Expired · 16th March 2010
Climate change skeptics think they have discredited the basic conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by exposing several mistakes in the IPCC's 2007 report. The mistakes in nearly 1,000 pages of documentation are essentially small and unsubstantial. They do not undermine the IPCC's conclusion that anthropogenic global warming is occurring and that the consequences are imminent and serious. But the mistakes do deserve an explanatory response.
First, the scientists at East Anglia University who withheld raw temperature data from skeptics should not have done so. This behaviour contradicted the spirit of open enquiry that is the hallmark of good science. The only excusable explanation is that they were forgivably human, trying to protect themselves from exhausting assault. And, like the most IPCC scientists, they were probably unskilled in the art of public relations, so they made a serious strategic mistake.
Second, the IPCC did not scrutinize carefully enough the predicted rate of melt of the Himalaya glaciers. The glaciers may not be melting as forecasted, and the IPCC erred in drawing conclusions from inadequate empirical evidence. More studies must be done, although, should the 15,000 glaciers melt by 2135 rather than 2035, a 100 year reprieve will still result in the same dire consequences.
And third, the IPCC crossed the boundary of its mandate by advocating solutions rather than reporting science. Its charter explicitly states that, "The IPCC is a scientific body. It reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socio economic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change.... The work of the organization is therefore policy-relevant and yet policy neutral, never policy-prescriptive." The IPCC should not have petitioned for strategies to address climate change, and it should not have been hesitant to acknowledge this and the other mistakes it made.
But these errors do not warrant a public discrediting of the IPCC's basic findings. They remain sound and unassailable. Even Bjorn Lomborg, the arch-critic of preventative strategies to combat global climate change, concedes that the warming is very real. And Dr. Benny Peiser, director of a climate-skeptic organization, the Global Warming Policy Foundation, does not contest the validity of the process. "We are certainly not taking a critical stance on the basic science of the greenhouse effect or the fact that CO2 emissions in the atmosphere are having an effect on the climate," he writes (Guardian Weekly, Dec. 18/09). His criticism is with the "hysterical" and "emotional" debate; he wants "a more flexible and long-term approach" to the problem.
So, why is the public's skepticism in global climate change rising? For many reasons. But the most relevant one to explore here is its misunderstanding of science.
Science is a set of theories, not a set of certainties. In a BBC television series, Dangerous Knowledge, David Malone outlines the fundamentals of modern science as being "uncertainty", "incompleteness" and "uncomputability". In the public's mind, however, science has become "the new guarantor that there is certainty and that we can attain it," he writes in the New Scientist (Aug. 4/07). This expectation of certainty is a "dangerous knowledge" because it creates an inclination to reject everything as untrue when nothing is absolutely true. Consider climate change as an example.
Computer models of climate change are incredibly sophisticated and complicated. But they can't match the complexity of our planet's climate systems, so they can't predict precisely what will happen as global warming occurs. Skeptics erroneously jump to the conclusion that climate change is not happening because the modelling forecasts of computers are not perfectly accurate.
Malone addresses this issue by describing the failings of computers. To most people they seem to be "certainty engines – the machine that can solve the problems we can't. What we failed to notice is that the computer has actually made us less certain; we now know, for example, that we cannot precisely model weather, climate or the economy, and probably never will" (Ibid.). So skeptics take an unusually cold winter in one place as evidence that the warming theory must be incorrect. Or they take a few mistakes in an incredibly complicated IPCC document as proof that the entirety of climate science is flawed. They expect certainty, completeness and computability, exactly the attributes that do not constitute modern science. When they find a mistake or an inconsistency, they extrapolate that anomaly to the whole system – somewhat like junking a car when a latch on the glove compartment is broken.
Is global warming happening? The likelihood is more than 90 percent that elevated levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are heating the planet. Can we know for certain? No. But playing Russian Roulette with nine of ten chambers loaded with live bullets is a fool's game. Only the most reckless and speculative of gamblers would bet against such odds. And what's the point when the reward of winning is the status quo and the cost of losing is catastrophe.
This is the gamble that climate change skeptics are taking, even though they don't understand modern science, they don't understand the odds and they don't understand the consequences. They aren't even considering other disastrous effects, such as rising sea levels and ocean acidification.
We are now beyond the point where the obstruction of skeptics to corrective measures is merely an academic exercise, the game and challenge of being contrary. Their reluctance to accept near-certainty – as close as modern science gets to truth – is now jeopardizing our chances of stopping an unstoppable slide into the unthinkable.