Science is Not a Tyrant

June 14, 2011 at 4:42 pm

In December 2007, Sweden’s environment minister, Andreas Carlgren, gave a speech at a UN climate negotiation in Bali. It contained these embarrassing claims:

Science has given crystal clear confirmation of what is required of us to avoid a dramatic threat to our earth’s climate…Science urges us that we therefore need to limit global warming to 2 degrees…By 2050 the emissions need to be reduced by at least 50 to 85 percent. This is what [the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)] tells us.

In fact, almost nothing about climate science can be characterized as crystal clear. If matters really were that straightforward a report by an advisory council prepared for Carlgren’s own ministry would not have arrived at the opposite conclusion:

It is worth noting that the IPCC has not taken a position on the level at which temperature rise is or may be deemed to be harmful. [bold added, see p. 50 of this 169-page report]

(The report appears to have been finalized in August 2007, but was only published in December of that year, a mere four days after Calgren’s Bali speech.)

Carlgren says that, with the IPCC serving as its spokesperson, science has pointed to a thermometer and told us precisely what amount of warming will be dangerous. But other people – including the authors of a report favourable to the IPCC – insist that no such thing has occurred.

If this is what clarity looks like, heaven save us from confusion.

We all need to understand that climate science involves a great deal of uncertainty. Our knowledge is sparse, at best. Since this planet is 4.5 billion years old, and since humans have been around for only about 250,000 years - we’re latecomers to the party. Even worse, we only began recording temperatures on a somewhat global scale a few hundred years ago.

When you think about it, it isn’t terribly plausible that scientists relying on such meager data can know for certain that current temperature fluctuations aren’t part of a multi-hundred (or multi-thousand) year natural cycle.

Nevertheless, activists, politicians, and journalists love to play the ‘science says’ game. (A great example is Vanity Fair‘s coverage of the Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. Backup link here.)

But imagine that city officials knock on my door one day and tell me that an unusual ground fissure has formed at the far end of my street. I’m told the city has a plan for dealing with the situation, but if things don’t work out, there’s a chance the fissure could expand and my house could eventually be swallowed up.

In such an instance I have a range of choices, each with its own pluses and minuses:

  • I can try to sell my house and move immediately – before all my neighbors decide to do the same thing.
  • After conducting some research, I can conclude that the city’s approach to dealing with the problem has been successful on other occasions, so there’s little to worry about.
  • Me and my neighbors can pool our resources and hire an expert to provide us with a second opinion.
  • I can decide that, if the fissure spreads beyond a certain point, that’s when I’ll put a ‘For Sale’ sign on my front lawn.

The fissure is a scientific fact. But there’s no hand-lettered sign reaching out from its depths with “crystal clear confirmation” about how we should respond to it. Different people on my street will choose to do different things – depending on how much they like their current home, what level of faith they have in city officials, whether or not this is a good time to be selling property, whether their children are having nightmares, and so forth.

In other words, even if it’s true that the modest warming created by human-generated CO2 is going to get amplified by positive feedbacks in the atmosphere (rather than dampened by negative ones), how individuals, communities, and nations should respond to global warming is up for debate:

  • Should we place our faith in new technologies, trusting that human ingenuity will find a way to neutralize excess carbon dioxide before global warming becomes acute?
  • Should we focus the bulk of our attention on shoring up seawalls and levees – and on ensuring that adequate water supplies are available to those most at risk of drought?
  • Should we increase our efforts to eradicate malaria now so that – with or without global warming – thousands of African toddlers won’t die of it every day as is currently the case?
  • Should we double-check the world’s temperature records, just to make sure that the few tenths of a degree change that has everyone in a tizzy aren’t, in fact, the result of errors?
  • Should we trust that future generations will be smart, well-equipped human beings capable of taking care of themselves?
  • Or should we declare that the one and only acceptable solution is drastic worldwide emissions reductions starting now?

When politicians such as the Swedish environment minister insist that ‘science says’ that more than half of our emissions must cease within a few decades, they’ve decided to skip the debate altogether. They haven’t placed a range of scenarios before the public. They haven’t invited people with a variety of perspectives and expertise to discuss the pluses and minuses (aka tradeoffs) of competing approaches.

Instead, they’ve decided that only one response will do.

There is nothing democratic about this. This is an example of a small group of people imposing their own opinions on everyone else. These people are implying that science is a tyrant, that ground fissures come with an instruction manual identifying the one acceptable way to respond to them.

Nice try. But if Al Gore is right and we’re experiencing a planetary emergency we need all the brainpower and all the debate we can get. If UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is correct about climate change being the defining challenge of our age the inhabitants of this planet are entitled to know what are our full range of options really are.

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There is, of course, a painfully obvious reason why IPCC-affiliated personnel think emissions reduction is the answer. For a long time I was puzzled by the fact that the climate change discussion is a package deal. Not only are we told there’s a problem, we’re being sold one particular solution. That didn’t feel right.

Now, it all makes sense. The IPCC’s chairman, remember, has declared that his organization’s “main customer” isn’t ordinary people – or even the governments of the world. Rather, the IPCC’s purpose is to support – ding, ding, ding – the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change negotiations.

Since the UNFCCC is an emissions treaty, of course the IPCC thinks emissions reduction represents the best response. Duh.

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Entry filed under: climate bible, ethical & philosophical, free speech, IPCC. Tags: , , , , , .

How Much Harm to Humans is OK? IPCC: These People Haven’t Learned a Thing


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