Earth Notes: What if the climate skeptics are right?

By Frank Daggett

It isn’t reasonable to deny obvious facts. There’s the rub — the facts about climate change aren’t obvious. Rather, climate change has become a matter of belief. If one believes that the earth is warming, then the recent trend of warmer and warmer annual global average temperatures, as well as every mild winter’s day, is supporting evidence. If one doesn’t believe the earth is warming, or that the warming isn’t caused by human activity, then every cold snap and every potential explanation for current trends exposes a hoax.

Both sides are right, and both sides are wrong. Real science gets beyond opinions (which it calls “hypotheses”) by gathering data, conducting quantitative measurement and analysis, and conducting experiments. The problem with climate science is that it’s impossible to experiment when you’ve only got one planet. Supercomputers can help: mathematical models representing the earth and its atmosphere are run at high speed, so centuries pass in hours. But computer models have their limitations, as anyone wanting to know how much snow we might get next week is well aware. As I learned in my postgraduate air-ocean science studies, the planetary system is incredibly complex and very, very big. Make the model too precise, and even a supercomputer bogs down; simplify it, and potentially important micro-scale effects are missed. Sometimes, climate models “blow up”, as modelers say. In one such example, the atmosphere becomes two hemispheric super-hurricanes with several-hundred-mile-an-hour winds. What’s happened (thankfully) is that all the math needed to deal with extremely high winds on a large scale hasn’t been incorporated, while in the real world, turbulence and dynamic instability prohibit such monstrous phenomena.

Computers are tremendous tools, but not omniscient, leaving either side in the climate debate free to accept or reject their results. Science has other tools at its disposal. One is logic. This too can be fallible, if the assumptions are faulty. Aristotle famously reasoned to some pretty incredible results. But a certain solid ground is that if there is an effect, there must be a cause. In this arena, the scientific consensus has the distinct advantage, positing identifiable causes that match the effects. Climate change deniers, on the other hand, reject such hypotheses out of hand, claiming that the data was faked (but without saying how — nobody ever told me to fake the ocean temperatures I recorded), or saying that the trends are merely natural periodic variations, without giving a plausible cause. Here, they depart from reason into unexamined belief. Is it reasonable to believe that the entire globe is warming and there’s no detectible cause? Or even more unreasonably, that this unknown cause isn’t worth exploring?

A principle of logic is that beginning with incorrect assumptions, one can reason to an absurd result. If one accepts the climate change deniers’ claims that the earth is warming due to natural but unseen causes and that it’s not worth taxpayer’s money to investigate what’s causing observed global change, then it’s logical to believe that it’s not in our national interest to understand it, harness it, or attempt to influence it one way or another. And, also, that there’s no money to be made from the pursuit and no economic benefit from meeting the real market demand for manufacturing technologies that mitigate the effects (real or not) as our economic rivals are doing. For a global superpower to accept these conclusions would be absurd.