by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.
This is the first part of a three part discussion about climate change. The second part, which deals with the risk management aspects of climate change, can be found here.
One topic that inevitably draws comments from readers of Futuresearch blog posts is any discussion of climate change. A recent comment embodies the sentiments of many of these respondents. The commenter said that I used to write about interesting things, but now “you seem to be completely sucked in by the political(and wrong science) slant of the IPPC [sic]”. (It’s actually “IPCC” – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)
This implies that I’m (a) stupid, and (b) a sucker for political hacks. Accordingly, I’m going to lay out as clearly as I can why anyone with an honest willingness to look at facts should accept that climate change is happening, and why, from a futurist’s point of view, it’s important for every one of us to start taking action on this issue.
Twenty-five years ago, I was a climate change skeptic. I came by it honestly, because my father, Dr. J. Lamar Worzel, was a pioneering oceanographer and a professor of geophysics, first at Columbia, then at the University of Texas, and didn’t believe that humanity caused climate change. So I have been where honest climate change skeptics are now.
Since then, I have read and studied both sides of the argument. And because of who my father was, I have also been able to talk to researchers who are actively working in this field. My family background, plus my own formal education, means that I understand how science happens, how the politics surrounding science works, and the human shortcomings of scientists.
As a result of my quest to understand the issue of climate change, and a willingness to consider facts and reason, my views have gone through a complete, 180-degree turn. It is now absolutely clear to me that (a) climate change is happening; (b) humanity is, at the very least, a major contributing factor; (c) it is going to impose major, long-term economic, financial, and human costs on us, and (d) the longer we wait to start doing something serious about it, the more expensive and dangerous it is going to get. I have no ax to grind in this discussion, and nothing to gain by supporting either side. As Gandhi said, my commitment is to truth, not to consistency.
The science of climate change has been laid out in enormous detail for anyone willing to read it. I’ll provide links to the IPCC report, and to a couple of readable lay summaries on climate in a moment. First, though, let me quote Dr. Martin L. Weitzman, a professor of economics at Harvard, as his comment gets to the heart of the issue:
“Can we afford the luxury of assuming that a small minority of climate skeptics are more correct than the vast majority of mainstream climate scientists? What is the probability of that?”
This raises some of the critical issues in the climate change debate. It points towards the potential costs of climate change. It correctly identifies that the number of people who deny climate change (of those who are qualified to hold an opinion) is tiny compared to those scientists who accept it. It raises the question of risk management (which is where my field, future studies, comes in). And it poses the question: Why, if scientific opinion is so unified, is this debate still going on, and why is the public so far behind the science? I’m going to deal with these, and related issues below.
First, though, here are the links I promised earlier:
The Summary for Policymakers of the first part of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, issued in 2013.
The Wikipedia entry on the evidence for climate change.
A short, layperson’s summary of the evidence for climate change from NASA.
And a one-page discussion of the retreat of glaciers around the world, which is one of the most unequivocal indicators of climate change.
Can we believe the scientists?
In some ways, this is the most offensive part of the whole controversy. Why is it that people happily accept scientific opinions and scientific integrity on medicine (especially in things involving their own health), technology, computers, astronomy, genetics, and many other fields, but when it comes to climate change, people suddenly think that scientists are shady liars involved in a global conspiracy to fool us into believing something that is just not true? This is partly because people have a hard time believing that their lives are going to change dramatically because of something they don’t really understand, but it’s also because of a conspiracy perpetrated by groups with a vested interest in spreading confusion about climate change.
But let’s consider the question seriously: Can we trust the scientists to tell us the truth?
There are over 800 authors and editors of the IPCC report drawn from about 3,000 experts nominated for these positions. These people came from many different countries, and a variety of relevant disciplines, including meteorology, physics, oceanography, statistics, engineering, and ecology, social sciences and economics. Fundamentally, these authors and editors had to all agree on any assertion before it could be included in the IPCC report. And if someone in this group had a serious disagreement, it would have leaked out by now.
So, just using common sense, how would it be possible to arrange to get more than 800 people from a variety of countries and from differing backgrounds to review more than 9,000 research reports on any subject, then to engage in a giant conspiracy to lie about the results, and finally to write a report thousands of pages long to sell this gigantic lie? Oh, and by the way, they’d have to do all of this on a volunteer basis, without getting paid, when doing so would trash their scientific reputation in the bargain. Clearly this is a non-starter.
The only other reason for not believing the scientists is that you think they’re wrong about the science. That’s about as foolish as saying that you’re a better tennis player than Roger Federer. If so, prove it by beating him on the court. In this case, the court involves years of study, decades of research, long and careful thought, and finally the acceptance of your ideas by a skeptical group of peers. You can’t just assert that you’re right and the scientists (and the science) are wrong without sounding like a fool. Prove it if you can.
Are scientists lying to protect their funding?
Scientists are human, and they worry about protecting their rice bowl as much as any one else. And it is true that there are instances of scientists “sexing up” their reports to garner attention, and win financial support in competition with other scientists. But to assume that 97% of the relevant scientists are lying just so they can beat their peers and get more funding is a statement that contradicts itself and collapses on inspection. If this was so, there would be a vast competition to out-do each other with ever-more outrageous claims in order to curry favor. That’s not how the IPCC report reads.
The other thing this kind of giant, funding conspiracy would have to involve would be for the funding agencies to be instructing scientists, directly or indirectly, that they would only get funding if they devoted their working lives to lying about their results.
I grew up surrounded by scientists, being my dad’s colleagues, and I can tell you that can’t work. When it comes to their work, scientists are cantankerous, opinionated, assertive people. You cannot get thousands of such people to surrender their beliefs, ignore their life’s passion, and passively agree to spend their time writing elaborate fairy tales. That’s beyond being foolish, it’s being willfully stupid.
And this conspiracy would also require that the primary funder, the U.S. government, be capable of orchestrating such a conspiracy, and have the motivation to do so. There are two, clear problems with this. First, the U.S. government, in this day of Internet revelations and whistle-blowers, couldn’t orchestrate a successful conspiracy to lie about the date of a weekend wienie-roast, let alone a massive conspiracy involving millions of people and decades of research. And those people outside government whose interests would be hurt, such as the oil companies, would shout about the conspiracy from the rooftops, and provide the mainstream media with mountains of data showing how the science was wrong with facts that could be verified.
Instead, there is a trickle of contrary literature, most of it pseudo-scientific and statistically suspect, using cherry-picked data, and drawing illogical conclusions.
Publication of large quantities of scientific evidence disproving climate change is not happening for the simple reason that climate deniers don’t have the facts to back up their claims. The most they can do is to confuse the public by misleading them, raising bogus questions, and perpetrating ad hominem attacks on the researchers in an attempt to avoid answering the science.
Moreover, what would be the U.S. government’s motivation in wanting to do this? And how has it been carried out under 5 presidents from both parties: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama? This is nonsense.
But the IPCC is a creation of the U.N.; can we trust the U.N.?
The IPCC may have been created by the U.N., but the scientists come from dozens of different countries, and the United States is the world’s biggest funder of scientific research. For this conspiracy thing to work, the U.S. government would have to be in it up to their necks, along with all the governments of all the other developed countries in the world. It won’t wash.
The science isn’t really settled, as the recent pause in warming proves
The science is settled. Go read the IPCC report, before buying into the whole conspiracy theory thing.
There is no pause in warming. Fifteen years is not enough to be a statistically significant sample in geologically meaningful terms. Go back 200 years and look at the temperature change record if you want to assess the trend. Meanwhile, the decade from 2000 to 2010 was the warmest on record – hardly evidence of a pause in warming.
Moreover, the other relevant yardsticks for climate change, such as the persistently rise in sea levels, the retreat of the glaciers around the world, the accelerating increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide, or the rising acidity of the oceans, all continue to point to a warming climate.
When 97% of the world’s climate-related science says that climate is warming, that means the debate is over and the science is settled.
Does that mean scientists know everything about climate, climate change, its speed of change, or can accurately predict its effects? Absolutely not. The Earth’s ecology is the most complex system we have ever studied, and we will continue to find surprises and learn new things for decades or centuries to come. But everything we learn will be based on the foundation of what we know now, just as Einsteinian physics is based on Newtonian physics.
Why would anyone lie by saying climate change isn’t happening?
Why would a small handful of scientists lie by saying climate change is not happening? For the same reason they lied about the relationship between smoking and cancer: they are being paid to do so.
In a now-infamous 2003 memo, U.S. pollster and consultant Frank Lunz advised Republican politicians to cultivate uncertainty when talking about climate change: “Voters believe that there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community. Should the public come to believe the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate,” wrote Mr. Lunz (the italics are his own). Nurturing doubt about climate-change science has become big business for public-relations companies and lobbyists
There is an organized and well-funded propaganda campaign being waged to cast doubt on the science behind climate change. The tactics used were invented by the tobacco industry to cast doubt on the research that showed that tobacco causes cancer. Indeed, many of the scientists involved (who seem to be scientists who will support any position for the right price or the right ideology) are the same as those who cast doubts on whether cigarettes caused cancer. They take advantage of the fact that the general public doesn’t always understand that someone who is an expert in one area of science may have zero knowledge or credibility in another. So, despite the fact that climate change is settled science, this group of anti-scientists have been very successful at sowing doubt.
But climate changes all the time. We’re not to blame for that!
This reasoning seems, on the surface, to make sense. Climate does change all the time, and has thousands of times over the course of the Earth’s history. And Nature is so big that it is hard to believe that what we do could matter. But there are now over 7 billion humans on the Earth, with almost a quarter of a million more born every day, each of us contributing to pollution and greenhouse gases (GHG). Collectively, we are definitely moving the dial.
But it doesn’t really matter if we’re to blame or not. When your house is on fire, you don’t throw gasoline on it. Putting more GHGs in the atmosphere is guaranteed to increase the speed and severity of climate change.
But if climate changes all the time, why should we worry about it? What’s different this time?
The last time the climate went through a major shift, as may be starting now, we lived in caves and hunted wooly mammoths with stone spears. We have no recorded history to guide us, and don’t know what to expect.
So there are two answers to why we should worry about climate change. First, you shouldn’t assume that just because climate changes have happened before that we will like the changes that happen next. There have been both hotter and colder periods in the Earth’s history that would have been very difficult, or even fatal, for us. A lot depends on how drastically the Earth’s climate changes.
Which brings me to the second point. No one, even the professional climate deniers, disputes that GHGs increase the amount of the sun’s heat that’s trapped. And no one disputes that humanity is dumping GHGs into the atmosphere at an unprecedented and ever-accelerating pace, unmatched in human history, and in quantities that are important in climate terms. But how much climate changes will be affected by the total cumulative amount of GHGs in the atmosphere, so the more GHGs we dump, the greater will be the change.
So what’s different this time is that humanity is giving climate change an almighty shove, and that has never happened before. Until the 20th century there weren’t enough of us to do much damage. But now there are, and the geologic record strongly suggests that we aren’t going to like it when climate shoves us back.
Gandhi also said the only true miracle was changing someone’s mind. If the facts can’t change someone’s mind on climate change, I doubt that anything, short of the ocean lapping at their windowsill, will. So now let’s turn to my field: the future.
Find the second part of this series on climate change here.
 Cook, John; “The 97%: We have a climate consensus”, Financial Post, 25 September 2013. http://opinion.financialpost.com/2013/09/25/counterpoint-consensus-of-evidence/
 “Nurturing doubt about climate change is big business”, Globe and Mail, August 12, 2006, pp. F4.
 If you’d like to read more about this, then I suggest you get hold of a copy of Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2010).