The Heresy of Climate Skepticism (Greg Spearritt)

  (27 November 09)

The Heresy of Climate Skepticism





By Greg Spearritt




One of my favorite quotes on heresy is from Robert Dessaix:


Heresy to me is sacred. Heresy is the rogue genetic mutation that makes the species multiply. Heresy is the very source of all the colours and shapes and pain and joy in the world. Those who would stamp it out are my enemies. (Night Letters, 231)


As I have argued elsewhere, however, heresy can be irresponsible and even dangerous. Climate change falls into this category, in my view.


It’s commonly called climate skepticism, but it’s most often an act of dissenting from, rather than mere questioning of, established or majority scientific opinion. And I think that qualifies as heresy.


Now I’m not against heresy per se, and I believe skepticism (an act of critical thinking) ought to be a crucial weapon in our mental armoury. Where possible, no-one should take matters of belief, whether scientific or religious, on the authority of someone else: if your own reasonable assessment of the evidence leads you to an unpopular or dissenting opinion, I’d say you have a duty to adopt that view.


But consider the climate question. As in so many areas of science, it’s impossible for the laity to adequately understand, let alone assess, the evidence. This is a case where authority does, regrettably, loom large in decision-making. However, the principle of critical thought should stand behind our choices as to who is most authoritative on the matter.


That’s where I see the “climate skeptics” falling short. I would distinguish four categories of authority on climate change.


1.  Non-scientific

This is the least authoritative source. If you rely on the opinions of your local shock jock, or politicians, or coal companies, or even ABC journalists – or me, for that matter! – you’ve made a serious error of judgement. That’s not to say you don’t consider these sources, just that their views are only as good as the information and argument they in turn rely on. Sadly, this is the most persuasive source of influence on public opinion in the climate change debate, in part because it’s the most accessible.


2.  Individual scientists

I see this as a second and slightly more authoritative tier, but one in which the views are many and varied. In Australia, Tim Flannery accepts anthropogenic global warming, but he’s primarily a mammologist and palaeontologist. Geologist Ian Plimer rejects it. Who to believe? And is there any overall consensus? One useful tool would be a survey to get some kind of overall picture – and it has been done. A 2009 survey of the opinions of earth scientists found “overwhelming consensus among climate researchers on the issue of global warming and its likely causes.” It is, of course, just one survey (the only one I know of) and it certainly didn’t receive responses from every relevant scientist.


A brief digression: the climate issue is much larger than the traditional ‘climate science’ disciplines such as atmospheric science and oceanography. The puzzle is so involved that geology, biology and many other disciplines do genuinely become climate-related fields as far as evidence goes.


3.  Large scientific academies and associations

Significantly more authoritative than either of the options above is the view of large bodies of scientists. That body most reviled by climate skeptics, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), belongs here. In 2001 the IPCC stated:


An increasing body of observations gives a collective picture of a warming world and other changes in the climate system... There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities. (Climate Change 2001: Working Group I: The Scientific Basis, IPCC, January 2001.)


This view has been supported by the Academy of Sciences from over 40 countries, and among many others, by the following:  


International Arctic Science Committee

InterAcademy Council (IAC)

International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences

American Association for the Advancement of Science

European Science Foundation

American Geophysical Union

European Federation of Geologists

Geological Society of America

Geological Society of Australia

International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics

American Meteorological Society

Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society

World Meteorological Organization

American Quaternary Association

International Union for Quaternary Research

American Society for Microbiology

Institute of Biology (UK).


There is a handful of broad scientific bodies that are non-committal on the issue of anthropogenic warming, including the American Association of State Climatologists, but according to Wikipedia, since 2007 no “scientific body of national or international standing is known to reject the basic findings of human influence on recent climate change”.


4.  Peer-reviewed scientific publications

It’s customary in the climate debate, no matter which side you take, to claim that the science is on your side (and is wilfully ignored by the other).


Science is a method involving deduction from empirical observation. Findings in science must be assessed for validity, hence the method of carefully recording all aspects of each experiment or study, including hypothesis, materials and procedures used, results found and conclusions drawn. All of this is done, of course, so that any flaws in the process that may invalidate the conclusions can be identified.


Genuine science is therefore peer-reviewed. If your findings pass the scrutiny of fellow-scientists in your field, the public can have confidence that your conclusions may be significant.


Where are the views of ‘climate-skeptical’ scientists presented? Overwhelmingly, it’s in the press and through non-peer-reviewed publications. If there really was no significant consensus on climate change, that venerable tool of science, the peer-reviewed scientific journal, would be sprouting articles aplenty dissenting from the mainstream view. The vocal minority of dissenting scientists should be hard at work persuading their peers that their data and their reading of it is valid rather than trying to persuade a gullible public.


It follows that for commentators in category one above to claim that “the science” supports their particular view is meaningless unless they’re talking about peer-reviewed work, because its validity and reliability cannot be established. The ‘climate skeptics’ – Clive James, Andrew Bolt, the National Party and many of the Liberals, among many others – do not cite peer-reviewed work, nor do they rely on the expressed opinion of large professional scientific bodies.


Many facts presented in this article come from Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia. Wikipedia does in places contain information of doubtful provenance. If anyone can contradict my facts with information from more reliable sources I will gladly listen and if need be change my views.


I hope the climate skeptics are right, that either the earth really isn’t warming or that if it is we’re not contributing to it. In my reading of the situation, though, “the science” – as represented chiefly by peer-reviewed publications and large scientific bodies – is pretty clear. Not only are the skeptics heretics, but in view of what’s at stake… they’re dangerous.




So in other words you aren't as inclusive as you claim to be.

Posted by Greg Cooney

Interesting point, Greg. I don't wish to deny anyone their right to express an opinion, however if a view is to have cogency it must be supported by sound argument. This applies even more so when the potential for suffering is as high as it is with this issue.

If the view/s of the 'climate heretics' influence us to avoid acting on this issue (as seems to be happening in Oz), those views would need to be very well founded indeed, since if they're wrong millions worldwide (chiefly poorer people) may needlessly suffer and die.

I argue that their views are not well founded; they don't respect the tried and true methods of science.

I also have trouble tolerating those who believe the parousia is near and who reason that we should therefore not care about the earth.

While incluisvity is a fine principle, it's true that I'm not blindly 'inclusive': I think that would an irresponsible position.

Posted by Greg Spearritt

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