Reflections on Global Climate Change

An innocent Facebook post by my colleague Clyde Wilcox transmogrified into a “yes it is” and “not it’s not” wallfest on climate change (with Mike Brown and Mark Hines engaging). Mark believes that climate change — sometimes known as ‘global warming’ is happening; Mike does not.

May I reflect at some length?

First, I’m going to assume that Mark and Mike are good and decent (informed, thoughtful) people acting in good faith. Like me, I hope.

I believe that climate change is real, caused (or furthered) by human activity, and potentially highly disruptive. Lots of people will be hurt.

But rather than engaging in the “it’s true!” or “it’s false” debate can I pose a couple questions, and offer some of my answers?

My two questions are for my many FB friends who do not believe that climate change is happening.

1. Do you believe in evolution?
2. What would it take for you to believe that human-caused climate change is happening?

If you do not believe in evolution, then we are probably (certainly?) thinking in different worlds.  Yes, the theory of evolution has gaps and uncertainties, but it is about the most well-established ‘big picture’ understanding of life.  If you think the theory is false, well, ok.  You have lots of company: about half of the American public believes in creationism. But if you believe this it implies that you don’t really believe in scientific evidence.  So if you reject the evidence in evolution it really doesn’t surprise me that you don’t believe the evidence on climate change.

If you do believe in evolution, you are open to scientific evidence.  So what would it take you to believe in climate change?

Please allow me to offer my own answer to the opposite question: What would it take me to reject the theory of climate change?

I would reject it if the major groups that study climate change (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the US Global Research Program, the Arctic Council, and many many more) came to the conclusion that it was not happening. No major scientific group has rejected this conclusion.

I’m not a climate expert, or even much of a climate student. But I’m willing to trust the experts on this.

Ok, yes, I know: experts get things wrong.  Scientists can be bull-headed. They can cling to out-dated ideas.  But, in general, scientists want to get things right.

At the beginning of the 1600s, pretty much all informed opinion held that the sun rotated around the world.  Galileo didn’t, and his views eventually dominated when the evidence became incontrovertible that the earth rotates around the sun.

Only 50 years ago, there was lots of disagreement about smoking causing cancer (although much of the disagreement was funded by tobacco companies). Today, the evidence is overwhelming that smoking does cause cancer, and no legitimate scientist would dispute that.

You may argue: well, scientists are funded to show that climate change is occurring, so scientists have jumped on the money wagon.

Perhaps.  But no scientist wants to appear the fool.  And science will be funded anyway, so the specific conclusion that scientists must agree with climate change seems odd.

Moreover: scientists gain fame by disproving the conventional wisdom, not supporting it.  No one ever receives a Nobel for finding that, yeah, what everyone thought was true is, in fact, true.

So: If you don’t believe that humans are causing climate change, what is your standard for agreeing that climate change is happening?


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