In a development that should come as a surprise to absolutely no one who’s paying any attention, Richard Muller of UC Berkley, in testimony before House Republicans at the end of March, stated that his preliminary findings upheld the scientific consensus that the surface temperature of the Earth has risen about 0.8 of a degree Celsius since the start of the twentieth century. This finding comes in spite of the fact that Muller had set out specifically to challenge the dominant views, leaving Republican members of the Science and Technology committee eagerly awaiting his dissenting conclusions powerfully disappointed when they did not come.
What is the likelihood that this will convince any of the climate change deniers who held their breath waiting for data that supports their pre-set narrative? Muller has foolishly described prominent bloggers from that camp as “heroes,” and was prompted to begin his investigation largely because of their concerns about such things as atmospheric temperature stations being located in urban heat islands. But now his exhaustive survey of such temperature stations is showing that there is no statistical difference between those that he considers well placed and those that are near to supposed sources of data-contamination.
I’ve encountered this argument before, usually in the form of pictures of weather stations with giant red arrows pointing to heat outlets nearby, accompanied by a one-word objection like “duh!” or “hello??” Now, I am of course no scientist, but I am confident that most people who are scientists know what they’re doing. The conspiratorial mindset that crafts these sorts of arguments against the science of global warming must make one of two assumptions: Either that the vast majority of scientists are too stupid to have considered what kinds of effects an urban environment could have on their data, or that the vast majority of scientists are conspiring to set up their data collection in places that will skew the information for the sake of an ideological end. Not being a scientist, I can’t say for certain that the persons monitoring such temperature stations have controlled for the effects of urban heat sources. However, having a background in philosophy, I can cite reductio ad absurdum in concluding that it’s far more likely that they did than that they are all part of an evil cabal conspiring to force you to drive electric cars, install solar panels, and wear bamboo clothing.
Though it is my sense that Richard Muller was led to his skeptical outlook by a handful of people engaged in an active campaign against factual evidence, I still believe his was a genuine skepticism. That is, he encountered the heat-source objections, and read the so-called ClimateGate e-mails, and was disturbed by what he saw, and so, having the resources to go gather and analyze the evidence himself, he did just that. But now that the project is coming to a close, he acknowledges that, whatever the causes of his skepticism, they were not indicative of flawed science. That is the nature of skepticism, which the media seems to forget when discussing climate change issues. Skepticism means not taking what you’re told at face value, but instead looking into the matter on your own, and drawing a conclusion based on the evidence, even if it’s not what you wanted to believe in the first place.
That is why I refuse to call most of those who object to the accepted climatological science skeptics. They are not; they’re global warming deniers. The impulse in them is not to explore the evidence and draw an unbiased conclusion, but to take the stance that is in opposition to the consensus and then find or manufacture objections to that dominant view. For these people, no amount of consensus, no uniformity of scientific evidence, no high-profile conversion from the skeptical viewpoint will ever be enough to convince them to stop fighting to refute what is increasingly irrefutable.
And so they look at pictures of temperature monitoring stations and yell “aha!” evidently believing that they have some special access to a common sense that virtually all climate scientists across the globe are lacking. Or they take a different tact, and dispute any one of the numerous clear indicators of the rising temperature of the Earth and its effects. I’ll concede, for instance, that I’ve seen some great evidence that arctic ice is actually expanding – in the winter. And when it’s winter in one’s own region of the globe, it doesn’t take long to find someone who will triumphantly point at the snow and say “See, it’s all a scam!” But you can’t claim that it’s common sense that refutes accepted science if you don’t even have the common sense to understand the difference between climate and weather.
As far as I’m concerned, if you’re still a global warming denier, it’s for one of two reasons. Either you are the sort that believes there are massively organized, top-secret campaigns of disinformation surrounding you every day, or you are just really earnestly committed to not changing your lifestyle, and believe that the things I mentioned above – less fuel consumption, emphasis on more sustainable resources – are just too inconvenient to be worthy sacrifices for the good of the entire planet.
If you’re still on the fence about climate change, you probably just haven’t looked closely enough at the subject. There really isn’t a debate left to be had about it. Or if there is still room for legitimate debate, it’s on particular points of contention within the broader understanding that the phenomenon is in fact taking place, and that human action is a major driving force in it. There never should have been as much discussion on that basic point as there has been, and if you haven’t been paying attention to the evidence, I can make that point very simple. If you took elementary Earth Science, you know about the greenhouse effect – the Earth is made warmer than it otherwise would be by gases in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide chief among them, that trap in some of the sun’s radiant energy. And if you’ve studied recent history, or have simply been alive for more than ten years, you should know that industrial processes and consumption of fossil fuels has increased the volumes of these gases in the atmosphere. That is all you need to know. Carbon dioxide warms the Earth and there’s more of it than there used to be. If you’re going to dispute global warming you have to dispute one of those points. You have to contend that the greenhouse effect doesn’t exist, or that human activity hasn’t produced carbon dioxide as a waste product, or you must claim that somehow more greenhouse gases doesn’t mean more greenhouse warming. And if you can’t do that, it doesn’t matter if all the world’s temperature monitoring stations are physically on fire, because it doesn’t change the fact that anthropogenic climate change is happening.
That’s one simple way of looking at the issue. Another simple view can be found in this video, which may be a bit more effective, in that it looks not to facts but to risks, and uses a game theoretic model to analyze what the consequences of inaction are in the face of even an uncertain threat from global warming. The video was posted nearly four years ago, and yet it still seems that we’ve come to no public consensus in favor of taking serious measures to counteract climate change. Even if you’re not sure of where you stand, you need to make up your mind to promote that consensus, considering what might be at stake.
Is Muller’s testimony going to end the debate? There’s not a chance of that, is there? But we really need to start asking when it’s going to be enough. How many times do the same facts have to be reiterated before we stop asking what the facts are? How much longer does a settled debate have to be kept on life support before we start acting in accordance with the conclusions of the winning side? When it comes to political issues in this country, it seems as though as long as there is one loud voice on the side of the status quo, no matter how solitary and uninformed, it is enough to keep the media, government, and public dubious about the notion of change. But let’s be clear on this: Politics has no business splitting citizens into partisan teams where the welfare of the planet is concerned.
This dialogue is like a trial in the public consciousness, but we’ve gone on presuming our outdated lifestyles innocent long enough. Their guilt has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt, and the tactics of the defense have long since become ridiculous. It is time for those lifestyles to be locked away in history. Every reasonable person has a responsibility to change their ways of doing things, and invest in a better future for everyone. But the necessary first step towards that transition is to stop inviting new inquiries, seeking out non-existent scandals, falsely reporting that the verdict is not in, and gratifying the claims of those with a vested interest in not changing a damn thing.
There has to come a time when enough is enough, and talk finally turns to action. That time should have come and gone by now. There is no justifiable excuse for not cutting carbon emissions and changing the way we consume. And there is no reason to not take those measures, other than the reason you might find in simply being threatened by change. But even if established science eventually turns out to be wrong, all the green movement is asking you to do is to improve the quality of the world in which we live, as well as the quality of the products you may use. Greenhouse effect or no greenhouse effect, we will live more happily with less pollution and a greater diversity of consumer goods.
Am I missing something? What reason could there be not to drive more fuel efficient vehicles, or cut your in-home energy consumption, or support industries that encourage the use and cultivation of underutilized, ecologically beneficial resources like bamboo, which produces thirty per cent more oxygen than equivalent numbers of trees? If you see a good reason why we should go on arguing and convening congressional hearings about global warming before we actually do something about it, let me know in the comments. But as far as I can see, if you’re in the opposition on this, it’s not on account of a genuine skepticism, but rather a staunch unwillingness to change the way we’ve always done things. If there’s any argument that can bring you around, I’m sure you’ll then find that that stubbornness was not only bad for the planet, but it was bad for you as a consumer.