In this piece, I conclude that in the USA today there is widespread confusion about the difference between (a) the science of anthropogenic global warming and (b) debates about the kind of response that is necessary. Understanding this confusion, and its causes and consequences, is critically important if we are to understand why discussions about global warming rarely seem to generate agreement.
I have been following the topic of climate change (also sometimes referred to as global warming) for years, through both print and broadcast media and online. I occasionally share interesting articles or ideas with my friends on Facebook, and sometimes those posts elicit lively discussion about whether global warming is actually occurring or whether the human contribution to global warming (known as anthropogenic global warming or AGW) is major, minor, or nonexistent. Oftentimes, these conversations focus on the degree to which a consensus exists among scientists, the interrelationship between climate science and politics, or the things that individuals or the larger community can do to limit AGW or its likely effects.
Most of my Facebook friends pretty much agree with my overall "take" on these issues (on which, see here), but a few of them (and some family members) have very different views. Generally, discussions among us remain cordial and focused on the topics at hand, although there have been times when discussion has turned into vigorous debate and even vociferous argument. Eventually, most people with views different from the majority of my friends decide that there is little or nothing they can do to "win over" others to their point of view, and they usually stay out of future discussions on these topics.
I myself often feel at a loss as to how to prevent discussions from becoming arguments, especially when people take completely opposite positions on such fundamental questions as what counts as evidence or whether a particular line of argument follows the rules of logic. The teacher in me sometimes wishes to take the participants aside, sit them down in front of a chalkboard, and take them through some elementary exercises in logical analysis or the steps in the scientific method. However, few (adult) people are willing to believe that they are in need of such instruction, and I've found that I'm very likely to be charged with arrogance, elitism, or worse if I insinuate that any person's point of view is illogical or unsupported. Even if I take pains to adopt a friendly, agreeable tone or point out aspects of another person's perspective that are correct, almost no one has been willing to say something like "Ah, I see your point," or "I hadn't considered that." Typically, what happens is either complete agreement or some variation of agreeing to disagree followed by the withdrawal of one or both parties from further conversation about the topic.
I find it very interesting that climate change in particular is especially likely to lead to loggerheads in discussion. Certainly there are other topics upon which agreement seems difficult: religion comes especially to mind, or anything associated with religion such as evolution vs. creation (or what should be taught in schools) or whether gay marriage should be permitted. But climate change isn't a religious issue--at least not explicitly so (but see below).
However, the topic of climate change does seem to be infused with that other third rail of polite conversation: politics. Perhaps this is one clue as to why people's opinions about it seem so deeply ingrained. Just as it's nearly impossible to convince a dyed-in-the-wool limited government person to accept that increasing government spending on anything other than defense is good for the economy (despite any evidence that it might be), it also seems nearly impossible to convince someone who doesn't believe that AGW is a factor in climate change to reconsider that position in light of a newly-released study or report. It's almost as if the issue is determined not by the facts (or any argument supported by evidence of any kind) but by a fundamental choice made primarily on the basis of intuition, emotion, or personality. "I don't believe in AGW" or "AGW is clearly occurring" are like statements of fundamental values or commitments like "give me liberty or give me death" or "non-violence is always better than the alternative." Just as American politics can be characterized as an increasingly intractable chasm between progressives and conservatives (or "blue" states and "red" states), climate change--something which on the face of it ought to be a scientific issue--at least in the US can be characterized by an increasingly insurmountable divide between those who fundamentally believe that humans cannot alter the future of the Earth and those who believe
Notice that belief in AGW has actually decreased among Americans since 2008, even as Gallup has found that Americans believe that they understand the issue increasingly well. Indeed, large numbers of Americans believe that global warming as a problem has been generally exaggerated, as this graph shows:
89% of adults believe climate change is at least a fairly serious problem.
This divide among Americans in their views of the human contribution to climate change is highly correlated with the increasingly intractable political chasm mentioned above. Seventy-one percent (71%) of Democrats believe that the current "rise in the earth's temperatures [is] due to pollution from human activities" (i.e. they believe in AGW), while only thirty-six percent (36%) of Republicans believe this (source). While one's political party is not completely determinative on this matter (as it seems to be, for example, in the case of support for increased government deficit spending to help the poor), beliefs about AGW reflect--at least in part--the same fundamentally important beliefs that lead someone to choose their political party.
Why is this? While some people's political viewpoints are less easily characterized as conservative or liberal--for example, I have a gay Republican friend who strongly favors gay rights but also strongly wants to limit the size of government--it's fairly easy to understand why a conservative person might be against further deficit spending to help the poor, or why a liberal person might in favor of granting increased rights and social acceptance to homosexuals. However, it's not immediately obvious why belief in AGW would be determined (at least in part) by political beliefs.
Let me put this into perspective. In a quick search, I couldn't find any poll data showing that Republicans and Democrats differ on, say, the cause of cancer or the size of the universe. If such differences do exist, no one has deemed them sufficiently interesting to study. I'm guessing that there is wide acceptance among Americans of all political persuasions that these questions are empirical questions, to be answered through the typical processes of scientific inquiry, including observation, experimentation, creating and testing theories, peer review of publications, meta-analyses, and so on. Few people would claim that a particular scientist's opinion about how smoking leads to lung cancer or the speed at which the universe is expanding reflects that scientist's political views at any level. And while some people may distrust a particular scientific finding due to suspicion that a scientist or team has cooked the numbers to secure external funding or promotion, very few people think that science itself--or any particular branch of science--is irretrievably tainted by such factors.
But plenty of people believe that the science behind AGW is tainted by non-scientific factors.
Take this truly interesting example of people arguing that scientists who believe in AGW are tainted by non-scientific (i.e. political) concerns, recently published at the Weekly Standard. The authors (one of whom is a psychiatrist who teaches courses about conspiracy and groupthink at Harvard Extension School) base their argument in part on what they see as a shift in language from the phrase "global warming" to the phrase "climate change" during the past few years.
These recent winters have been cold, and the summers themselves not so hot. That, in turn, creates a problem, for no sense of impending apocalypse survives widespread disbelief. And so—right around the point where it all started to seem a little hard to swallow—the phrase climate change, more generic if less picturesque, began to slip into public pronouncements, supplanting the old, falsifiable term global warming."Climate change," the authors say, is unfalsifiable and therefore is a convenient catch-phrase for the pseudo-science behind AGW:
...the concept of falsifiability still grants some insight into the vagaries of modern environmentalism. In politics, the notion that climate change can’t be falsified—everything only serves to confirm it, nothing imaginable can contradict it—has been a marvelous boon. In science, the fact that climate change can’t be falsified seems to prove, mostly, that climate change isn’t science: There’s no way to test for it, no way to quantify it, and no way to demonstrate it.Read that again: "climate change isn't science." Then what is it? The authors are clear:
The research enterprise in the modern world is a large-scale activity. Difficult questions are raised, and hypotheses are generated to move toward an answer. This requires hiring staff, recruiting experts and consultants, purchasing equipment, and putting all of it in a building, preferably on a university campus. Most of all, what’s needed for this kind of research is oceans of money. And where money is the driver, politics is the unavoidable road down which the scientist has to race. Grant-making authorities, whether in government, industries, or foundations, tend to have a preferred perspective on the process and outcome of research. These preferences are not lost on the applicant researchers.And, according to the authors, the obvious "preference" of funding agencies in climate science is to believe that warming is occurring, that it is largely man-made, and that it's going to cause big problems. The first two of these beliefs are captured in AGW; the third, which can be thought of as extreme AGW or "catastrophic AGW" is a somewhat different animal than AGW itself, but it's often conflated with AGW itself when it suits an author's purposes, as here:
As the grant-achieving scientists congealed their opinions around the hypothesis (and now doctrine) of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming—warmed, themselves, by their presumptive guardianship of truth and virtue—some have succumbed to the temptation to cut corners. Dissenting investigators have been marginalized, their research papers viewed with prejudice by academic journals. The principle of free availability of raw data has been ignored. Peer review has degenerated into pal review. Cases of data destruction and tampering have been documented.I think it's fairly obvious how the addition of the word "catastrophic" changes the debate. The word implies that a person's views are not entirely based on empirical fact; that the person is showing an unscientific faith, or belief, in forecasts or prophecies of imminent doom; that the person intends not to illuminate a discussion with facts, but to induce panic. The "catastrophic" version of AGW certainly serves these particular authors' purposes better than mere AGW:
Perhaps the greatest reason for any of us to feel skepticism about climate change, however, is the unchanging politics of those who employed it to advance their agendas. Are we wrong to suspect that most global warming activists are merely using global warming as the latest in a long series of tools with which to demand fundamental changes in Western civilization?
Think of it this way: The premise of catastrophe produces the conclusion that the political and economic underpinnings of Western civilization must be discarded. Governments must take control of economies. Capitalism must give way. All decisions must be made by our scientific and political elite, for only they can save us from doom.
Now, in a purely logical world, the rejection of the premise would mean that we don’t have to accept the conclusion. If A, then B and not A together produce nothing. But the people who’ve been lecturing us for more than a decade now about global warming and climate change didn’t start by holding A. They began by holding B—the conclusion, the proposition that Western civilization must change. And it is, literally, a nonfalsifiable proposition: If global warming and climate change help lead to it, then hurray for global warming and climate change. If not, well, then, they’ll find something else.Well, look at that! Without even trying very hard, we've found one reason that beliefs about AGW may be correlated so tightly with political beliefs. There are a couple of interesting points to be made:
First, notice that somewhere in the article the authors shifted from talking about whether climate science is real science--which would actually demand that they discuss the science itself, an increasingly difficult task, as can be seen in any effort to do so for the general public, as you can see here--to talking about the political agenda of "global warming activists ...who've been lecturing us for more than a decade."
Second, no longer is the debate about whether the earth is warming or whether individuals or society as a whole ought to do something about it. It's become, rather, about whether "the political and economic underpinnings of Western civilization must be discarded." WHOA! ... What?!? Clearly this is no longer a scientific question (at least not as it's framed here).
Third, there's no effort in the piece to show any collusion among actual climate scientists, funding agencies, journal review boards, and this alleged agenda. (Indeed, despite many people alleging bias in the field, there seems to be very little such evidence, as discussed by a science reporter for the BBC here.) Rather, the link is taken as obvious: "elites" who "lecture us" and want to "make all decisions" clearly (?) want the government (their government) to take over the economy and destroy (our) capitalism.
I think what this illustrates, quite concretely, is that when some people hear "global warming" or "climate change," what they actually hear are "cataclysm" and "government control." Even the bare notion that humans may be causing measurable changes in the earth's climate (i.e. that AGW is true) raises the fear that someone is about to take something very important away.
Let's look at another example of the claim that AGW is a political, rather than a scientific, conclusion. In this piece, one Karl Schmidt painstakingly shows, with links and graphs and charts, that "the global warming crowd" relies primarily on "speculation" rather than "real science." Schmidt draws a distinction between what "can be measured" and what cannot. He includes this graph of global temperatures from year to year, as measured from satellites:
But do you know what I see in that data? (And I'm really good at looking at statistics) - Not much that is significant -- mostly some noise - noise that is much higher than any trend. You could pick selected start and end points to show either cooling or warming. There is obviously no hokey-stick.(I'm thinking that "hokey-stick" is a pun.) The source for this graph is not given in Schmidt's piece, although I traced a broken link to http://vortex.nsstc.uah.edu/data/msu/t2/readme.15Dec2006 by cutting off the ending, and found this later readme file, which is somewhat difficult to interpret, but I did find this sentence:
I did a little investigation of this sentence (pasted it into Google and looked around a bit) and found the web site of Dr. Roy Spencer, and an article "On the Divergence Between the UAH and RSS Global Temperature Records," which contains the following:At this time we are merging AQUA into the time series while keeping NOAA-15, with its slight, spurious warming, in the mix through the present.
Anyway, my UAH cohort and boss John Christy, who does the detailed matching between satellites, is pretty convinced that the RSS data is undergoing spurious cooling because RSS is still using the old NOAA-15 satellite which has a decaying orbit, to which they are then applying a diurnal cycle drift correction based upon a climate model, which does not quite match reality. We have not used NOAA-15 for trend information in years…we use the NASA Aqua AMSU, since that satellite carries extra fuel to maintain a precise orbit.
Of course, this explanation is just our speculation at this point, and more work would need to be done to determine whether this is the case. The RSS folks are our friends, and we both are interested in building the best possible datasets.
But, until the discrepancy is resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, those of you who REALLY REALLY need the global temperature record to show as little warming as possible might want to consider jumping ship, and switch from the UAH to RSS dataset. (emphasis added)Hmmm....as I poked around a bit more, I learned that UAH is the University of Alabama at Huntsville and that RSS is a company called Remote Sensing Systems. Both UAH and RSS generate periodic graphs based on temperature data derived from satellite measurements of microwave radiation. Wikipedia tells us:
Satellites do not measure temperature. They measure radiances in various wavelength bands, which must then be mathematically inverted to obtain indirect inferences of temperature. The resulting temperature profiles depend on details of the methods that are used to obtain temperatures from radiances. As a result, different groups that have analyzed the satellite data have produced differing temperature datasets. Among these are the UAH dataset prepared at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and the RSS dataset prepared by Remote Sensing Systems.Also according to Wikipedia:
Research by Carl Mears and Wentz, both of RSS, highlighted errors in the early satellite temperature records complied by John Christy and Roy Spencer at UAH. The UAH data had previously showed no significant temperature trend, bringing the derived satellite data into closer agreement with surface temperature trends, radiosonde data and computer models. The UAH data is now closer to the RSS data but differences remain.What's clear is that "the process of constructing a temperature record from a radiance record is difficult" and that there are alternative methods of doing so. More from Wikipedia:
For some time the only available satellite record was the UAH version, which (with early versions of the processing algorithm) showed a global cooling trend for its first decade. Since then, a longer record and a number of corrections to the processing have revised this picture: the UAH dataset has shown an overall warming trend since 1998, though less than the RSS version.Thus, both UAH and RSS data show a trend of warming in the lower troposphere, which is consistent with AGW.
But what about Schmidt's graph? The graph shows the UAH data in raw form. The UAH's Dr. Spencer (on whom more below) gives the latest data in a slightly more readable form, here:
Schmidt does say something else:
To claim as a "fact" something from a trend who's amplitude (and direction) can be changed by changing end points due to the noise involved not science; it is politics.This issue comes into play whenever anyone looks at a given set of data such as this and tries to fit a straight line to it. By choosing particular end-points for the line, you can pretty much choose which trend you would like to see.
Scott Mandia at SUNY-Suffolk discusses this phenomenon is great detail here, and includes a very cool Java applet that lets you decide how many years of data you wish to include, and draws all the possible trend lines, showing "cooling" trends in blue and "warming" trends in red. (You can also choose which of two data sets you want to see.)
Here's what the applet looks like using 10 years:
And here's what it looks like using 60 years:
Clearly, there is quite a bit of variation in what people will conclude from the data, depending on how it is presented. For example, in this graph, which includes surface temperatures as well as atmospheric temperatures (different data sets are distinguished by color), a warming trend is pretty obvious:
In trying to understand better the link between politics and science in relation to AGW, I think it's instructive to look specifically at other scientific concepts that cause similar reactions. The most obvious is the idea that humans evolved from other animals. Many people found this idea threatening when it was first published by Charles Darwin in 1859. Many people still found it threatening at the time of the Scopes trial in 1925. Indeed, many people (particularly Americans) still find the concept of evolution difficult to accept:
equally distributed through the political spectrum, with the most consistency seen among evangelical Christians. Again, American beliefs are more divided than those found elsewhere:
This pattern is different from that seen in Europe and Japan. ...[S]ignificantly...more adults in Japan and 32 European countries accepted the concept of evolution than did American adults.... Only Turkish adults were less likely to accept the concept of evolution than American adults. In Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, and France, 80% or more of adults accepted the concept of evolution, as did 78% of Japanese adults.... A third of American adults indicated that evolution is "absolutely false"; the proportion of European adults who thought that evolution was absolutely false ranged from 7% in Denmark, France, and Great Britain to 15% in the Netherlands.How can we explain this? One explanation is implied in the finding that evangelical Christians are both much less likely than the average person to believe in evolution and also much less likely to believe in AGW. And the US as a whole is much more religious than Europe.
But this doesn't take us quite far enough. There's a rather obvious connection between being very serious about believing in the literal truth of the Bible (i.e. being an evangelical christian) and not believing that humans evolved from the animals. Specifically, evolution seems to be directly contradicted by the story of creation in Genesis. But why would someone who believes that the Bible is the Word of God find the concept of AGW unacceptable?
(As an aside, it's important to acknowledge that being religious doesn't in and of itself lead people to reject climate science. See this story about religious leaders meeting to craft a coordinated response to climate change.)
For an answer, I turned to the Yale University Project on Climate Change Communication, which has developed a "Six Americas" framework for understanding differences in public opinion on the issue. Americans can be categorized along a spectrum ranging from "Alarmed" to "Concerned" to "Cautious" to "Disengaged" to"Doubtful" to "Dismissive", with the categories ranging from believing in AGW (and very motivated to do something about climate change) through not believing (and very unmotivated). This graph (2009 data) is instructive:
While the entire report is fascinating and worth reading, I am especially interested here in the Dismissive group. The description tells us more:
The Dismissive have a specialized media diet, with a higher than average preference for media sources that reflect their own political point of view. While they are high consumers of political news, they do not trust most sources of information on global warming, including the mainstream news media, and they are more likely than average to turn to conservative news commentators and the Internet. They are most likely to trust their own friends and families as a source of information about global warming, with scientists and religious leaders well behind. (emphasis added)More:
The Dismissive are distinguished by their certainty that global warming is not occurring. They have thought about the issue a good deal and consider themselves well-informed. They are quite certain that even if it is occurring, it is not caused by human activities. They believe scientists are in disagreement on the issue, and quite a few believe that there is a consensus among scientists thatAnd...
global warming is not occurring. They believe that no one is in danger of being harmed and anticipate that there will be no impacts on people or the environment.
More than half the Dismissive are concerned that action to reduce global warming will lead to more government regulation (70%).Finally,
The Dismissive hold the strongest individualistic values of the six groups: 88 percent believe that people should be allowed to make as much money as they can, even if it means some makes millions while others live in poverty. They strongly oppose government intervention: 87 percent say that government regulation of business usually does more harm than good; 86 percent believe government interferes too much in people’s lives and that government tries to do too many things for too many people; and 85 percent feel that we’d be better off if government spent less time trying to “fix everyone’s problems.”
Conversely, the Dismissive strongly disagree with egalitarian values: they don’t believe wealth should be divided more equally, that government should meet everyone’s basic needs, or that discrimination against minorities is a serious problem. Seventy percent oppose government programs to get rid of poverty.
In areas where religion and science conflict, the Dismissive hold traditional religious beliefs more strongly than any other segment: Less than a quarter (23%) believe in human evolution, compared to 47 percent nationally. Almost two-thirds believe the world was created in six days (62%), compared to 54 percent nationally. Regarding the overall value of science, however, 81 percent disagree with the statement, “Overall, modern science does more harm than good.”Very interesting, indeed. So the Dismissive group isn't anti-science in general. Yet with respect to climate change, only 8% of Dismissives strongly trust scientists as a source of information. And (as an aside), "they are much more likely than average to watch Fox News, Hannity & Colmes, or Bill O’Reilly, and to listen to Rush Limbaugh."
But again, what's the real problem that the Dismissives in general (or evangelicals in particular) have with the science of climate change?
It is because, in their minds, the science is tainted by a "false religion." Larry Bell, writing a column in Forbes, makes the "false religion" charge forcefully:
Global warming (aka “climate change”) has become a religious mantra, a call for action in a crusade against larger evils we have perpetrated against nature, a punishment for our sins. Author Michael Crichton articulated the essence of this creed in a 2003 speech in which he observed:Bell plays this out further. Feeling guilty for humanity's allegedly arrogant attitude towards nature since the start of the Industrial Revolution, climate change zealots are simply too ready to believe that "nature" will exact some kind of retribution in the form of catastrophic climate change. (The unwillingness of evangelicals to treat "nature" as worthy of religious respect--and their concomitant distrust of "environmental do-gooder flower children" or those who believe in "new age" religion--may be another reason for their distrust of climate science. See here.)
There’s an initial Eden, a paradise, a state of grace and unity with Nature; there’s a fall from grace into a state of pollution as a result from eating from the tree of knowledge; and as a result of our actions, there is a judgment day coming for all of us. We are energy sinners, doomed to die, unless we seek salvation, which is now called sustainability. Sustainability is salvation in the church of the environment, just as organic food is its communion, that pesticide-free wafer that the right people with the right beliefs imbibe.
Global warming zealots have launched an aggressive jihad against those they brand as “deniers”, often asserting presumed fossil energy affiliations to those who don’t buy into their hysterical pronouncements. Another tactic is to conflate rejection of unfounded human-caused climate crisis alarmism with an absurd denial that climate changes regularly occur, or that human activities may have some influence (however incalculably minuscule, either with respect to warming or cooling, those effects may be). They would also have us believe that periods of global warming are assuredly “bad”, and have even caused recent global cooling! In other words, all climate change is bad.(Notice the charge of elitism again.)
In the church of climate change, most or all unfortunate events that occur are attributable to human causation. Eco-elitists seize upon this dogma to argue that economic growth, promulgated by spurious corporate interests, is the enemy of the environment.
Whether or not we subscribe to a particular orthodoxy, religion plays a vital, if not central role in most of our lives, guiding us to believe we are all part of something much larger than ourselves. It provides age-old lessons that teach us the importance of taking responsibility for our actions, constantly motivating us to do better. Faith in those universal principles binds us together as stable, functioning societies.
Science also has a vital, but very different role. When purported “scientific experts” emulate spiritual prophets they overstep their bounds, and we can no longer trust them.Of course, Bell's essay ignores the fact that one can actually separate the findings of science (global warming, possibly anthropocentric) from the political prophecy of a global warming catastrophe. But just as the essay in the Weekly Standard (mentioned above) makes a leap from AGW to "catastrophic AGW" and uses that leap to justify disbelief in AGW itself (and by association the entire field of climate science), Bell also uses the fact that some people are "global warming zealots" who think "economic growth, promulgated by spurious corporate interests, is the enemy of the environment" and that AGW requires an immediate coordinated response as reason not to trust the scientists themselves. (Notice: Bell himself raises the issue of trust here.)
Another view of environmentalism as a "religion" (albeit not a false one) is given by Freeman Dyson in a 2008 essay in the New York Review of Books. Dyson writes:
All the books that I have seen about the science and economics of global warming, including the two books under review, miss the main point. The main point is religious rather than scientific. There is a worldwide secular religion which we may call environmentalism, holding that we are stewards of the earth, that despoiling the planet with waste products of our luxurious living is a sin, and that the path of righteousness is to live as frugally as possible. The ethics of environmentalism are being taught to children in kindergartens, schools, and colleges all over the world.
Environmentalism has replaced socialism as the leading secular religion. And the ethics of environmentalism are fundamentally sound. Scientists and economists can agree with Buddhist monks and Christian activists that ruthless destruction of natural habitats is evil and careful preservation of birds and butterflies is good. The worldwide community of environmentalists—most of whom are not scientists—holds the moral high ground, and is guiding human societies toward a hopeful future. Environmentalism, as a religion of hope and respect for nature, is here to stay. This is a religion that we can all share, whether or not we believe that global warming is harmful.(I have some more to say about Dyson's essay, below.)
Another--and fairly conclusive--clue to the religious basis of disbelief in AGW is found here:
As reported in the New York Times article “An Evangelical Backlash Against Environmentalism”, a non-profit evangelical organization called the Cornwall Alliance calls the environmental movement a “false religion”, and has issued an educational program titled “Resisting the Green Dragon” to warn Christians that the forces of radical environmentalism are seeking tyrannical control over all other beloved institutions such as God and country.If Christianity is taken as the "true religion," and the environmental movement is seen as a "false religion," then there is clearly a motivation for evangelicals to resist environmentalism in general (and to resist calls for doing something about AGW in particular).
Interestingly, one of the members of the board of advisors to the Cornwall Alliance and a signatory to the declaration is Dr. Roy Spencer, of UAH (mentioned above). Spencer believes that the atmosphere has been warming, as shown in the UAH data, but he does not believe this warming has been primarily caused by human activities. He writes:
“Global warming” refers to the global-average temperature increase that has been observed over the last one hundred years or more. But to many politicians and the public, the term carries the implication that mankind is responsible for that warming. This website describes evidence from my group’s government-funded research that suggests global warming is mostly natural, and that the climate system is quite insensitive to humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions and aerosol pollution.
Believe it or not, very little research has ever been funded to search for natural mechanisms of warming…it has simply been assumed that global warming is manmade. This assumption is rather easy for scientists since we do not have enough accurate global data for a long enough period of time to see whether there are natural warming mechanisms at work.Spencer believes that bias is the primary reason that research similar to his own has not been generally funded. Through books, articles, and appearances in the media, Spencer has done more than perhaps anyone else to raise questions about the science of AGW. Yet, as we've seen, he believes in global warming. What he doesn't believe is that humans are the primary cause. He writes, "Because small, chaotic fluctuations in atmospheric and oceanic circulation systems can cause small changes in global average cloudiness, this is all that is necessary to cause climate change."
According to Wikipedia, Spencer thinks that "small cloud variations connected with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation can explain 75% of global warming in the twentieth century." This can be confirmed by looking at Spencer's web site:
A simple climate model forced by satellite-observed changes in the Earth’s radiative budget associated with the Pacific Decadal Oscillation is shown to mimic the major features of global average temperature change during the 20th Century – including three-quarters of the warming trend. A mostly-natural source of global warming is also consistent with mounting observational evidence that the climate system is much less sensitive to carbon dioxide emissions than the IPCC’s climate models simulate.The theory espoused by Spencer is not supported by most climate scientists; indeed, it's just one alternative theory to AGW. But what I really want to know is what makes Spencer so interested in finding "a mostly-natural source of global warming"? Why is this more desirable to him than a mostly-man-made source? Wikipedia provides a clue:
In an interview with conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh on February 28, 2007, Spencer stated that he doesn't believe "catastrophic manmade global warming" is occurring. He also criticized climate models, saying "The people that have built the climate models that predict global warming believe they have sufficient physics in those models to predict the future. I believe they don't. I believe the climate system, the weather as it is today in the real world shows a stability that they do not yet have in those climate models."Fair enough; as with all predictive models, there may be erroneous assumptions. But this doesn't answer the question of why climate stability is so important to Spencer.
Interestingly, despite his credentials as a scientist, the fundamental reason seems to be his religion. Spencer is a signatory (confirmed here) to "An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming," issued by the Cornwall Alliance. That states, in part:
We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence —are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.And:
We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth’s climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contribution to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.(Notice that the Alliance does not deny recent warming. Notice also the shift that we've seen before from talking about global warming to talking about "dangerous" global warming.)
In an in-depth analysis that accompanies and justifies the Declaration, the Alliance discusses what they call "global warming alarmism." Notice the inclusion of the word "alarmism," indicating that it is activism around global warming (and its implication that immediate coordinated action is needed) that is their target, more than the science of AGW. In any case, the Alliance finds that global warming alarmism
fails the tests of theology, science, and economics. It rests on poor theology, with a worldview of the Earth and its climate system contrary to that taught in the Bible. It rests on poor science that confuses theory with observation, computer models with reality, and model results with evidence, all while ignoring the lessons of climate history. It rests on poor economics, failing to do reasonable cost/benefit analysis, ignoring or underestimating the costs of reducing fossil fuel use while exaggerating the benefits.They continue:
Our examination of theology, worldview, and ethics (Chapter One) finds that global warming alarmism wrongly views the Earth and its ecosystems as the fragile product of chance, not the robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting product of God’s wise design and powerful sustaining. It rests on and promotes a view of human beings as threats to Earth’s flourishing rather than the bearers of God’s image, crowned with glory and honor, and given a mandate to act as stewards over the Earth—filling, subduing, and ruling it for God’s glory and mankind’s benefit. It either wrongly assumes that the environment can flourish only if humanity forfeits economic advance and prosperity or ignores economic impacts altogether. And in its rush to impose draconian reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, it ignores the destructive impact of that policy on the world’s poor.(Again, "alarmism" is the target of this.) The Alliance specifically contrast the Bible with "the environmentalist world view":
The Biblical worldview contrasts sharply with the environmentalist worldview—whether secular or religious—in many significant ways. Among these, four are particularly germane:
Environmentalism sees Earth and its systems as the product of chance and therefore fragile, subject to easy and catastrophic disruption. The Biblical worldview sees Earth and its systems as robust, self-regulating, and self-correcting, not immune to harm but durable.
Environmentalism sees human beings principally as consumers and polluters who are only quantitatively, not qualitatively, different from other species. The Bible sees people as made in God’s image, qualitatively different from all other species, and designed to be producers and stewards who, within a just and free social order, can create more resources than they consume and ensure a clean, healthful, and beautiful environment.
Environmentalism tends to view nature untouched by human hands as optimal, while the Bible teaches that it can be improved by wise and holy human action.
I think here we see pretty clearly that the Cornwall Alliance's fundamental commitment is not to science, but rather to religion--and to a particular religious perspective that takes the Bible as the literal truth and anything contradictory to that as false.
Environmentalism tends to substitute subjective, humanist standards of environmental stewardship for the objective, transcendent standards of divine morality.
A crucial element of the environmentalist worldview is that Earth and its habitats and inhabitants are extremely fragile and likely to suffer severe, even irreversible damage from(This is the 40% increase in carbon dioxide that is widely cited in the literature.) And,
human action. That view contradicts Genesis 1:31. It is difficult to imagine how God could have called “very good” the habitat of humanity’s vocation in a millennia-long drama if the whole thing were prone to collapse like a house of cards with the least disturbance—like a change in carbon dioxide from 0.027 to 0.039 percent of the atmosphere (the change generally believed to have occurred from pre-industrial times to the present).
The Biblical worldview instead suggests that the wise Designer of Earth’s climate system, like any skillful engineer, would have equipped it with balancing positive and negative feedback mechanisms that would make the whole robust, self-regulating, and self-correcting.This is a faith statement, based on a literal reading of the Bible. It is a view that comes specifically from people who believe that the Bible is literally the Word of God. And it is a view that denies even the possibility that other religions are correct:
Nonbiblical religions and worldviews teach contrary views of God and creation.
- Hinduism, Buddhism, and other forms of pantheism deify nature, implying that it is a proper object of worship and depriving humanity of its unique position as bearing God’s image and uniquely called to exercise dominion.
(Human "domination." Hmmm.... a concept also threatened directly by the theory of natural selection, which supposes that humans are subjected to the same physical and biological forces as other animals. I'd say the concept of "domination" is also what's behind the views of those who think that capitalism is not only just but noble. This isn't the only conceptual link behind the religious and political bases for disbelieving in climate science. More below.)
- Animism, polytheism, and spiritism invest creation with independent, unpredictable spirits, undermining confidence in scientific experiment, exploration, and technology, and in the exercise of human dominion.
The Alliance believes there is no need to fear any negative impacts on the environment by human activity in the long run:
Fear of environmental catastrophe grows out of lack of the fear of God. That is the real root of the many false or exaggerated environmental scares that have plagued the modern world. And such fears will continue—with or without scientific basis—until people repent and fear the Lord. “Cursed is the man who trusts in man, and makes flesh his strength, whose heart departs from the LORD. . . . Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, and whose hope is in the LORD. For he shall be like a tree planted by the waters, which spreads out its roots by the river, and will not fear when heat comes; but its leaf will be green, and will not be anxious in the year of drought, nor will cease from yielding fruit” (Jeremiah 17:5, 7–8).
It is this image--of humans as a kind of supra-natural being, not subject to the influence of heat or flood--that is being promoted here. Like the larger belief that the Bible is the literal Word of God--that it is both literally true and not subject to interpretation or amendment by science or any other form of evidence, and that the fear of God is the only fear that can possibly be justified--a position based on faith to be sure, rather than a scientific claim--that is behind Spencer's (and others) search for a "natural" cause to global warming. (Sure, there may very well be natural causes...indeed, there most definitely are natural causes for climate change. But according to the theory of evolution and
Above I quoted from an essay by Freeman Dyson in which he applauds environmentalism for its ethics. However, Dyson follows the section I quoted above with a warning:
Unfortunately, some members of the environmental movement have also adopted as an article of faith the belief that global warming is the greatest threat to the ecology of our planet. That is one reason why the arguments about global warming have become bitter and passionate. Much of the public has come to believe that anyone who is skeptical about the dangers of global warming is an enemy of the environment. The skeptics now have the difficult task of convincing the public that the opposite is true. Many of the skeptics are passionate environmentalists. They are horrified to see the obsession with global warming distracting public attention from what they see as more serious and more immediate dangers to the planet, including problems of nuclear weaponry, environmental degradation, and social injustice. Whether they turn out to be right or wrong, their arguments on these issues deserve to be heard.Surely Dyson is correct that differing points of view about how to respond to global warming deserve to be heard. As a scientist, Dyson makes a strong distinction between science and religion. But he does not question global warming itself--just the view that global warming may very well not be the worst threat that the environment faces. He draws a line between the belief in global warming (AGW) and an alarmist response to it. That line, you'll remember, is the one that was so easily crossed in the Weekly Standard essay.
So, what can we make of all this?
First, there is absolutely no reason for anyone not to trust the scientific claim that global warming is occurring. There is no politics in that claim; it's established science: a fact.
Second, there is absolutely no reason for anyone not to trust the scientific claim that carbon dioxide levels have been increasing as a result of human activity. This is also a scientific finding that is undisputed by scientists. It is fact.
Third, the degree to which the man-made increase in carbon levels is causing global warming is not entirely established by science. Certainly carbon dioxide in the atmosphere does capture heat--it is a greenhouse gas. Strong questions remain, however, about just how sensitive the earth's environment is--and will be--to carbon dioxide increases. (This is what is at issue in the study discussed so carefully here.) If the sensitivity is fairly low, then global warming is unlikely to cause serious environmental problems. If the sensitivity is very high, then such problems are coming--soon and with a vengeance. Whether the sensitivity is low or high is unsettled yet by science. (The latest analysis suggests that it will be about 2.4 degrees Celsius with a doubling of carbon dioxide. That's not as big as some scientists have predicted, but it is enough to cause "drastic changes over land," according to the lead researcher in that study.)
This third point is, I believe, extremely important if one is to understand the current debates about whether global warming is to be feared, or not. Anthropogenic increases in carbon levels are a fact; global warming is a fact. Anthropogenic increases in carbon may cause very small (or even negligible) warming. If this is true, then "global warming alarmism"--the belief in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming--is unjustified.
However, if anthropogenic increases in carbon levels cause bigger amounts of warming, then worrying about the effects of continued increases in carbon emissions is quite justified. This is what this debate is all about.
Since the question about whether AGW will be catastrophic is as yet unsettled by science, we can say that whether given person supports immediate governmental intervention in the economy to protect the environment is, indeed, a political decision. A given person's support for such intervention relies at least as much on that person's political values and beliefs (about the role of the government in the economy, specifically) as it does on science.
But a person who believes that government should not intervene in the economy to prevent the possible impacts of global warming is also expressing a political viewpoint. It's political either way!
But widespread skepticism about climate science simply cannot be justified by saying that climate science itself has become overly political. Yes, there are political factors in the ways that the science gets chosen, funded, and disseminated. But that's true of any type of science; indeed, of any human endeavor.
The problem, as I see it, is that there is widespread confusion about the difference between the science of anthropogenic global warming and debates about the kind of response that is necessary. Disagreement about the government's role, for example, in regulating carbon emissions is not evidence of a political bias in climate science. Critics of climate science need to be more careful to name the target of their criticism: it is, for the most part, liberals and their support for government intervention and for the secular "religion" of environmentalism. Their critique is properly aimed at the politics and religion of supporters of governmental intervention, not at "climate science."
But the critique itself is ALSO not scientific: there is very little scientific basis to question whether global warming is occurring or whether man-made carbon emissions are at least partly to blame. When these established scientific facts are attacked, you can be pretty sure that what's really going on is a political or religious disagreement.