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Letter to a Global Warming Denier

November 25, 2009

I don’t understand the science of global warming and, chances are, neither do you. Perhaps you have browsed Wikipedia or even the shelves of Barnes and Nobles in an effort to become better educated. I know I have. The basic claims of global warming science are familiar enough to us both: human activity – particularly the burning of fossil fuels – has caused an increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; the earth is now warming at a pace not seen since the last ice age; unless we take swift action to reduce carbon emissions, seas will rise and glaciers will melt. Neither you nor I is in any position to evaluate such claims, so we do what we’ve always done: accept as our own the opinions of those we trust.

You do not accept global warming science, and I believe you are wrong to do so. But you are no more of an ignoramus than I. You just happen to trust the wrong people – or so I believe. Perhaps you are a regular Dennis Prager listener or a Wall Street Journal reader or a young earth Creationist – it doesn’t really matter which one. What matters is that you know that the Bible is literally true due to a personal encounter with Jesus Christ or that the Wall Street Journal shares your belief in the perfection of markets. So you accept the views of these trusted sources on global warming, a subject you don’t know too much about. There is nothing wrong with that — indeed, I do likewise with sources that I trust. One such source is the 2007 I.P.C.C. report, which describes global warming as “unequivocal” and “very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

Like you, I am often reluctant to jump on the science bandwagon. Which isn’t to say that you and I don’t accept valid scientific claims, but that we try to be vigilant, lest a wolf in science’s clothing comes along and dupes us: a wolf like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens or Herbert Spencer. Perhaps you would like to add Al Gore and Charles Darwin to this list. Here I think you go wrong: it is one thing to point out that there are many questions that science will never be able answer – whether or not God exists, for example – and quite another to deny the findings of science within its own domain. As recent popes have eloquently explained, the theory of evolution, while scientifically valid, never really touches on the religious question. So to reject evolution on the biblical grounds (or vice versa) is to confuse a religious with a scientific question. Nor does global warming science decide political questions (though it does help guide us).

Here’s where the plot thickens. As you may have already heard, hackers recently disclosed thousands of e-mail correspondences between prominent climate scientists, some of them calling into question the objectivity of climate change research. Green Inc. Blog reports:

The thousands of messages, some dating back more than a decade, shed unflattering light on a number of scientists who harshly questioned the scholarship and motives of other scientists who expressed some doubts about the causes and extent of global climate change.

The e-mail messages also appear to chronicle efforts to keep skeptical scientific opinions out of major journals and to prevent their inclusion in the studies of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body that has provided the leading technical and scientific work on global warming.

Of course, it didn’t take the hacking of e-mail correspondences at a British university to convince you that global warming is a hoax — you already knew that. Nor do the e-mails budge my faith to the contrary. Sure, I am disappointed with these climate scientists, and the e-mails do to some extent undermine my confidence in scientific objectivity.

But not all that much. The desire on the part of some climate scientists to suppress dissent tells me very little, beyond the firm conviction of those scientists that global warming is true. To draw an analogy, Torquemada did not stretch heretics out on the rack because he doubted Catholicism, but because he was absolutely sure of it. (Which isn’t to say that he was morally right to do so or that Catholicism is true.) Like Torquemada, these climate scientists believe that the spread of falsehood presents a greater threat to the public than intolerance of heresy does. To reiterate, I understand such zealotry — however reprehensible — to be a sign of earnest conviction on the part of climate scientists, and not a cover-up for their doubts.

One might, I suppose, argue that these climate scientists have suppressed “heresy” as a cynical means of pursuing their radical left-wing agenda. This is, I presume, the view of Senator James Inhofe of Oklamaha, whom the Green Inc. blog quotes as follows:

I certainly don’t condone the manner in which these e-mails were released; however, now that they are in the public domain, lawmakers have an obligation to determine the extent to which the so-called ‘consensus’ of global warming, formed with billions of taxpayer dollars, was contrived in the biased minds of the world’s leading climate scientists.

Inhofe’s use of the word “biased” here is peculiar. On the one hand, it might mean “incapable of looking at the facts objectively.” Climate scientists are, according to this interpretation, so steeped in left-wing thought – particularly the desire to grow government and punish business – so as to be rendered incapable of doing their jobs. (Presumably, if you put a right-wing scientist in a lab coat, he could offer a more objective account of global warming.) I suspect, however, that Inhofe means something else by “biased” – namely, that climate scientists know the case for global warming to be weak, but nevertheless suppress the facts.

I hate to be rash, but is it not it possible that the only “biased mind” exposed by these comments is that of Inhofe himself?

Neither of us can be sure as to the ultimate significance of the e-mails – which brings me to my second point. The suspicion you bring to global warming science, I bring to Dennis Prager and The Wall Street Journal. Which isn’t to say I question the motives of a Prager or the average WSJ op-ed columnist. Rather, it seems to me that global warming science challenges powerful business interests — particularly Big Oil. I am, as a result, skeptical of global warming skepticism. I find it troublesome, for example, that one of Prager’s trusted climate change experts, Christopher Horner, is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a “public interest group dedicated to free enterprise and limited government,” according to the website. The potential of a Christopher Horner to make bogus claims on behalf of cynical interests seems to me greater than the potential that an I.P.C.C. might muster the support of thousands of cynical scientists from around the world in order to advance a vast left-wing conspiracy.

But, then again, I could be wrong.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2009 2:58 am

    Great post, and some very good thinking on how to go about making up your mind on a complex topic that is not your own specialty.

    I touched on the latter topic as well, compiling some hints on how to evaluate the various claims out there: http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2009/02/08/who-to-believe/

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    November 27, 2009 1:09 pm

    Bart, your post is very helpful, especially the hint about cause-and-effect: “Activists may try to persuade you to trade in your SUV for a Prius because they’re worried about climate change; not the other way around.”

    The reverse is often true for deniers, who begin with a political dogma (“government should under no circumstances interfere with markets”) and, from there, extrapolate about climate change.

  3. November 28, 2009 6:15 am

    In principle, I agree that we all have to choose which authorities to appeal to. But in practice, most denier attacks on the science come well within reach of the simplest logic that it’s really not necessary to get too hung up about it. The vast majority of deniers have *no* position, and accept (for example) that the world is actually cooling, despite the fact they wouldn’t accept Spring is coming just because today was warmer than yesterday.

    In theory, we could go on to discuss more tangled problems of choosing authorities to appeal to, the subtle influence of political bias etc – but I can’t quite see the point when there’s so much basic-clear-thinking low hanging fruit to be had.

  4. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    November 28, 2009 11:53 am

    Dan, I partly agree with you. Bart has a great post (see this comment thread) helping the layperson distinguish fact from fiction. One of his suggestions seemed especially pertinent to the e-mail scandal: don’t confuse cause and effect. As Bart explains, “Activists may try to persuade you to trade in your SUV for a Prius because they’re worried about climate change; not the other way around.”

    I have no real doubt that Bart is correct, for reasons I elaborate in the post. I think it is, nevertheless, important to acknowledge that logic alone does not compel me to accept global warming science. It COULD be the case that cause-and-effect runs the other way, as a James Inhofe might suggest — logic alone cannot rule out the possibility, however remote, of a worldwide left-wing conspiracy.

    So credibility also comes into play. Sure, some of the arguments global warming deniers make are extremely weak. To borrow your example, a cold spell in 2008 is not any more indicative of a larger global cooling trend than is a single warm day indicative that Spring is on its way. Yet it is also true that, even if you or I can demonstrate the folly of one specific argument against global warming, it doesn’t necessarily follow that ALL arguments against global warming are weak. Global warming deniers might conceivably win the war after losing any number of battles.

    Essentially, what I am saying is this: scientific knowledge is the only surefire means of settling the global warming “debate” (I am hesitant to call it that). Logic helps sift through competing claims, yes, but the layperson ultimately does not make up his mind based on logic alone — he decides who can and cannot be trusted.

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