Global environmental challenges
Can you trust the science?
Today we pose the question to our virtual panel of experts, “How far can we trust the science of climate change?”
Join the debate and leave your comments below.
Bjorn Lomborg, statistician and author of “The Skeptical Environmentalist”:
The vast majority of climate scientists tell us that increases in carbon dioxide cause higher temperatures over time. We know that this will mean changes in rainfall, melting of snow and ice, a rise in sea level, and other impacts on plants, wildlife, and humans.
There is still meaningful and important work going on looking at the range of outcomes that we should expect–it is wrong to suggest that “all of the science is in”– but I think it is vital to emphasize the consensus on the most important scientific questions.
With some people drastically under-playing the effects of warming and others significantly exaggerating them, my view is that the careful research of the United Nations panel of climate change scientists, the IPCC, is the best guide to what we can expect from global warming – expecting a temperature increase by the end of the century between 1.6 and 3.8 degreesC (or 2.9-6.8 degrees F) higher than today’s temperatures.
There were disturbing revelations in the “Climategate” files – the stolen emails that showed some of the world’s most influential climatologists going to great lengths to enforce what amounts to a party line on climate change. (See related story here.)
Data that didn’t support their assumptions about global warming were fudged. Experts who disagreed with their conclusions were denigrated as “idiots” and “garbage.” Peer-reviewed journals that dared to publish contrarian articles were threatened with boycotts. Dissent was stifled, facts were suppressed, scrutiny was blocked, and the free flow of information was choked off.
These emails – quite predictably – have been seized on by skeptics of man-made climate change as “proof” that global warming is a hoax. And this is the most unfortunate part of “Climategate.”
Global warming is not a hoax, but at a time when opinion polls reveal rising public skepticism about climate change, this unsavory glimpse of scientists trying to cook the data is simply unhelpful.
The most relevant, significant dialogue today is not about interpretations of natural science, but about the different possible solutions to global warming, and what their costs and benefits would be.
I am not a global warming skeptic. But I am deeply skeptical of our dogged, single-minded pursuit of a policy response to global warming that has failed to work for nearly twenty years.
Knut Alfsen, head research director, Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo (CICERO):
Of course, science is never (or very seldom) “done” or “finished” in the sense that it provides the full and final answer to a particular question or a set of questions.
At its roots, science is a structured dialog where hypotheses are put forward and tested in various well structured ways.
Occasionally it is possible to disprove a hypothesis, but we almost never get a 100 percent proof of the validity of the hypothesis.
At best it may gain credibility over time as it withstands more and more tests. So in one way we cannot completely trust climate science to come up with the final truth.
If, on the other hand, we more modestly want to know what we currently know of the problem, we can do, as IPCC does, listen in on the ongoing scientific dialog and extract the “current truth” about climate change; its causes, effects and possible remedies.
The field of climate science is lucky in having IPCC to carry out intergovernmental assessments of the “current truths”. The assessments are carried out according to strict procedural rules in a transparent and open way, thus lending credibility to the assessment reports themselves.
Big values are at stake when it comes to climate change. On the one hand, the potential damage of unchecked climate change is staggering. On the other hand the costs of necessary mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions are also substantial.
This explains the intense and highly politicized debate about the science of climate change.
Also the fact that the IPCC assessments are carried out by scientists, while the summaries for policy makers and the synthesis report are negotiated with policy makers, a constellation that leaves out businesses and other special interest groups, makes for heated and unstructured debate between some of these stakeholders and IPCC. We should perhaps work harder to rectify this imbalance.
In conclusion, the science of climate change is neither more nor less trustworthy than other fields of science, it is just the victim of more intense and politicized debate.
In the end, the challenge of climate change can only be met if we are able to bring all parties into the debate and find a common answer to the climate challenge. Quite a challenge in itself!