My Mum was walking out of the supermarket the other day. She saw a Greenpeace man standing there at the back entrance of the supermarket, handing out leaflets and signing up people up to for membership. Mum walked past and started loading her shopping into the boot of her car. As she loaded the bags into the boot she overheard a snatch of conversation.
“So, you see, climate change has caused these terrible tsunamis,” the Greenpeace man was earnestly telling a worried young woman, holding out a clipboard and showing her some graphs and pictures.
My dear mother exploded. “That is absolute cr*p!” she exclaimed, turning and confronting the man and the woman. “Tsunamis are caused by tectonic plate movement in the earth’s crust. They happen because of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and things like that!” (If my mother’s word isn’t good enough for you, you can have a look at Wikipedia’s entry on tsunami).
The Greenpeace man and then young woman turned, surprised, then turned their backs on her and ignored her. The Greenpeace man kept explaining the terrible consequences of climate change, while the woman signed up for membership.
Don’t let inconvenient things like scientific facts get in the way of a good scaremongering story! An inconvenient truth indeed! This is the kind of thing which really gives me the pip about some elements in the Green lobby. I don’t mind people espousing environmental points of view, as long as they have based their view on scientific evidence. I also like it when people have at least considered the other side of the debate, not just rejected it out of hand. Yes, I’m my mother’s daughter, and proud of it. If I had been with her, I would have applauded her loudly.
I remember that when I was studying Geography in Year 9, we had to watch a video where Rob Gell told us that in 10 years time, the sea level would rise by 1 metre. I was horrified! I imagined wading around the house in despair. I note it hasn’t happened yet. I don’t want to give away my age (allow this Legal Eagle some modesty) but I was in Year 9 well over 10 years ago. As a result, I don’t just swallow this stuff whole, no matter how well-intentioned it may be. Could people get totally overwrought and see the apocalypse where there is none…? All I have to say is Y2K.
I have had arguments with members of lobby groups before, who have become very upset when I questioned the facts which formed the basis of their campaign. Once they realise that they haven’t got a leg to stand on (factually speaking), they usually fall back on some pathetic excuse like, “But at least it’s raising awareness of the problem, it doesn’t matter that it’s not quite accurate. The important thing is to promote change.” I’m afraid I don’t agree. If you promote change on a basis which is false, this may promote inappropriate change which is costly, useless, or even harmful to society. I am aware that the notion of “scientific truth” is mutable, but you have to distinguish between a thesis which is highly likely and supported by evidence (ie, tsunami are caused by earthquakes and tectonic plate activity) and a thesis which is not based on empirical evidence (ie, tsunami are caused by “climate change” – what does that mean anyway?).
I guess I’m a follower of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science. The essence of Popper’s theory of “falsibility” is that you can never actually confirm a scientific thesis, but if you disprove your thesis, it is decisive: it shows the thesis to be false. What can a scientist conclude then? A scientist can only conclude that for the time being the facts seem to be consistent with her thesis and thus her thesis has not been disproven. So, if you follow this reasoning, as a scientist, you can never confirm that climate change is definitely happening. If you are a good scientist, all you can say is that for the time being, the facts seem to be consistent with your thesis.
The whole point of science is to question your thesis and test it rigourously, searching for more facts. Given this, there is a worrying trend to shout down people who dare question the thesis of climate change. Recently, in an environmental blog called Grist, a post suggested that people who deny climate change should be subject to Nuremberg style trials as quasi-war criminals. Okay, that’s only one guy, I don’t want to make too big a deal out of it, but it’s still a pretty worrying opinion. He’s a zealot who doesn’t understand the way in which science works. If you use Popper’s theory of “falsibility”, the best way to prove a scientific thesis is to try to disprove it.
I hate the fact that climate change science has become politicised. The “Left” accept climate change, the “Right” deny it. For me, it is not a matter of politics. I don’t think I have enough data to unequivocally accept or deny climate change. What do I mean by this?
Let’s say that it’s a sunny day today. And it’s a really hot day for the next 10 days after. Does this sample of 11 days mean that the Earth is warming up? Don’t be silly, Legal Eagle, you say, it’s coming into summer in Australia now. You really are being facecious. Well, you only know that we’re coming into summer because we know the bigger picture of how the seasons work. But what if we didn’t? We might think the Earth really was warming up. I think climate change science is a bit like this, but instead of days, let’s make it 10 year periods. We have only been keeping detailed records in Australia for 100 years or so. Maybe the last 50 out of 100 years have been getting warmer. Or even the last 100 out of 100 years? But is there some 1000 year cycle of which we are not aware? Or even a 10,000 year cycle? Is it just a statistical anomaly? Now, I’m the first to admit I’m not a statistician, but it seems to me that there is simply not enough information to know whether there is a pattern, or whether any rise in temperature is as a result of man-made causes.
Perhaps if there is a rise in temperature, it is meant to happen? For example, during medieval times in England, temperatures everywhere were a lot warmer, but there was a mini “ice age” around Elizabethan times. This which explains why Elizabethan England had to enact the Poor Laws – beggars and poor people couldn’t sleep out in the open any more, because they’d freeze to death.
I would like all these questions to be discussed openly and debated. I think it is necessary and important for us to question climate change and the science on which it is based if we wish to make a thorough scientific analysis. I hate scaremongering – this is why I don’t like radio “shock jocks”, fire and brimstone preachers and politicians – they all use fear to propel us to make decisions. What a terrible basis for a decision!
All this is not to say that we should just go and trash our environment. I think our government should think about environmental measures which we could take to protect our country and our world (rather than refusing to think about it at all and hoping it will all just go away). Whether climate change is happening or not, of course we should try to minimise our impact on the environment, and of course we should try and look after the world in which we live. I think minimising harmful emissions is a great idea (and, as an asthmatic, I’m happy with any measures reducing car emissions). We should also research and put resources into developing alternative energy sources. However, we should think about it carefully and logically. For example, solar cells may be a great way of harnessing energy in an environmentally friendly manner. But let’s think about the bigger picture. How much energy does it take to make a solar cell? Do we have to put in more energy to make a solar cell than we are likely to get out of it? What kind of pollutants are involved in the making of a solar cell? How long does the solar cell last for? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but we shouldn’t just decide on an emotional basis that solar cells are the way to go, and then find out that we have created a whole new set of problems once we implement them.
I worry about the scaremongering element to discussions on the issue of climate change because it means our responses will be based on fear and emotion, not reason. I think we need to think carefully and logically about what kind of choices and constructive changes we want to make to our society. The choices we make shouldn’t be made on the sole basis of emotion, and they certainly should not be made on the basis of incorrect information.