Climate change and doubt

Often, when I raise the issue of climate change with strangers, they jump immediately to the matter of doubt – any and every reason we might have for doubting that climate change is a real and serious problem. They point to the uncertainties associated with computer models, and to past instances where problems do not seem to have been as bad as we once feared they could be.

Critical thinking is a good and necessary thing. At the same time, I don’t think focusing on the doubts is the appropriate response to what we now know about the climate. The world’s scientists have reached a consensus that human activities warm the planet. Most importantly, there is a lot of agreement and evidence that doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere warms the planet by about 3°C, and that warming of more than 2°C is dangerous. We also know that there is more than enough coal, oil, and gas on Earth to double the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere several times. As a consequence, we know that burning all the world’s fossil fuels would be dangerous.

To me, this collection of beliefs seems like it ought to motivate considerable action to move to alternative forms of energy. It’s like a group of doctors telling a patient that they probably have cancer. It would be unwise for the patient to delay taking any action until they could be 100% sure of the diagnosis – especially if the patient would only be satisfied with an extreme form of proof. After all, the only way to know for sure that you have a potentially fatal illness is to wait until it kills you. Similarly, the only way to prove for certain that climate change threatens human civilization is to let it continue unchecked until that outcome is achieved.

We should certainly maintain a realistic sense of what we know about the climate, what is uncertain, and what remains deeply mysterious. At the same time, we should not put off action just because we don’t know absolutely everything. That is especially true given the nature of the choice confronting us. We would need to stop using fossil fuels anyhow, since they would run out if we didn’t stop using them voluntarily. Furthermore, we know that fossil fuel production and use causes all sorts of harm to human health and welfare. By moving to a zero-carbon global economy, we will reduce the amount of risk climate change creates for humanity. At the same time, we will shift the energy basis of society to a renewable one that can be relied upon forever, and which does not involve the same toxic emissions and other forms of ecosystem destruction linked to fossil fuels.

3 thoughts on “Climate change and doubt

  1. Tristan

    I think you’ve missed the central point on this one: doubting the certainty of something is not the same as believing that the thing is false. There is no reason in advance of inquiry to assume that Anthropogenic climate change is true or false. So evidence for its truth should not be weighed against the idol of certainty, but against the evidence that it is false. (Taking into account the risk and reward of various courses of action, of course).

  2. anitza

    I like to mention (about the basic science) that there’s less doubt about it than about the link between smoking and lung cancer. Or about the “theory” of evolution. Would someone seem wise if they didn’t stop smoking, citing (somewhat correctly) that ‘those studies them doctors do can sometimes be wrong’?

  3. .

    “There are other factors, the anger and the fear and hostility int eh country about everything, carries over to this. SO if you look at the polls everyone hates congress, they hate the democrats, they hate the republicans even more, they hate the banks, and they distrust scientists. So why should we believe what these pointy headed elitests tell us; if we don’t trust everyone else, we won’t trust them. All of this combines to, the latest election a couple of days ago – you can almost interpret it as a death knell for the species. There was an article in Bloomburg business week, not a radical rag, running through the new republicans going to congress and they are worried about them. One of the reason is that they are almost all global warming deniers. That means the powerful House committees on science and technology will be in the hands of people who think there is nothing to it, or at least claim to think that, what they actually think is another story. In fact one of them is quoted as saying “it can’t be a problem, God will take care of it”. If this were happening in some small country, maybe Morocco, maybe it wouldn’t matter much. But when it’s happening in the richest country in the world it’s a threat to the species. No one else will do very much if the U.S. doesn’t take the lead.”

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