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I have rarely witnessed such passion and venom as currently besets the ongoing debate on climate change. It seems as if everyone has a view. Surprisingly for me, a very large section of opinion makers are firmly on the No side of the argument. They believe global warming is bunk.

Sifting through the rhetoric, it seems that many commentators see climate change as the ultimate liberal conspiracy. According to this viewpoint, 1990 saw an end to Communism but instead of throwing away the placards, the socialists threw their lot in with the new cause célèbre: environmentalism. Twenty years on and our leaders are in Copenhagen, addled by decades of left wing fear-mongering. They will willingly throw away any chance of future prosperity on a mirage, a dream that will never happen. It’s an understandable argument, but it misses a key point. The protesters don’t matter. The politics doesn’t matter. All that matters in this debate is the science.

I’m not a huge fan of militant activism, because activists often jump to huge conclusions based on relatively few facts. Activists have got many things wrong in the past, which leads to the conclusion that just because you are passionate about something doesn’t make you right. The corollary is also true, however. Passion in itself doesn’t make you wrong either.

Another view is that Climate Change is just one big bandwagon, upon which many people, who don’t understand the science, have crept aboard. This is quite true, but for the same reasons as above it is also irrelevant to the debate. The fact that it is a bandwagon issue doesn’t make it implicitly untrue.

The only thing that matters in this debate is the quality of the science. Climate scientists from many different fields, using multiple lines of evidence, sophisticated measuring devices, supercomputers, myriads of data points and complex statistical models, have paintakingly arrived at a conclusion that the world is warming and that a significant part of that warming is man made. If you want to argue this, you need to argue the science. This is not at all easy, which is why so few people in this debate, on both sides of the argument, are qualified to talk about it at all. Right now, there is plenty of heat, but very little light.

So, unless I hear that there is a reasonable alternative theory that addresses the data and the multiple lines of evidence in a coherent way but yields a contrary outcome, I will stay with the consensus view. Ultimately, scientists are reasonable people. It’s not normally in their interest or their nature to reject the evidence in favour of political dogma. Talk of a conspiracy among scientists is unlikely in the extreme.

This is the fourth posting in my 2019 Time Capsule series, looking at how the issues of today might be seen ten years from now. This entry is a topical one, particularly given the influenza scare over the weekend.

Global Warming

Global WarmingThe scientists are largely agreed: our world is warming up, and the long term effects on the environment are likely to be very substantial indeed. The principal cause is a massive increase of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere due to “anthropogenic factors”. In other words: us folk is wot have done it, m’lud. Guilty as charged. Over the last two centuries, we have been busy burning away Earth’s fossil fuel reserves – coal, natural gas and oil. All around the world, average temperatures are on the increase, while glaciers and ice shelves are on the retreat. Weather effects such as bushfires, droughts and stronger hurricanes provide us with hints of a coming crisis. Although climate change deniers still exist, the main scientific debate now rages about the depth of the crisis seemingly awaiting us. Will the effects be as bad as scientists are predicting? Ten or twenty years is probably too short a time to say for certain. However what should have changed by then is the extent to which we will we have started to wean ourselves away from fossil fuels. Will nascent technologies such as wind, wave, geothermal, biofuel, nuclear power and solar power be much more in evidence? Will a new source of energy be discovered? How will these technologies affect how we live our lives? How will they affect world politics? Interesting times.

Killer pandemics

pandemicOne of the big wildcards, when it comes to speculating about the future, is the possibility of a nasty virus originating in somewhere like South East Asia or the jungles of the Congo, and devastating the world’s population within a matter of months. It has happened before and many people will tell you that it is only a matter of time before it happens again. Influenza is regarded as one of the most probable culprits due to the ease by which it infects new hosts and how amenable it is to air travel. While there is always a worry that such a scourge might rear its head at any time, a more interesting question is whether scientists might have it beaten. A recent breakthrough in Australia indicates that a weak spot might indeed have been found, and that we might be able to immunise people from all deadly ‘flu viruses in the near future. We hope so. Viruses, owing to their vast numbers and their propensity to mutate quickly, are never beaten for very long.

Next in line: The economy.

Phelim McAleer is a film-maker who has produced a documentary challenging the climate change consensus. He appeared on an Irish political program this evening to  debate with a climate scientist, Dr. Kieran Hickey. Now I haven’t watched much of this guy’s documentary yet, but even so, his argument was full of glaring logical fallacies.* 

1) A key plank of McAleer’s argument by the sounds of it is that because the scientific consensus got DDT so badly wrong that they must be wrong this time. 

Rubbish. Even if the scientists did get DDT wrong (and I’ll bet there’s a bit more to this story than meets the eye), that doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong on climate change. Methinks there is some selective thinking going on here. What about other scientific consensuses he omitted to mention? The connection between HIV and AIDS? Cowpox vaccination and Smallpox? Microbes and cholera? Smoking and lung cancer? Indeed, when it comes down to it: Gravity, Genetic theory, Plate Tectonics, Quantum Mechanics and Evolution are all scientific consensuses. It’s just a classic case of poisoning the well

2) Scientists have an agenda. 

The allegation here is that climate change is a big liberal conspiracy. This is an odd one, because the biggest vested interests in the climate change debate have always come from the other side! Get this: the combined revenue of the top 5 oil companies last year was 1.5 trillion dollars. 1,500,000,000,000 dollars. 1.5 million million dollars. That’s more than the entire GDP of Canada. Climate scientists were persona non grata in the White House for most of the last 8 years of the Bush presidency. If it’s a big conspiracy the financial backers must be an odd bunch indeed. Just because scientists are (according to you) bad people, it’s doesn’t make them wrong, Phelim. 

3) Climate change is a fad.

Apparently Phelim was taught in school in the 1970’s that the Ice Age was approaching in our lifetimes. In between there have been lots of fads, many of which have never come true. This argument attempts to conflate fads with real science, which is just ridiculous. Many of these fads never had any sort of consensus scientific backing. They were just media baubles – minority views that caught the imagination of the press for a period of time. Climate Change originated in the 1970’s as a seriously minority view. There was an activism bandwagon on climate change in the 1980’s which was often shone more heat than light. Cultural fads like this come and go, but the difference in this case was that real science began to weigh in over the past 20 years or so. This has swung the pendulum away from pure fad and into the realm of fact. An analogue is Wegener’s continental drift model that began as a minority view, but became in time accepted as a valid scientific theory when the science began to validate many of his arguments. Fads are not science. They lie on the margins, waiting to be validated or disproved. A lot of hard work needs to take place for a fad to become science, and in the case of climate change, this work has been carried out, with the argument pointing in no uncertain terms towards a deeply worrying future for us all. 

Here’s my biggest gripe with the whole thing. Debates are good when one person’s opinion is pitched against another person’s opinion. So if you bring the audience around to your point of view, you’ve won. Well done. A big prize to you. However, when you have a debate against a scientific consensus, then it doesn’t work so well. Even if the audience all agree with you, even if they carry you around on their shoulders in adulation, that doesn’t make your argument right. Science is not determined from public opinion. It has nothing to do with public opinion. It’s based on evidence, and the only way to challenge the science is to use the tools of science against it. These challenges do happen, but they don’t take place in public debate forums. No, they happen in scientific journals, conferences and papers, where each piece of evidence is scrutinised and debated until, you guessed it – a consensus emerges. So, even if the science is wrong in this case, Phelim, what is your alternative? Film-making?

* If you have never heard much about logical fallacies, I recommend you to take a look through this site. It may be the most educational hour or so you will spend this year.

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