Climate Change Stands Up to the Scientific Process

Are scientists finally figuring out how to effectively combat climate change skeptics? The lead letter for Science magazine’s latest issue, signed by 255 leading climate scientists, seems to indicate their on the right track, confronting skeptics head on with a strong argument for climate science and scientists and an excellent explanation of the role of uncertainty in science.

The number of signatories alone isn’t what gives the letter its “oomph.” Rather, the letter stands strong on three other, more important merits: it’s explanation of the scientific process, the role of uncertainty, and the lack of politics in the statement. The letter also states the five fundamental conclusions of climate science on climate change at this time:

"(i) The planet is warming due to increased concentrations of heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere. A snowy Washington does not alter this fact

(ii) Most of the increase in the concentration of these gases over the last century is due to human activities, especially the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation.

(iii)Natural causes always play a role in changing Earth's climate, but are now being overwhelmed by human-induced changes.

(iv) Warming the planet will cause many other climatic patterns to change at speeds unprecedented in modern times, including increasing rates of sea-level rise and alterations in the hydrologic cycle. Rising concentrations of carbon dioxide are making the oceans more acidic.

(v) The combination of these complex climate changes threatens coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more"

There are no policy prescriptions or specific calls to action. Instead, the causes and effects of climate change are clearly laid out without any politics. This stands in sharp contrast to the empty skeptic argument that climate scientists have an “agenda.”

In fact, this point is addressed directly in the letter:

“Like all human beings, scientists make mistakes, but the scientific process is designed to find and correct them"

Any agenda would plainly be laid clear if this were the case. While it would make for a great thriller movie, in the real world, it’s impossible for thousands of climate scientist colluders to hoodwink the public. As the letter states “fame still awaits anyone who could show…theories to be wrong.”

Yet skeptics have yet to offer any robust alternative theories as to what’s causing temperatures to rise, precipitation patterns to change, and migratory routes to move northward to name but a few of the changes in the Earth’s system.

The evidence of the causes of climate change and some of the effects are robust enough to be taken more seriously than most climate skeptics (and sadly a large portion of the American public) take them. Of course there is room for improvement. And there always will be. The letter lays out the role of this uncertainty in the scientific process.

Science can never absolutely prove anything. While we often talk of evolution and the Big Bang as “facts,” it’s more apt to think of them as ‘well-established theories.” But perfect information does not exist.

Take a coin flip for example. There’s a 50/50 chance for each side to land up. Say I add a lot of weight to one side. The odds are now 95/5 in favor of heads. Chances are you’ll put your money on heads because the odds are in your favor. It’s not a given heads will land up; the wind, the strength of the person flipping, the bounce it takes, all these factors will affect the outcome. But chances are, unless you’re a serious gambler, you’ll go with heads. The information is imperfect, but you go with the best odds.

Now think about climate change. Odds are that manmade greenhouse gas emissions are the cause of climate change. And odds are the effects of climate change will negatively impact ecosystems we rely on and a lot of people, particularly those who are already vulnerable or disadvantaged.

We’ll never know for sure exactly where and when the effects will be felt or the exact way greenhouse gas emissions interact with natural climate variability. But we know enough to know something has to be done to curb emissions and help people adapt to some of the effects of climate change. Imperfection does not necessitate inaction. We have some of the tools necessary to get on the right track by reducing emissions and adapting to the effects of climate change in the pipeline.

The only downside of the letter is that it didn’t appear in a more widely circulated publication. While being in a peer-reviewed journal like Science means a lot to the scientists themselves, a letter published in National Geographic, The Economist, or even a big newspaper like the conservative-leaning Wall Street Journal would have put the letter more directly in front of many more people.

Still, the letter stands as a strong call to skeptics to either put forward credible, peer-reviewed theories that account for the changes in the Earth’s climate system or stop obstructing work to avert catastrophic climate change. As the letter says “smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.”

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