Recently, a friend commented on and shared an article on Facebook titled, “Climate Change Fears of Teen Activist Are Empirically Baseless.” A commenter responded, as if he was saying something dispositive about the shared article, with this:
“These media sources are moderately to strongly biased toward conservative causes through story selection and/or political affiliation.”
True! Also true, however, is that there are sources that are moderately to strongly biased toward non-conservative causes… So, the ad hominem attack on the article is a classic sound and fury signifying nothing.
As if biased reporting on climate change were not a big enough problem, people in government agencies tend to be moderately to strongly biased toward causes that will lead to greater governmental power. Even if a scientist at NASA held a different view of the matter than the one NASA wanted to present (or was ordered to present by the president), speaking up against the climate change narrative would likely be hazardous to her career. (The same is true of professors at universities.) Moreover, many, if not almost all scientists want their research to be funded and their reports published, and some work is more likely to be funded and published than other work. Whether their work gets noticed depends on the receptivity of biased news outlets. Diogenes would have fared just poorly had he changed his search to a disinterested man. When someone who has a stake in the outcome of her assertion professes something to be true, skepticism is warranted.
Highly honest, smart, and educated climatologists disagree about the extent, if any, to which humans are affecting climate, how big the problem is, and whether elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations will do more harm than good or vice versa. Even if there were a consensus of climate scientists on all three of those issues (which there is not[i]) a consensus by scientists about a non-falsifiable claim is not proof the claim is true. Neither is a consensus considered to be scientific by respectable scientists. As Nobel laureate physicist Richard Fineman put it, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”[ii] A belief in the edicts of experts might, on occasion, happen to be valid, but a belief is not scientific.
In its efforts to catastrophize the issue (to increase the importance of international organizations?), the IPCC’s first climate change report in 1990 predicted a 3° per decade rise in global temperature. The IPCC relied on scientific studies, including NASA’s (the source upon which the Facebook responder relied). “Measurements” of how much the temperature has increased over the three decades since 1990 are around 1.3° per decade. Skepticism about IPCC’s motives and its summary of reports (many claim that the actual report is vastly more scientific (circumspect and fair) than the summary written for public and politician consumption and use. There are strong reasons to be skeptical of the IPCC and its reports.
Both global warming and global cooling create problems. On balance, however, the problems of global cooling are far more and more serious than those of global warming. “The NASA Earth Observatory notes three particularly cold intervals: one beginning about 1650, another about 1770, and the last in 1850, all separated by intervals of slight warming.” Humans, of course, played no significant role in bringing on or recovering from the Little Ice Age. Because no one fully understands why those cycles occur or their exact periodicity, the possibility (probability?) that the Earth is on the verge of another Little Ice Age cannot be reasonably ruled out, i.e., no one knows that we will not soon need every extra degree of warming we can muster. Because increasing global temperatures significantly will take a long time, if we will need more heat, the last thing we should do is to spend resources to slow warming.
Humans constantly confront a Pandora’s box of problems (and always will, no matter how many problems are solved). Climate change may very well be one of them. However, to address a problem, resources must be devoted to it. Resources spent on one problem are not available to be spent on other problems. If the goal is to leave our grandchildren a better world, getting the prioritization of the most efficacious use of resources is essential, i.e., getting the biggest bangs for each buck must be the goal.[iii]
Science has much to say about problems confronting humans, how much addressing each problem might cost, and the probability that spending resources on a problem will mitigate the problem. Science has essentially nothing to say about how the multiple conflicting values implicated by a massive reallocation of resources should be weighted in prioritization of multiple catastrophic problems.
Consequently, the prioritization of priorities is ultimately a moral question. Science is of essentially no use concerning what is and is not moral, much less the weighting of various moral values. Sadly, however, philosophers must rely on scientific studies (about which much skepticism is warranted) to set moral priorities. Complicating matters, philosophers do not agree concerning the prioritization of various moral values.
For climatologists to demand that resources be spent on meteorological problems (protecting and promoting the importance of their work) “to protect our grandchildren’s future,” is, at a minimum, self-serving.
Given the above-described problems with doing something about AGW, it is irresponsible for a non-climatologists (1) not to be skeptical of AGW claims and the prudence of attempting its proposed remedies, or (2) to demand, without a comprehensive understanding of all the issues involved and the uncertainty of good results, that humans devote massive amounts of our scarce resources to global warming efforts and away from other problems that have higher chances of improving the lives of our grandchildren.
[i] See “Julia Hartley-Brewer meets Matt Ridley.”
[ii] See “Richard Feynman’s Philosophy of Science.”
[iii] See “Cost-Effective Approaches to Save the Environment, with Bjorn Lomborg.”