You see, we are smart, so we see these small things coming and we see the trend is going. But we are unwilling to act unless it’s a bit too late or unless it is inevitable to act, really… Not that we are bad at recognising the trends. We see them, you would have to be stupid not to see many of these trends, right? But we are unwilling to act because it’s easier not to act than to act. Because to act, it is always some sort of sacrifice. And we are not willing to take voluntary sacrifice.
Burying our heads in the sand would leave future generations at the mercy of potentially dangerous changes in our climate. The only sure way to mitigate these threats is to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions dramatically over the next few decades. But even if we don’t reduce emissions, the reality of adapting to climate change will require responses from government at all levels.
Even without my work, or that of the entire sub-field of studying past climates, scientists are in broad agreement on the reality of these changes and their near-certain link to human activity.
We have to make it clear that the ice sheets are not Republicans or Democrats – they don’t have a political agenda as they disappear
Denialists are usually not deterred by the extreme isolation of their theories, but rather see it as the indication of their intellectual courage against the dominant orthodoxy and the accompanying political correctness, often comparing themselves to Galileo.
Whatever the motivation, it is important to recognize denialism when confronted with it. The normal academic response to an opposing argument is to engage with it, testing the strengths and weaknesses of the differing views, in the expectations that the truth will emerge through a process of debate. However, this requires that both parties obey certain ground rules, such as a willingness to look at the evidence as a whole, to reject deliberate distortions and to accept principles of logic. A meaningful discourse is impossible when one party rejects these rules.
I finally became convinced that the theory of creation actually had a much better scientific basis than the theory of evolution, for the creation model was actually better able to explain the physical and biological complexity in the world… Science has startled us with its many discoveries and advances, but it has hit a brick wall in its attempt to rid itself of the need for a creator and designer.
[Religion and science] …are deeply opposed. Science is a discipline of investigation and constructive doubt, questing with logic, evidence and reason to draw conclusions. Faith, by stark contrast, demands a positive suspension of critical faculties.‘Sciences proceeds by setting up hypotheses, ideas or models and then attempts to disprove them. So a scientist is constantly asking questions, being sceptical. Religion is about turning untested belief into unshakeable truth through the power of institutions and the passage of time.”
The God Delusion, 2006.
Reason has built the modern world. It is a precious, but also a fragile thing which can be corroded by apparently harmless irrationality. We must favour verifiable evidence over private feeling. Otherwise we leave ourselves vulnerable to those who would obscure the truth.
Slaves to Superstition, 2007.
The basic scientific conclusions on climate change are very robust and for very good reason. The greenhouse effect is simple and sound science: greenhouse gases trap heat, and humans are emitting ever more greenhouse gases. There will be oscillations, there will be uncertainties. But the logic of the greenhouse effect is rock solid and the long-term trends associated with the effects of human emissions are clear in the data. The arguments from those who would deny the science look more and more like those who denied the association between HIV and Aids or smoking and cancer. Science and policymaking thrive on challenge and questioning; they are vital to the health of enquiry and democracy. But at some point it makes sense to move on to the challenges of policymaking and accept that the evidence is overwhelming. We are way past that point.
The Uselessness of Certainty
There is a widely used notion that does plenty of damage: the notion of “scientifically proven”. Nearly an oxymoron. The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never ‘certain’. Lack of certainty is precisely what makes conclusions more reliable than the conclusions of those who are certain: because the good scientist will be ready to shift to a different point of view if better elements of evidence, or novel arguments emerge. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.
Failure to appreciate the value of the lack of certainty is at the origin of much silliness in our society. Are we sure that the Earth is going to keep heating up, if we do not do anything? Are we sure of the details of the current theory of evolution? Are we sure that modern medicine is always a better strategy than traditional ones? No we are not, in none of these cases. But if from this lack of certainty we jump to the conviction that we better not care about global heating, that there is no evolution and the world was created six thousand years ago, or that traditional medicine must be more effective that the modern medicine, well, we are simply stupid. Still, many people do these silly inferences. Because the lack of certainty is perceived as a sign of weakness, instead of being what it is: the first source of our knowledge.
Every knowledge, even the most solid, carries a margin of uncertainty. (I am very sure about my own name … but what if I just hit my head and got momentarily confused?) Knowledge itself is probabilistic in nature, a notion emphasized by some currents of philosophical pragmatism. Better understanding of the meaning of probability, and especially realizing that we never have, nor need, ‘scientifically proven’ facts, but only a sufficiently high degree of probability, in order to take decisions and act, would improve everybody’ conceptual toolkit.
By over-emphasizing the need for rigorous assessment of the specific role of greenhouse-gas forcing in driving observed biological changes, the IPCC effectively yields to the contrarians’ inexhaustible demands for more ‘proof’, rather than advancing the most pressing and practical scientific questions. This focus diverts energies and research funds away from developing crucial adaptation and conservation measures. To improve estimates of future biological impacts we need research focused on how other human stressors exacerbate impacts of climate change. Most importantly from a conservation standpoint, these other stressors are more easily managed on local scales than climate itself, and thus, paradoxically, are crucial to constructing adaptation programmes to cope with anthropogenic climate change.
For years now, large numbers of prominent scientists have been warning, with increasing urgency, that if we continue with business as usual, the results will be very bad, perhaps catastrophic. They could be wrong. But if you’re going to assert that they are in fact wrong, you have a moral responsibility to approach the topic with high seriousness and an open mind. After all, if the scientists are right, you’ll be doing a great deal of damage.
But what we had, instead of high seriousness, was a farce: a supposedly crucial hearing stacked with people who had no business being there and instant ostracism for a climate skeptic who was actually willing to change his mind in the face of evidence.
Science adjust it’s views based on what’s observed.
Faith is the denial of observation, so that belief can be preserved.
When the cold war ended, we thought we were going to have a clash of civilizations. It turns out we’re having a clash of generations.