Interestingly, there seem to be two versions of the Solar Forcing Theory the (I’m making up these terms also) Cool SFT and the Cold SFT. The cool one argues that we’re about to dip into the cool phase of a multi decadal cycle of about 30 years. The cold one (see Abdussamatov’s article referenced earlier) argues that we are not only entering the cool phase of a multi-decadal cycle, but the cool phase of a bicentennial cycle and toward a new Little Ice Age.
Why, then, why do we keep hearing that “the science is settled?” Climate change is real. But AGW? With this theory, especially considering the ethical lapses uncovered and huge costs (and consequent temptations) involved, a healthy skepticism seems justified. I believe we need much more compelling evidence for AGW as well as compelling evidence that the solar based theories are false.
In a free and self governing society, it is not the duty of citizens to blindly follow their government. Rather it is their duty to make reasoned judgements and provide direction to their government. It is no accident that Congress, the branch of government closest (theoretically) to the people, is the one branch with the power to declare war. Congress regularly shirks its constitutional duties because we have, out of ignorance, laziness, distraction, selfishness, or other reasons, become habituated to letting it. But that does not absolve us from the duty to make reasoned judgements and provide direction. Rather it shows how bad things ultimately get when we don’t.