Climate change deniers argue that the science of human climate change is "not settled." Of course, they're right. Man-induced climate change is a scientific theory, and no scientific theory is ever definitively "settled," if that word is taken to mean "100% certain." Scientific inquiry is a human endeavor and nothing human is perfect. Climatologists stipulate that we humans cannot be 100% certain of the evidence that man is contributing significantly to global warming any more than we can be 100% scientifically assured of anything.
However, what peer-reviewed climate experts are saying about "anthropogenic global warming (AGW)" or "man-made climate change" calls total denial of this phenomenon into serious question. Basically, climatologists are in agreement with John Stuart Mill who once wrote "There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance for the purposes of human life."
Climate specialists know a lot about the natural and human causes of climate changean awful lot. Climate researchers know with an exceedingly high degree of certainty that CO2 is causing global warming and that man-made activities are making a significant contribution to climate change. They have confirmed these patterns repeatedly over time through different kinds of observations. They have concluded that the preponderance of evidence argues compellingly, if not infallibly, for the reality of man-exacerbated climate change.
In daily conversations, we often use the word "theory" loosely to mean "a guess" or just "a hunch." "Theory" often means something a little like what a scientist calls a "hypothesis," an untested explanation of things when other explanations do not suffice. We often dismiss an opinion we don't find credible by saying: "Yeah, but that's just a theory"meaning we do not think there is sufficient evidence to prove it to be a plausible explanation. In science, however, "theory" means something quite different than it does in colloquial usage. A scientific theory is an explanation that has been tested, is supported by solid evidence, and is broadly accepted by specialists in the field as confirming their observations. A scientific theory is not a guess; it is a conclusion based on numerous authenticated, independent sets of findings and it is as good as the probative value of the available empirical evidence to support it. So, if climatologists are not 100% positive about the reality and the man-augmented nature of climate change, they are confident with the level of probability on the subject. Let's take a look:
A 2012 PBS documentary, "Climate of Doubt" shows how change deniers have continued to win the PR debate in the United States even as they have been roundly defeated in the scientific debate on subjects like the role of the sun on the earth's current atmospheric and oceanic climate: The famous 17 year "pause" in the rise of atmospheric temperatures, and "Climategate."
Among the current proponents of man-made climate change is this man: a converted, previously lionized climate change denier, physicist, former solar theory advocate, occasional Koch brothers-funded head of the Berkeley Earth Surface Project, and self-styled "converted skeptic," Richard A. Muller. Last year, he told Congress: "Global warming is real and humans are almost entirely the cause." Later, Muller said of the 17-year pause: "The current "pause" is consistent with numerous prior pauses. When walking up stairs in a tall building, it is a mistake to interpret a landing as the end of the climb. The slow rate of warming of the recent past is consistent with the kind of variability that some of us predicted nearly a decade ago." And on Climategate: "I don't think Climategate casts any doubt on climate science."
Several years into this kind of on-going heated debate, fomented largely by well-paid shills for the fossil fuel industry and supported by 90% of an anti-science Republican House and Senate leadership and their huge echo chamber, geologist and former appointee of Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush, James Lawrence Powell, "examined 2,258 articles authored or co-authored by 9,136 climate experts and researchers that were published in peer-reviewed scientific journals between November 2012 and December, 2013."
Powell made it clear he was "looking for the number of scientists who reject "man-made global warming not how many accept it." For example, the Skeptical Scientist has reported "three independent studies each using entirely different methods have all concluded there is a 97% consensus on human-caused global climate change among climatologists: Doran & Zimmermann 2009, Anderegg et al 2011. Cook et al 2013 (analysis of peer-reviewed climate papers). Powell did find one author who did not accept man-made climate warming; a Russian Aerospace Physical Optics expert, S. V. Avakyan, one of the surveyed authors. Among professionally published climatologists, Powell concluded, "deniers have no scientific credibility."
Notwithstanding the solid evidence, a World Public Opinion Poll found "a remarkable 60% of those who watch Fox News regularly believe that most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring." A third of all Americans agree with these FOX viewers ---about the same percentage as think the sun revolves around the earth and, contrary to mainstream modern Biblical scholars, believe the Genesis genealogies prove the world is 6,000 years old. In a technologically competitive world where proficiency in science is the price of entry, climate change denial is far more widespread in the United States than anywhere else. This obscurantist trend could very well continue as huge amounts are being spent on well-organized efforts to spread every sort of conceivable doubt about the reality of climate change. In 2013, The Guardian reported that "between 2002 and 2010, two large trusts have given about $120 million to 102 think tanks and activist groups to undermine empirical evidence that supports man-made climate change. A recent Drexel University study found that this amount is likely a pittance of the largely untraceable funding provided to the "climate change counter- movement."
A March 2014 report titled "What We Know" by the world's largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, warned the world that "We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes with highly damaging impacts." The latest report by the International Panel on Climate Change amplifies these warnings. Climatologists are asking: "Are we reaching the point of no return? Will we recognize "run-away greenhouse" only when it is too late? The short YouTube video "Last Hours" asks: Will our projected use of fossil fuels set us on an irreversible path toward a planet that is inhospitable to human civilization? Showtime's upcoming "Years of Living Dangerously" says it is already happening now.
Climate change is the consensus conviction of the entire world's experts, actively publishing, peer-reviewed climatology researchers. But many have rejected climate experts in favor of non-specialists who pontificate with unfounded authoritative certitude on all things climatological, but could not pass a Climatology 101 first semester quiz. Climate change may not be 100% certain, but denial of it is. As someone once said: "The difference between intelligence and ignorance is that intelligence has limits."
Fossil fuel fat-cats foment and finance the climate change "counter-movement." Anti-science Republican Congressional leaders keep the topic off the political agenda. Talkathon, "do-nothing" Senate majority Democrats posture while they dither. So many Americans remain convinced that climate change is some kind of preposterously implausible, international fraudulent scheme; an unimaginably elaborate conspiratorial hoax perpetrated by scamming scientists worldwide.
If this kind of Neanderthal antipathy to science continues, we may soon pray that climate change deniers will survive long enough to explain to future generations the planetary time-bomb we have created for them and the reasons why we dismissed the warnings as "just a theory." I can picture some future teenager's apoplectic response: "Grandpa, so you figured climate change was not 'settled.' Well, I hope you're happy because it sure as hell is now. Why didn't you know that it never should have been about a carbon tax? It should always have been about ME!"
Mannello is a retired former hospital executive and management consultant who resides in Williamsport.