Monday, March 12, 2012

The Climate Change "Debate"

There are a lot of political hot-button issues that never seem to get resolved.  If we are speaking of an issue like abortion, it is safe to say people will never agree on whether life begins at conception, or whether it begins sometime later.  If we are speaking of politics, it is safe to say a large number of people will always believe their respective political party is right while all other political parties are wrong.  If speaking of religion, people will often try to convince others that their religion or dogma is the only proper belief system and that anyone who follows a differing religion (or perhaps someone who follows no religion at all) is simply ignorant or misinformed.

I understand these debates, and although I may hold an opinion of my own, I can respect someone who disagrees with me because for the most part it is impossible to "prove" either side of these issues. 

Even the best doctors and scientists and religious leaders can't really "prove" when life beings and there surely is no consensus on the issue. 

Nobody will ever be able to prove that one political party is always right or is infallible - because history shows us the exact opposite.

We can't prove a religion to be correct without resorting to the concept of faith, and we can't prove or disprove the existence of a higher power because any evidence we have can be interpreted any number of ways.

I get it.  These are debates that have existed for hundreds or in some cases thousands upon thousands of years, and they are all debates that will most likely continue to rage on for thousands of years after we are all gone.  I may feel my opinion on these matters is "right", but I'm not naive enough to believe any of these debates will be settled in my lifetime nor am I unwavering in my belief that these matters will continue to be debated for generations to come.

However, there are other subjects which I simply cannot understand why people still consider them to be debatable.  I feel it is fairly safe to say the Earth revolves around the Sun because it is accepted science.  Very few of us have the knowledge or equipment to verify this personally, but we have accepted what the scientific community at large has told us, and that data has been verified by countless others.

The same can be true for subjects such as whether the Earth is round or flat.  I personally have never been around the world nor have I been an astronaut looking at the Earth from afar, but I accept that our planet is round because there is more than enough evidence to prove it to be the case.  I also accept that a single atom is comprised of three types of particles (protons, neutrons, and electrons).  I do not have the ability of verifying this fact myself, but I understand the body of scientific knowledge that exists on our planet has proven this to be factual.

One could say there is never going to be 100% consensus on any one particular issue and I agree with that.  In truth we know there are people among us who may believe the Earth is flat, or they may doubt not only the particles contained within atoms, but the actual existence of atoms.  No amount of logic or reason or research or science will ever convince everyone, but for all intents and purposes dissenting voices are ignored when it comes to matters of settled science.

It is because of this that I am often baffled when I hear an otherwise intelligent person proclaim that there is such a thing as a debate as to whether or not man-made climate change (aka man-made global warming, aka anthropogenic climate change) is real. To some degree I don't fault the layperson who doesn't wish to take the time to actually review the data or read the reports put out by the scientific community because in most cases people really don't have any interest... and honestly this subject matter is less than exciting to most members of the human race. 

I also acknowledge that the vast majority of the public obtains information from the media who may or may not present the data in a unbiased or non-partisan manner, not to mention the journalist writing the article or presenting the news may not be well versed on the subject matter in the first place.

In addition, in our overly-politically charged climate, many people wish to avoid the controversy with issues that appear to fall across political parties.  Thus, instead of actually noting what the scientific community believes in respect to a particular scientific issue, a journalist or talk radio host may try to appease a larger audience by trying to remain neutral and by avoiding making a statement which seems to confirm or deny the existence of man-made climate change.

So it stands to reason why so many people would believe that the subject of man-made climate change is a debate.  This also explains why in many cases we hear people utter the phrase "the jury is still out" or "scientists simply cannot agree".  It also contributes to why there is so much confusion on the issue and why public opinion polls seem to show a clear difference in political affiliation between those who do believe in climate change and those who do not even though leaders of both parties have stated publicly climate change is at least partly attributable to human activity.

I recently read a comment from someone that said for every scientist who "knows" climate change is caused by human activity there is a scientist who "knows" climate change has nothing to do with human activity, and this is a prime exactly of how misinformed people really are on this issue.

The reality is, that statement is nowhere near reality.  In fact, the trend of climatologists and scientists who actually study this phenomenon has been consisting in support of the concept of man-made climate change and the trend has been increasing in support rather than the opposite as some would suggest.  One of the most recent reports on the subject indicates that between 97–98% of the climate researchers most actively publishing in the field support the tenets of [climate change] outlined by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

So you may be asking yourself... what are those tenets outlined by the IPCC?  Well, in summary they boil down to three distinct points.
  1. The global average surface temperature has been on the rise since the late 19th century (including a distinct rise observed over the past 30 years).
  2. There is evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.
  3. If greenhouse gas emissions continue the warming will also continue.  Accompanying this temperature increase will be increases in some types of extreme weather and a projected sea level rise. On balance the impacts of global warming will be significantly negative, especially for larger values of warming.
Granted they tend to be a little more specific and add detail surrounding the actual temperature fluctuations, but in effect these three points are supported by 97-98% of climate researchers. 
Does that seem like a 50/50 mix to you?  No. 
Does it even remotely suggest there is widespread debate on this subject?  No. 
This clearly shows scientific consensus and is why man-made climate change is considered to be the mainstream scientific assessment.
It should also be noted that aside from individual scientists, every major organization on the planet that studies climatology, geology, or earth related sciences agrees with the man-made theory regarding climate change.  There was one organization (the American Association of Petroleum Geologists) who used to disagree, but sometime in 2007 even they had to finally admit the evidence is overwhelming so they basically had to stop denying it.  They won’t come out in full support (and based upon who provides them funding you can hardly blame them), but they no longer deny it and rather try to remain neutral (like some journalists who still try to convince the public there is a debate about climate change).

So who are these organizations you might ask?  Here is a partial list: 
  • The International Council of Academies of Engineering and Technological Sciences
  • The American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • The National Research Council
  • The National Academy of Sciences
  • The American Chemical Society
  • The American Meteorological Society
  • The Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
  • The Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
  • The Canadian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society
  • The Royal Meteorological Society
  • World Meteorological Organization
  • The World Health Organization
  • The American Institute of Physics
  • The American Physical Society
  • The Australian Institute of Physics
  • The European Physical Society
  • The European Science Foundation
  • The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies
  • The Network of African Science Academies
  • The National Science Academies of over 30 nations including all G8 nations, China, India, and many others.
  • The European Academy of Sciences and Arts
  • The Polish Academy of Sciences
  • The Royal Society of the United Kingdom
  • The Royal Society of New Zealand
  • The American Geophysical Union
  • The American Society of Agronomy
  • The Crop Science Society of America
  • The Soil Science Society of America
  • The European Geosciences Union
  • The European Federation of Geologists
  • The Geological Society of America
  • The Geological Society of London
  • The International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
  • NASA Goddard Institute of Space Studies
  • The Environmental Protection Agency
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
 And many, many more.

The bottom line is this... climate change is a political debate, not a scientific debate. Some politicians and talk radio pundits have done a fabulous job of convincing the uninformed that there is still some debate on whether or not man-made climate change is real and whether or not man is one of the primary contributors, but the truth is the scientific community has no such debate. They consider it to be settled science, just as they consider vaccines to be beneficial regardless of what Jenny McCarthy might say.

The only true debate within the scientific community is what we can do about climate change, how quickly we can act, what actions we can take in a short term vs. long term time frame, and what the impact of alternative energy sources will be.  Rest assured the scientific community is not suffering some deep fracture within as a result of those who may be considered climate change deniers, primarily because they are so few and far between.

Lets be clear - skepticism is good, but outright denialism is not.  It is well past time we stopped trying to blur the lines between a political debate and a scientific one.


  1. No idea if man is to blame for our changing climate and I really don't care, but I'm surprised when I see someone linking to a survey that was long ago discredited. Here's but one source that did so.

    It might say something that just over 30% took the time to respond at all. If this is such settled science I would expect a much higher response rate.

    Not picking sides, again, I don't care, but thought you might want to know the survey isn't taken seriously.

  2. Based upon my initial review of the survey discussed in your link, I suspect we aren't looking at the same data.

    The survey I link to in the post clearly states it was based upon an extensive dataset of 1,372 climate researchers and their publication and citation data. It was not based upon an online survey which included no more than two questions.

    That aside, if someone doesn't like this particular survey, there are plenty of others to choose from all of which tell the same story. It is more than obvious that within the scientific community there is no large scale debate as the media (and many energy companies) would have us believe.

    The list of scientific agencies and organizations I cited should be evidence enough that the scientific community overwhelmingly supports the idea of anthropogenic climate change being due in part due human activity, but I fully realize no amount of evidence will ever be sufficient to change all opinions on the subject.