On ‘accepting the science’

by Milan on April 6, 2010

in Climate change, Climate science, Ethics

The consequences of the ‘Climategate’ scandal have been diverse. Climate change deniers have been emboldened, and momentum for the implementation of climate mitigation policies has been lost. All this, despite how the leaked emails and errors discovered in IPCC reports do not undermine the key elements of climate science: namely, that the climate is warming because of human activities and that there is good reason to be concerned about this and to take action against it.

One of the most pernicious stances that has been adopted by a number of organizations is to state clearly that they ‘accept the science’ of climate change, while failing to actually reflect that in their worldview or actions. Three examples that come to mind are the editorial stance of The Economist (see this article, particularly), an article in The National Post, and the views and actions of Canada’s Conservative government. All three assert that the basic science of climate change is sound and well justified on the basis of multiple lines of evidence. What all three then fail to do is recognize the risk associated with climate change, or the scale of efforts that will be necessary to prevent it from crossing the generally defined threshold of danger. The Economist article basically says that the science of the IPCC remains sound, while quoting only climate change deniers (like Richard Lindzen) and never going on to express how dangerous it could be, or that serious effort should be taken to address it.

To me, really ‘accepting the science’ includes accepting at least two things, and doing so in a way that affects your behaviour:

  1. That climate change may prove to be catastrophic, if we do not cut emissions substantially
  2. That avoiding the level of temperature increase generally considered unacceptable will require deep rapid cuts, starting almost immediately, and an eventual transition to a world with zero net emissions

It seems to me that organizations and individuals that accept these things must also accept that business-as-usual is no longer an acceptable course to follow, both for practical and for ethical reasons. It is this intuitive transition that the named organizations and others like them have failed to make. They assert acceptance of climate science, while continuing to endorse the kind of policies and behaviours that have produced ever-increasing emissions, and which we cannot really hope will produce carbon neutrality on their own. They continue to believe that economic growth can continue forever, even if we ignore climate change and that short-term economic concerns are more deserving of action that long-term climatic ones.

This sort of toothless endorsement of the science is insidious, because it gives the impression that these organizations are being responsible. They are saying: “We accept that there is a danger from sailing through iceberg-laden waters in the North Atlantic” while simultaneously giving no thought to slowing down or changing course.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Milan April 6, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Another very odd statement in the Economist article is the claim that it ‘seems unlikely’ that the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would rise to 1100ppm. In fact, if emissions continue to grow at current rates, we will be over 1000ppm by the end of the century. 1100ppm therefore seems to be within the realm of business as usual, not some far flung outlier.

mek April 9, 2010 at 10:16 pm

It doesn’t seem unlikely; it should seem absurd. But here we are.

Milan April 10, 2010 at 12:02 pm

Someone ought to remind them that – if we don’t change direction – we may end up where we’re headed.

. April 14, 2010 at 3:02 pm

“Our only technical criticism of the The Economist’s main article is that it states that the IPCC ‘expects the temperature to have increased by 1.1o to 6.4 °C by 2100’, without pointing out that this combines the uncertainty in climate sensitivity with the uncertainty in policy. This could easily be taken to suggest that we could keep the global mean temperature to within 1.1°C above 19th century values, without any reduction in fossil fuel use, a virtually impossible result. But this doesn’t detract from the larger point that The Economist is making here – that the uncertainty is itself a reason for action, not a reason to delay action. As they succinctly put it: “The fact that the uncertainties allow you to construct a relatively benign future does not allow you to ignore futures in which climate change is large”.

In sum, The Economist appears to understand what balanced reporting actually means: accurate reporting of science can be done while neither stifling debate nor accepting the criticisms of so-called ‘skeptics’ at face value. The self-described goal of The Economist is to engage vigorously in the “contest between intelligence and timid ignorance,” and they are doing a rather good job of it. Whether this will prove sufficient to win the contest against aggressive ignorance is, of course, another matter.”

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