Monday, December 10, 2012

Confessions of an Unbeliever (part 1 of 2)

Introduction: My confession

I have recently taken to “confessing” – that's what it feels like sometimes – that I am a non-believer in the prevailing, consensus hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). In this essay I will lay out the reasons for my unbelief, and why I even frame my position with that choice of words. This will not be a scientific essay, and there will be no embedded hyperlinks or list of references. For someone who wishes to look at another point of view, alternative information and hypotheses are readily available for their consideration. They need only summon the motivation to look. On the other hand, for a person who is not ready to entertain another point of view, no amount of hyperlinks or dropped names will make any dent in their beliefs.

OK, I changed my mind already, but there will be only one hyperlink for each part of this two-part essay, and I’ll list the first right at the outset:

It's not “the science”

I am not an expert in climate science. And neither are you. Let’s get that established right away. So neither of us can say that “the science” is the reason for our respective beliefs regarding the notion of AGW. Climate science is far too difficult for a lay person to be able to form an independent judgment about it; you or I cannot on our own come to grasp something so complex and vast as the global climate, in terms of the mix of factors that causes it to be in a constant state of change, and in terms of what the future 30 or 100 years will bring.

Even climate scientists, when they are being suitably humble, will admit that their understanding is far from complete – their sophisticated computer models notwithstanding.

In fact, I admit that there is no realm of knowledge for which I can confidently predict 30 years or 100 years into the future, even for areas that I would consider myself to be a semi-expert in; at best I might guess well for a decade ahead. There are too many factors that may intervene and that I haven't thought of; there are too many feedback loops that I can't account for.

So it cannot be that the typical believer in global warming bases his or her unshakable certainty on the alleged soundness of “the science”. It has to be something else; perhaps it's confidence in what he believes to be the confidence of others who are deemed “the experts.”

(I will return to this last point later on.)

And the same goes for me. My opinions do not ultimately hinge on the quality of the science that challenges the consensus model, which says that the earth's climate is in an accelerated warming trend that is due primarily to human activity, and that net feedback effects will likely increase the rate of warming in the coming decades. I am unqualified to pronounce on “the science” on either side of this debate.

What I can assert with confidence is that there is science on both sides of this debate.

The Church of AGW 

(Jan. 26 update: I only saw this yesterday -- honest: Climate change belief given same legal status as religion)

I consider AGW to be similar to a religion in the way its adherents speak and think about it – especially their dogmatic certainty. It also applies to how they react toward non-believers, who are akin to heretics. It is usually first assumed that non-believers’ motives are malevolent or that they are being duped by those with bad intent, which means of course fossil-fuel corporations, politicians in the pocket of said corporations, and Fox News. It is very rare, in many circles, to hear skepticism addressed in a charitable way.

AGW has its high priests and prophets of doom. The high priests are those who are in a position of enough “authority” to make policy recommendations or even decisions that will allow humanity to avoid their almost-certain doom. These are the people in the best position to intercede and to “stop climate change.” They are the people of power and action who can make decisions for sweeping change on behalf of the poor, bewildered flocks.

In this sense, the responses needed to “stop climate change” that believers are demanding of their “leaders” will be just one more component of the “new world order” that those leaders speak so fondly of and are working so hard towards. Yes, there are such proponents of a "one world government," and yes, political responses to AGW will fit nicely into their long-term aims.

The prophets, on the other hand, are in place to basically scare the bejesus out of us. And to make us feel existentially guilty. How dare we have the hubris to have been driving automobiles and heating our homes all these years!

(It’s possible to recognize that our lifestyle habits must change, as they indeed must, without rending our garments and tearing out our hair over it – figuratively speaking, of course. If I see any of our political “leaders” in sackcloth and ashes, and riding on bicycles rather than jetliners, I will gladly join them, but of course we never will see this. They just want us to curtail our lives, and to pay them for the privilege of doing so.)

For many of the already-religious, AGW grafts easily onto their existing belief system:

“The problem is that several studies… all indicate that methane leaks from hydraulic fracking are conservatively estimated at between 3 and 6% of the total volume of gas extracted which will acellerate (sic) climate change substantially over the next 50 years  leading almost inevetably (sic) to the collapse of  human civilization as we know it, the extinction of countless lifeforms (sic) and the desecration of God's Creation.”

It is not all that uncommon to see these kinds of expressions from within the church of AGW. This is really lathering on the guilt. Personally, the collapse of human civilization “as we know it” is precisely what AGW believers are hoping for, and I, for one, am not so sure that this is such a bad idea. But I digress.

Skeptical about what

Let me be clear about my skepticism. First, I must identify what I am not. I am not a “climate denier.” I freely admit to the existence of a set of long-term phenomena that we refer to as “climate.”

Secondly, I am not a “climate change denier.” I freely admit that now, as throughout all of time, our climate is not static. If you stay in one place for a short enough time, the climate can seem to be constant, but it is always in flux. To paraphrase the old saying, “If you don’t like the climate in Philadelphia (or wherever), just wait a few decades; it will change.”

[By the way, I am not unaware that the preferred term is now “denialist” instead of “denier.” I’m not sure whether assigning skeptical views to an “ism” represents an increase or a decrease in the respect accorded to those who hold such views, but I’m guessing it’s the latter. Denialism is probably the sign of a psychological disorder…]

My denial can easily be summed up as a rejection of the following claim, which is often invoked to stifle any dissent before it can arise: “The science is settled.”

To state it another way, I don’t believe that the certainty that is hammered home by mass media and other opinion leaders on AGW is collectively shared by the scientists who are studying the matter.

Recently a group of about 130 people, many prominent scientists among them, sent an open letter to United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, expressing their concern with his recent bold assertions about AGW and the need for the world to act to stop climate change. It's worth a read to see their names and qualifications, and to understand their objections. The hyperlink at the beginning of this post leads to that letter and the list of signatories.

I’ll break it off here, pick up with the nature of belief and of unbelief in part 2.

Jan. 27 update: Confessions of an Unbeliever (part 2)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...