Monday, July 10, 2017

Would You Look at the Actual Science? Please?

My last column, “Global Warming in a Nutshell,” drew a brief comment from a reader named David Cutright.  In case you missed it, he wrote:

You conveniently ignore discussion of any other theories as to the cause of Global Warming, and they ALL are theories. The other issue is that every solution proposed, including the Paris Accord, sends trillions from the US to other countries while allowing those other countries to continue to increase CO2 production for several years without a significant reduction in Average Global Temperatures.

At this point in our planetary history, given the mounting danger posed by global warming, it feels irresponsible to let such claims go unchallenged. 

I don’t know Mr. Cutright, although I remember a long letter chock full of attacks on global warming that he wrote several years ago to the editor of the Hur Herald.  I assume he is sincere and well-meaning, even though almost nothing he writes is trustworthy.    

With that as background, here’s a more analytical take on his comment.

He says that I “conveniently ignore” alternative theories for what might be causing global warming, implying that I deliberately left out legitimate alternatives.  If I understand him correctly, that would be all other theories, because one theory is apparently as good as another.  They’re all just theories, you know.

That’s nonsense, of course.  All theories aren’t equally plausible, and when a theory is proven wrong by advances in science or real-world observations, it’s discarded.  Theories that consistently match the facts, on the other hand, are called “robust” by scientists, meaning they’re very likely to be true.

So either he doesn’t understand how science works, or he has missed the point of my column.  Or maybe he’s just so bent on making his own points that mine might as well be written in water.   

Although he didn’t specify what other theories he had in mind, the chief alternative explanations for what’s causing global warming have been: 1) solar activity, and 2) variations in heat coming from Earth’s core.  For several years climate contrarians were keen on the solar activity theory—the idea that an increase in sunspots and solar flares has been causing Earth’s temperature to rise.

But neither of those theories matches up with real world observations.  Solar activity has actually been declining while temperatures have been rising.  And only a relatively small, steady amount of heat actually flows from Earth’s core to its surface.  So those theories have been invalidated by the evidence.  That’s why I ignored them. They no longer belong in the conversation.  Like the theory that the universe revolves around our home planet, they’ve been added to science’s scrap heap.

By contrast, there is an abundance of evidence confirming that our planet is steadily warming, that rising levels of greenhouse gases are responsible, and that it is humans who are boosting those levels.  My column laid out these steps, each backed by links to the underlying science. 

Because of their familiarity with that evidence, scientists who focus on climate overwhelmingly identify the greenhouse effect as the engine driving modern global warming.  

In fact, in a number of surveys, about 97% of those highly-qualified specialists have confirmed that this particular theory fits the facts.  All of the major scientific organizations in the world, with not a single exception, say the same thing.  As we laypeople would put it: It’s true.

It’s ironic to have Mr. Cutright complain that I’m ignoring other (discredited) theories—and then himself ignore the entire body of my column, as well as the science which undergirds it.  Instead he attacks the Paris Accord, which I didn’t mention at all.  (Rather than get sidetracked with that issue, I’ll take it up in my next column.)

Each item in my “Global Warming in a Nutshell” column was drawn from mainstream science and, as I’ve mentioned, was linked to supporting documentation.  Everything in Mr. Cutright’s comment and his earlier letter to the editor is drawn from the familiar grab-bag of denialist talking points, and none of it is sourced or supported.  

Mr. Cutright has obviously invested a good deal of time in studying denial literature.  But the more he “learns,” the less he actually knows, because all of that accumulated misinformation blocks him from learning the genuine, high grade science that would call it into question.  The shelves of his mental warehouse are crammed with half-truths, cherry-picked facts, and outright lies.  There’s no room on the shelves for anything else.  

That’s a real loss.  The world needs people with his passion and initiative.  But it needs them to to be operating from a sound scientific basis. 

Mr. Cutright’s comment, as brief as it is, as well as his earlier letter to the editor, are fair samples of what the denial industry eventually produces.  Their strategy is to ignore the actual peer-reviewed science, smear those who promote the science, deflect the argument, and keep throwing out the same lies over and over again.  Their hope is that the public will mistake the confusion they've created for actual debate within the scientific community about what causes global warming.  

But there is no scientific debate.  None.  Just a barrage of anti-science propaganda created by highly paid PR firms, bankrolled by fossil fuel billionaires, and parroted by their political front men.  Well-meaning though he may be, Mr. Cutright is serving as their agent.  As our climate situation becomes increasingly desperate, that makes him an unwitting agent of ignorance and evil, nudging us toward disaster.

If you’re going to weigh in on global warming, you have a moral obligation to first familiarize yourself with the peer-reviewed research related to it, as well as the current state of understanding among climate scientists.  Otherwise you’re at the mercy of any con man, zealot, or flimflam artist—and your own biases.