Monday, December 07, 2009

Debate or Denial?

As the great Climate Change Conference opens in Copenhagen, one of Hong Kong's TV stations (I can't remember which) used the term "climate change deniers" in a news broadcast.

This is a singularly unhelpful term in the context. It is clearly intended to resonate with the term "Holocaust denier", but we are dealing with a very different phenomenon here. The Holocaust is a historical fact, attested to by thousands of reliable witnesses who survived Hitler's death camps, the testimony of Allied forces who liberated them, the confessions of camp guards, and numerous Nazi historical documents. Those who deny that it occurred are either deluded loonies, or more commonly evil racists seeking to whitewash the reputation of the Nazi regime.

Climate change is not a solid fact in this sense. It is an interpretation of masses of statistical observations, which means that more than one interpretation is possible. The majority of climatologists concur on it, but those who do not are better described as sceptics than deniers. In fact there are several levels of interpretation at work:
  1. Climate change is occurring, i.e. substantial long term change in prevailing patterns of temperature, precipitation and wind strength and direction, as opposed to periodic shorter term fluctuations in local weather patterns. Most scientists agree that we are now seeing long term global warming, though some diagree, and some even posit the opposite - global cooling.
  2. Given that global warming is occurring, human activity is responsible for (or a major contributor to) it. Again the scientific consensus agrees with this interpretation, but again there are dissenters. The general view is that the rise in the emission of greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, is a key factor in causing rising temperatures.
  3. This warming is having, or will have, a disastrous effect on humans and the many other creatures with which they share the planet.
  4. Given this, we should change our behaviour to mitigate the effects. Here we begin to move from scientific to moral and political questions. Some prominent voices have suggested that we should just "get used to the idea" - not a view, I suspect, that will be shared by people in countries such as Bangladesh and the Maldives, or cities like New Orleans, which could largely vanish with a rise of a few feet in sea level.
The fact is that propositions 1 through 3 above are generally agreed to be the best interpretation we have of the available data, but they are not "facts" in the sense that the Holocaust is. In the nature of scientific method (something sadly misunderstood by most laymen), they are open to challenge and alternative hypotheses. The debate will and should continue, and it is neither fair nor logical to stigmatise those who do not share the prevailing view as "deniers". ( I was intending to compare this scientific debate with those over the tobacco/cancer and HIV/AIDS findings, but will save that for another day.)

What does this mean for proposition 4? In my view, regardless of the fact that climate change may eventually be disproved, we should continue to act for now as if it is a proven fact. If it turns out to be a false alarm, we will have at least cleaned up much of our atmospheric pollution and developed new cleaner sources of energy, while doing no harm. If not, our actions now may make the difference betwen the survival and extinction of the human race.


David Biddlecombe said...

Couldn't agree more. Those arguing, in the name of science, that all debate be shut down because the science has been 'proved' are fundamentally unscientific in their approach. It is fundamental to the scientific approach that all scientific knowledge is open to challenge, that is precisely what differentiates it from religious belief, ideological orthodoxy etc.

Scientific knowledge is merely the current consensus, which nobody has managed to disprove yet. The most famous example being the way that Einstein's ideas challenged the deeply held consensus of Newtonian physics which were seen prior to that as the absolute bedrock of modern science.

Global warming may turn out to be much more serious than the current consensus or much less serious but our knowledge of this will only be expanded by the continued challenging of that consensus by scientists on all sides of the debate.

BarryO said...

Getting the science wrapped up is going to be the easy part. The political will is the problem. A few small nations have/will been forced to go green, but I really have doubts that the major consumer powers are going to change their colours anytime soon.

They are all looking for that easy pill to lose fat rather than the obvious, stop eating, they just love it too much.