Healthy is probably not the first adjective that climate change skeptics would use about their position. At least that is my conclusion given the pariah status conferred on anyone who resists the conventional wisdom that climate change is both bad and caused by human activity. Skeptics have been chastised, vilified, even threatened. And some have retaliated with their own aggressive defense.
The problem is that to get people fired up about a long-term, diffuse and tricky to resolve problem like climate change, some fervor is required. It is a problem where acute pain will creep up on us, many times undetected. And even when effects are acute they are difficult to attribute. After all they could have happened by chance anyway.
Most climate change is actually slow and slow change is hard to prove. It is even harder to spend public money on or, worse still, put in place policies that might hamper economic growth, just to slow further an already slow change.
So the solution was to speed it all up. Add some intensity and make the whole thing immediate. Al Gore made Inconvenient Truth in this style. Create some buzz using fear.
Only this is hard to maintain. Momentum is easily lost when the foundation of the argument is emotion and not unequivocal facts. Most of the time we need to be able to see it to believe it. This is why there are still a billion people in the world who end each day hungry. If we saw poverty with our own eyes we would soon do something about it.
Climate change is not visible. It is a gradual shift in weather patterns, perhaps a subtle frequency change in extreme events. It manifests as earlier onset of spring, a shorter than usual rainy season or a few more tornados. But all of these could happen by chance.
Skeptics become more than a nuisance in these circumstances. Inevitably they want evidence to be convinced of the phenomenon. This is what skepticism is, an open-mind until there is sufficient evidence for a decision either way. Only in the climate change debate, just asking for more evidence is tantamount to treason.
Except that climate change skeptics are vital even if global warming is real and turns out to be caused by human actions.
It is vital because we need to be sure that actions we take are meaningful.
If we must spend money to reduce emissions, slow growth in the use of fossil fuel around the world [a huge call for all those countries with emerging economies] and take steps to adapt to climate change then we need to know these are genuine priority tasks.
They must be worth it.
Climate change action must be more important than direct spending on poverty reduction, food security, health care, education, conflict resolution and a host of local issues.
And there will always be debate on priorities.
Just today I heard a caller on a radio talk show advocate that $4 million in taxpayer finds should be spent on a public swimming pool rather than more car parking space at the train station. For him the pool gave a far better public outcome. He probably would have some friends among the climate change skeptics and a few “what are you thinking” from the warmers.
Skeptics force us to be sure that any action is the right call. It is a weak position to just ignore or attack a naysayer.
Is the author a skeptic?
Given that I have been advocating for the value of skepticism I thought I should take my own little questionnaire to out myself on this issue.
Are you a climate change denier? No. I believe that climate change is real. Climate has always changed and always will.
Do you believe that humans are the cause of what many see as global warming? Probably, because we have changed enough of the way the natural world works. We have released carbon from vegetation and soils, and burnt enough fossil fuels to have an effect on atmospheric dynamics.
Is human activity the only driver of a changing climate? Definitely not and it is easily trumped by the bigger cosmic cycles. Human activity may be a climate nuisance, but we are not all powerful.
Can humans ‘fix’ climate change? No, we can’t ‘fix’ something that isn’t broken. That said we should reduce our impacts but it is not in our powers to stop the climate changing however much we might like to think we can. Instead we should be investing our smarts and resources into managing the effects of climate change on our production systems.
So are you a climate change skeptic? Yes I am, because I have always been cautious and needy for evidence. ‘Innocent till proven guilty’ is a far more powerful way to seek the truth than to just presume guilt.
So far I have seen enough evidence to convince me that climate changes
I am even reasonably convinced that human activity of the past 200 years [before then there were too few of us to really have any impact] is sufficient to be a driver of further change.
But I am skeptical about our ability to do anything about global warming for two reasons:
- we cannot agree to take consolidated action, a consequence of our innate argumentative natures
- we still have to feed, clothe and house a population of 7 billion growing at 9,000 per hour
The first is a matter of will and the second is pure pragmatism.
These realities mean that we will need skeptics to help us make sure that it is worth all the effort to get awkward policies through our domestic and international political processes or, to put it more simply, to keep everyone honest.