Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Mark's recent entry highlighted the Republican press conference held in the closing days of the Copenhagen Climate talks. Framed in the context of the UN conference that had been ongoing for two weeks, their out and out dismissal of the concept of climate change was a little bizarre and surreal. Among the 192 nations present at the Copenhagen talks, the only hint of doubt I heard from any of them about the inevitability of changing climatic conditions was from small segments of the U.S. and the UK. I never once heard climategate mentioned in the halls of the Bella Center. It is indeed ironic that the best science being published on this issue is from individuals and labs in the U.S. and the UK.

However, in light of the public opinion polls that I discussed in my last post, I think it would be a mistake to ignore the presence of these so-called climate skeptics. They seem to have too much of an impact on public opinion to completely dismiss them as irrelevant fringe outliers. They may be fringe but they have not unfortunately been irrelevant. Let's examine their claims.

One of the Congressmen speaking at the press conference pointedly stated that there has been no independent scientific assessment outside of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that has indicated that warming is actually occurring or that any warming can be linked to people and human actions. This is patently false. In fact, one has to give the Congressman an awful lot of latitude to call this statement anything but a lie.

For example, a few weeks ago on the eve of the Copenhagen summit, eighteen independent scientific organizations wrote an open letter to the US Senate reiterating their formally stated positions on the existence, reality, and seriousness of Climate Change. The IPCC was not one of them. See a full copy of the letter sent to Senators here. The letter was timed so that it would reach Senators one week before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works was set to begin a series of hearings on climate change legislation, the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act (S. 1733). In simple language most people could understand, they state:

"Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver."

Not only is this the consensus of scientific bodies today, these conclusions have been consensus for years. Back in 2004, an article actually entitled "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change" published in the journal Science points to the dissonance between the uncertainty indicated by policy-makers and the media and the certainty expressed by scientists and scientific organizations. The author states: "such statements [by policy-makers] suggest that there might be substantive disagreement in the scientific community about the reality of anthropogenic climate change. This is not the case."

While these conclusions are indeed supported by the work of the IPCC, the article also documents support for these conclusions from the US National Academy of Sciences, The American Meteorological Society, the American Geophysical Union, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and the scientific literature. In an examination of 928 articles published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 (remember this article was published in 2004) not a single article was found disputing the claim that climate change was occurring and that it is being generated by human action.

The word skeptic comes from a Greek verb meaning “to examine carefully”. Ancient Greek skeptics grounded their philosophy on an opposition to any claims made to truth. This was a radical idea concluding that we cannot know what the truth of any situation is, that absolute knowledge itself is impossible. But this bears little resemblance to the kind of skepticism employed by those who deny the existence of climate change as it results in a relativistic view of the world (anybody might be right, everybody could be wrong). Instead, climate skeptics are rigidly confident that climate change cannot be happening.

Skepticism in science is a critical mechanism whereby ideas are rigorously tested and proven instead of being accepted based on false premises or flimsy data. It is a virtue central to the advancement of science itself. Science would not be able to function free of bias and dogma without skeptically demanding adequate proof for claims made.

So-called "climate skeptics" are neither skeptical in a philosophical or scientific sense. By refusing to carefully examine the data and evidence presented and closing themselves off from any possibility that they may be wrong violates the usage of the term "skeptic". Skepticism is a virtue. Lying and contradicting evidence for some as yet undefined political purpose is not.


  1. Excellent post. I particularly like your careful examination of the word skeptic. My only quibble is with the last line where you say the skeptics are "Lying and contradicting evidence for some as yet undefined political purpose..." On the contrary, I think the political aim of the skeptics is quite clear: to kill domestic and international climate-change legislation or treaties at any cost.

  2. It's great to see fresh, creative ideas that have never been done before.


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