During my 45 year legal career I had direct experience in environmental hearings with numerous scientists from various disciplines, both in the preparation and the presentation of their evidence. If they could survive my pre-hearing preparatory “cross-examination” they were likely to do well at the hearing. I wrote and edited a manual for First Nations on how to present their case in an environmental hearing, one of the first such books translated into Cree and Ojibway. I was legal counsel to Canada’s first federal environmental assessment process, assessing two major projects, during which I retained several environmental scientists for the hearing panels and cross-examined others. I also advised Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization in the early stages of its formation.
In the last year I have spent many hundreds of hours reading texts, scientific publications and journalists’ articles about climate change, and I continue to do so daily.
I am not qualified to judge the mathematics used in scientific debates, but I am fully qualified to judge whether there is such a debate. I am also qualified to judge the logic scientists use in justifying their arguments. And finally, I am as well qualified as anyone to judge whether much of what we read in online publications by journalists, or in sponsored posts in social media, purporting to represent “the science” actually does.
It is striking to me how much of what is presented in the popular press is collective misinformation, a journalists’ opinion piece about what that non-scientist writer thinks are some scientists’ opinions about the future, presented as indisputable fact. For example, some journalists’ descriptions of the 2015 Paris Agreement demonstrate that they have never read either the Agreement itself or what various countries have promised to do under that Agreement. They merely repeat the misinformed opinions of others.
Even worse, there is a failure to ask the obvious questions one should ask about shocking and frightening statements: is it too bad to be true? Are my emotions being manipulated? For example, when I read that last summer was the hottest “on record” if I was cross-examining that author I would ask: how far back, in what “record” did you look; and how was the global temperature measured then and now? In some cases the “record” was opened a decade or two after much higher earlier temperatures. By excluding these earlier temperatures from the record recent temperatures were made to appear the hottest in that purposely selected time period.
However, in a selected longer record including many more years or even centuries, the temperatures in the earlier years were not taken from accurate thermometer measurements of that time because no accurate, complete and globally widespread measurements existed. Rather, temperatures from earlier years were estimated, and then compared to observed temperatures in more recent years. By estimating earlier years to have been colder than was likely and making judgmental adjustments to the temperature records of the recent past (e.g., to compensate for possible sampling error), the result may be to increase the slope of the temperature graph to overstate the rate and extent of recent warming.
Even the scientists’ description of the level of confidence they have in these judgments (e.g. “high confidence”), or their probability of being right, is subjective – tantamount to saying “I have high confidence in my own unverifiable opinions.” Yet the “warmest on record” estimates are presented as “fact” in the media even though it is mostly subjective judgment.
But subjective judgments go both ways. In other cases scientists look at the “paleoclimate” in geologic history going back millions of years, perhaps even before homo sapiens, or in the earliest days of humanity (when humanity was small groups of nomads), concluding that if extreme hot or cold temperatures occurred then there can be no problem today (when humanity is 7+ billion people in fixed settlements).
The time period selected and the data adjustments made to historic and recent temperatures largely determines the conclusions. And there is no single “right” time period or “right” adjustments; some just appear more reasonable than others.
I am fully aware that the only totally open mind is a totally empty mind. That is not me or you. So all I can do is try my best to be as objective and impersonal about the evidence as I can. Let me say at the outset that I do not believe in conspiracy theories; or evil scientists fraudulently altering data to create fake science. I assume that everyone is acting with the best of intentions, whether or not I might agree with their methods or conclusions.
I am also unpersuaded by the now common articles that claim to be “debunking” a list of “10 myths” or inconvenient truths presented by someone they disagree with. The myths attacked are usually an oversimplified ‘straw man’ argument, and the debunking often includes personal attacks, as in: she went to a 3rd rate university and didn’t get a PhD in climate science; or: he got his funding from the evil X (whether the oil industry or a foreign billionaire’s charitable foundation). And therefore what they say is just a myth. Working scientists and journalists all have to get their funding from somewhere. I don’t care where.
In today’s polarized times, it is a lot easier to get funded and published in peer reviewed journals when presenting a commonly held viewpoint than a skeptical or even contrarian one. Unfortunately, peer review is no longer the powerful tool it once was if all your peers think the way you do, but reject anyone who doesn’t. For these reasons I don’t look only at the author’s credentials, peer review or alleged sources of funding, but try to judge the presentation on the merits of the evidence and arguments presented.
My interest has been to look behind the headlines to form my own tentative and evolving conclusions. In retirement, I have the time and experience to ask the difficult and sometimes embarrassing questions without needing funding or peer review from anyone. Some of my conclusions will be presented in blog posts here. Keep reading.
Today’s much publicized ‘climate crisis’ is not so much an issue with dispassionately analyzing climate science as it is with some media creating extreme anxiety and a sense of impending doom. A large part of this emotional suffering is caused by dramatic, emotion-laden language and images that ‘go viral’, and which are meant to push our emotional buttons, particularly those labelled ‘fear’ and ‘anger’. “The hottest year on record” headline and story sells subscriptions and brings ads to eyeballs; a two-page spread on why this year’s temperature is less than the temperature in 1930’s is unpublishable.
Human understanding of complex factual issues is much better when we avoid extreme language and scary images which provoke and escalate anxiety. We don’t have a climate crisis, we have an emotional crisis about the climate.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying there are no concerns about our changing climate, but to call it a crisis at this stage is unwarranted. As well, the solutions usually proposed using currently developed technology can only be implemented over many decades, and at enormous cost. Wishful thinking is not a solution to anything.
In this initial blog post on climate change I will try to explain what is seriously wrong with the visual and verbal vocabulary used to describe climate change. Subsequent posts will deal with specific climate issues and proposed action.
Climate science discussions have become highly politicized and polarized in the last decade. This has made rational discussion more difficult for scientists and policy makers alike. That is why we now have climate crisis strikes, people needing psychological help for climate anxiety, international agreements that are never fulfilled and rising CO2 emissions causing even more anxiety.
Scientists and policy-makers calling each other nasty names like “deniers” and “alarmists” have increased rather than reduced anxiety. Dilbert creator Scott Adams has illustrated how this can play out with one of his usually ironic and hilarious cartoons.
DILBERT © Scott Adams. Used By permission of ANDREWS MCMEEL SYNDICATION. All rights reserved.
Climate Deniers: A Vacant Category
There are currently two extreme, directly opposed viewpoints, perhaps best expressed in the US.
According to the Obama administration, 97% of ‘climate scientists’ actually agree that global warming is an urgent problem. If that was right it would follow that the 3% who do not share this view, the tiny group of “deniers”, are either incompetent or dishonest scientists, supposedly on the payroll of the fossil fuel industry. The “deniers” have been compared to the tobacco industry lobbyists who misled the public into believing that cigarette smoking was harmless. So “deniers” are depicted as evil and cruel people for propping up the dying fossil fuel industry, even as increasingly severe extreme weather events are killing more people and will soon make the planet uninhabitable for our children. You can’t get more evil than that!
On the other side of the swinging political pendulum, according to some in the Trump administration, human caused global warming is a ‘hoax’ by socialist “alarmists”, to benefit China. Also some right of centre commentators have criticized the United Nations, which created the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as promoting a fake ‘climate crisis’ to present the UN as the only possible world government capable of solving this existential crisis. It will do so by replacing greedy Western ‘capitalism’, global socialism, and redistributing the wealth of the developed nations to the poorer, developing ones.
What is particularly destructive in this debate of extremes is the name calling and personal insults between scientists with different views. Do we really want to have Republican science and Democratic science in the US, or Liberal science and Conservative science in Canada, depending upon who is currently in power? Do we really want one group of scientists calling another “deniers” and their opponents calling them “alarmists”, where each attacks the integrity and good faith of the other?
Here is well-known climate scientist Michael Mann insulting well-known climate scientist Judith Currie on Twitter:
Is this the way science should work? Skeptical testing of hypotheses against observations is the essence of science; name calling is not. Name-calling is not a persuasive argument. Calling someone a denier or an alarmist is substituting insult for information.
Who is a “climate change denier” (sometimes just called “climate denier”)? No one denies that the climate always changes. No one denies the existence of “climate”. Thus, “denier” is just an empty and meaningless swear word.
There are no facts about climate change – or anything else – in the future. There are only forecasts. A forecast is the opinion of the forecaster. It was common for the forecasters I saw testifying to say in self-defence something like “The only thing I know for sure about a forecast – mine or anyone else’s – is that it will be wrong. What I don’t know is by how much, and in what direction.” Another self-deprecating comment is that whoever lives by the crystal ball must be prepared to eat ground glass.
How much the global climate will change, over what time, and as caused by what, are essentially guesses about the future and causality. These guesses are subject to significant debate within the scientific community.
Some people (scientists, journalists and politicians) get very defensive and angry if you disagree with, or even just do not support, their opinions; opinions which to them are obviously the only correct ones. So they may call anyone who is less than an enthusiastic supporter a denier. When used in this dogmatic way, a denier is merely someone who disagrees with someone else’s opinion, usually about the future. If you don’t think someone else is as smart as they think they are then you are a denier. It is more socially acceptable for a scientist to call another scientist a denier than to use the common vulgar expression for the orifice at the opening of the rectum. Hence the usual expression is “denier”. But make no mistake about what is meant.
If disagreeing with, or even being skeptical about someone’s unverifiable opinion about the future gets someone called denier, so what? It reminds me of what former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau responded when told that US President Richard Nixon had called him “an asshole”. He said “I have been called worse things by better people.”
If one scientist expresses the opinion that most of the recent climate change is warming caused by increasing atmospheric CO2, while another scientist disagrees with that opinion, each scientist denies their approval of the other’s opinion. Therefore, one is just as much a denier as the other. So if someone calls you a denier you could call them a denier in return – unless you consider such name calling to be juvenile.
Of course, the epithet “denier” intentionally evokes the image of a Holocaust denier, which is to imply that a scientist who is a denier is just as immoral as an anti-Semitic bigot. So if you disagree with, or are skeptical about a scientist’s forecast of the planet’s climate 80 years from now are you no better than an anti-Semitic bigot who denies the Holocaust? The person engaging in such smear tactics is more deserving of criticism that anyone so described. This is adolescent schoolyard bullying unworthy of scientists, or even politicians and journalists. Just don’t do it.
It would be more accurate to change the word “denier” to “disagreer”. But that would deprive the user of “denier” of the satisfaction of swearing at someone who has the nerve not to agree with their opinion.
“Alarmist” is also an insult, but somewhat less offensive, as it does not convey the Holocaust denial image. Nevertheless, someone who believes the problem is worse than you believe it to be is as much entitled to their opinion as you are to yours, without being called an alarmist, or any other names.
Calling someone names merely suggests that the name caller could benefit from a course in anger management or good manners.
To talk about “the science” as in “I have listened to the science” or what “science has shown” is metaphorical. It is personifying science. But science is not a person to whom one can listen or with whom one can agree. There is no such person as “the science”. There are only individual scientists. That is why when our Prime Minister says he has listened to the science, he should tell us which scientists he has listened to, and why he agreed with them rather than with other scientists.
Greta Thunberg recently told world leaders to “unite behind the science”. That is to objectify science, and treat it as if it was a single, correct finding of fact. But science is neither a thing nor a fact.
Science is a method – of collecting, analyzing and debating observations to test hypotheses, by verifying them or falsifying them. See the famous and hilarious lecture by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman on the scientific method, in just 60 seconds: Richard Feynman.
When people say “the science has shown” (a personification) what they are really telling us is usually just what they heard or read about someone else describing what that other person heard someone else saying about what the science has shown. This is not a critical examination of scientific evidence but essentially gossip about science.
If you are not a scientist, or have not actually read and understood the numerous relevant scientific articles on both sides of an issue, you should not pretend to have scientific knowledge by using expressions like “the science has shown”. It would be more honest to admit that “ I have not read the numerous scientific reports on this subject, but my impression from the newspapers, TV and social media is that some/many/most scientists predict that …. etc.”.
A prediction or forecast – a mere human guess about the future – is not a proven fact, unless and until it happens as predicted. Any prediction of the global average temperature in 2100 will be unverifiable and unfalsifiable until 2100. A weather forecaster would be risking ridicule to publish a forecast more than two weeks ahead because the forecasting error would quickly be seen. However, a climate forecaster takes no risk publishing a forecast 80 or more years ahead because both the forecaster and the readers of the forecast will probably be dead by then.
Unless and until a climate scientist’s hypothesis is verified by actual observations it cannot be presented as a scientific fact. Numerous such forecasts that agree with each other closely may be called a consensus of the forecasters surveyed. But they cannot yet be called a scientific consensus because they are unverified by actual observations.
How much the planet’s climate will change, over how many decades or centuries, and with what causes, is an unresolved issue about which there is significant debate within the scientific community. In future blog posts I will canvass some of the issues in this debate.
Part 2 of this post will be published shortly. Stay tuned!