A Response to Climate Deniers

In a recent issue of Skeptic magazine, an article by David Brin[1] takes on the deniers of global warming.  Brin, a scientist, speaker, technical consultant and widely published author has a PhD in physics.[2]  He gets right to the point in the second paragraph:

“Trained as a scientist, and knowing many who research planetary atmospheres, I lean toward listening to expert advice on this complicated issue, especially since most [of the] recommended policy endeavors are things we should do anyway, for other reasons (e.g. to attain energy independence, to reduce the influence of foreign petro-oligarchs, and to increase economic efficiency). Perhaps because my graduate work included cellular fluidics models, I appreciate folks who do such things well, propelling (for example) spectacular advances in weather forecasting. My first instinct is to give such people the benefit of the doubt.”

However, Brin goes on to acknowledge that there are many vexing questions about global climate dynamics, saying that “some parts of AGW theory [are] unclear, ill-supported, or poorly explained.  He praises the “skeptics” who raise legitimate questions, but he distinguishes between those skeptics and the much larger number of “deniers.”  He asks the question:

What discrete characteristics distinguish a rational, pro-science “climate skeptic” who has honest questions about the AGW consensus from members of a Denialist Movement that portrays all members of a scientific community as either fools or conspirators?”

First, he says, climate skeptics recognize the value of expert opinion, while the denier partakes in the modern notion that vociferous opinion is worth as much as spending 20 years studying atmospheric data and models from eight planets.”

Next, he points out that climate science has made astonishing strides in recent years in the understanding of the earth’s atmospheric system.  He points to the vast improvements in weather forecasting (while acknowledging the distinction between weather and climate) and notes that this knowledge saves lives and billions of dollars in property.  Deniers, of course, benefit from this like everyone else. “They base vacations and investments on forecasts made by the same guys they call uniformly lazy, incompetent, corrupt hacks. Miraculously, they see no contradiction.”

Skeptics understand that it is very rare that nearly 100% of scientists agree on anything.  Climate Skeptics go on to admit that it is both rare and significant when nearly 100% of the scientists in any field share a consensus-model, before splitting up to fight over sub-models. Hence, if an outsider perceives ‘something wrong’ with a core scientific model, the humble and justified response of that curious outsider should be to ask ‘what mistake am I making?’ before assuming 100% of the experts are wrong.”

“By contrast, Climate Denialists glom onto an anecdotal ‘gotcha!’ from a dogma-driven radio show or politically biased blog site, whereupon they conclude that all of the atmospheric scientists must be in on some wretched conspiracy. Uniformly. At the same time.”

But who are the more likely conspirators, Brin asks.  First, he states the obvious:

“The guys who benefit from keeping us on the hydrocarbon-teat are… foreign petro-princes, Russian oil oligarchs, and Exxon. That is where the money flows.”

Then he quotes a stock analyst who makes another very interesting point:

“I think that the main driver for this [Climate Denialst] movement is that when you compare the US economy ‘before’ and ‘after’ acceptance of human-induced warming contributions, one of the most significant differences will be the value of owning particular stocks. It’s impossible to dump onto the market a trillion dollars or more worth of stocks in industrial sectors that generate much of the CO2, without those stock prices dropping through the floor. But with enough smokescreens raised to delay public acceptance, there is far more time to gradually unload stock, and perhaps even reposition the companies in the most vulnerable industries.”

Furthermore, he points out that the propaganda machine pushing the denialist movement is “largely owned by those same petro-moguls who have benefited from delayed energy independence. (Just one Saudi prince holds 7% of Fox, while other princes own smaller shares, plus a lot of Rupert Murdoch’s debt, stock and commercial paper. Russian oligarchs and international oil companies own other portions.)”

The Climate Denialist, of course sees no possible conspiracy here.  Instead, he “…suckles from the Fox-Limbaugh machine. He shrugs off any notion that sheiks, oligarchs or Exxon could possibly have any shared agenda, or ever connive together. They are pure of heart… compared to weather and climate scientists.”

Brin then makes an observation that I have also made in recent writings…that the “climate war” has a lot in common with the other “culture wars” that are currently raging in our society.  There is a great similarity…and shared agenda…between those pushing creationism and climate denialism…and more:

This is the same side that includes “Creation Science,” the same side that oversaw the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, based on mythological asset bubbles, magical “financial instruments,” and an economic theory that is completely free of a single predictive success. This is the same side that promised us “energy independence” then sabotaged every effort in that direction, including all of the energy-related research that might have helped us get off the oil-teat. (And that research gap is a bigger smoking gun to pay attention to than carbon credits.)”

There is another facet of the controversy, though, that both Brin and I find dismaying.  The real purpose of the “war on climate scientists” may be to: “undermine the very notion of expertise in our civilization, leaving no strong force to challenge any ruling elite.”

Tens of thousands of Denialists egotistically assume that their fact-poor, pre-spun, group-rage opinion entitles them to howl “corrupt fools!” at the men and women who have actually studied and are confronting this important topic.”

Brin concludes with a quote from the great historian Arnold Toynbee.  When asked what critical mistake seemed most often to lead to the collapse of a society, he answered that it was “failure to support and believe in the society’s creative minority.” Brin interprets this as follows:

In our own technological, enlightenment nation and civilization, that creative minority, to a large degree, is one of science. We do not have to worship their feet, or obey blindly. But we’ll be fools, treading the downhill slope followed by Babylon and Rome, if we despise them.”

Critiques and the Author’s Response

First point from the critics:

I had hoped that David Brin would shed some new light on the complex and contentious issue of anthropomorphic global warming (AGW).  Unfortunately, his article contains few scientific facts or alternative views, not a single reference, and the arguments are either illogical or ad hominem.

Dr. Brin responds:

“First [the critic] is completely correct to point out that my essay offered no science.  There are more than enough volleys arcing from one side or another claiming to scientifically prove or disprove anthropo-generated climate change—and we have seen that the result is simply a maelstrom.  We do not yet have a market of ideas that can weigh public concepts and bring about anything like resolution.

As critics of the Internet Age—like Nicholas Carr—have pointed out, the chief result of this new era is a veritable tsunami of opinion, almost completely immune from refutation.

Indeed, what good would I have accomplished by rehashing this or that study?  My article was about a series of polemical tricks that are used to obfuscate, delay and—above all—deride the relevance of expert advice in the deliberations of public policy.  The party line pushed by Michael Crichton and much of the Denier Movement has been that any doubt about scientific consensus renders that consensus moot, unusable and irrelevant to the political caste to whom we have delegated the task of guiding our civilization,.  This is blatant absurdity—and it is the core conceit that my essay was aimed to reveal.

Consider the illogic employed.  For a decade we have been asked to entrust complex matters, such as potential planetary threat, to slim majorities (and now a 40% minority) of scientifically illiterate politicians, while deriding as insufficient a 99% consensus on the same issue among atmospheric scientists.  Mind you, this bizarrely imbalanced view is maintained by the same political movement that banished Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment, because the science kept contradicting their favorite talking points.

[My critics] all demand that I come down into the opinion storm, but I am far more interested in this problem of the polemical process itself.  And that is what my article is about.”

Second point from the critics:

Nowhere in his article does Dr. Brin advise the obvious, which is to evaluate the science for himself.  There is nothing ineffable about climate science, and with his PhD in physics, Dr. Brin could inform himself.

Dr. Brin responds:

[One critic] “demands that everybody ‘decide for themselves’ about the science of global warming.  This is an extremely silly Fox-ism.  He is right that I am a physicist—who happens to have done his doctorate creating weather and ‘climate’ models of comets.  Moreover, I know very well about a dozen genuine climate scientists of the first rank—brilliant men and women who have taken the time to answer my questions, precisely because I approached them outside of the rigid world of left-right political positioning.  Despite these advantages, I do not feel qualified to cast ‘judgment’ on this complex matter!  I do know enough to know that ‘judge for yourself’ on a matter like this is pure pablum from Rupert Murdoch’s obfuscation machine.

I’m not blind.  I do see some areas of the Standard Climate Model that arouse in me curiosity—note that word, curiosity—and I am a ‘skeptic’ to the degree that I pursue these questions when I can.  And I am willing to contemplate the possibility that the Standard Model is wrong.  But what I will not do is leap ‘gotcha!’ at some oversimplified ‘flaw’ that totally unimpresses every single expert in the field.  Not when most of the gotchas emerge as frenzied talking points from the same media mills that brought on a decade of horrific misrule.

Finally, Dr. Brin sums it up:

Alas, all three of my critics demand one thing above all, a shift of the burden of proof fully onto the shoulders of the community of experts.  Now, in a sense that is fair—we should continue to harry the experts with questions and fund all reasonable dissenting investigations.  It is the experts’ duty to continue building—and testing—their models, and under relentless external pressure.  Fine

But on another level, though, the demand of perfect proof is sheer fatuous nonsense.  What level of consensus will be adequate, if 99% is not enough, already?  Please, if Dick Cheney’s ‘precautionary principle’ demanded that we bomb Iraq, even if there was only a 1% chance that they were building a bomb…then what percent chance of a looming climate disaster will be sufficient to allow precautionary action against such a calamity?  Especially since (let me reiterate) most of the things we would have to do, in order to staunch human generated climate change are things we should be doing anyway, for dozens of other reasons, whether or not HGCC turns out to be true?”

And to that, I will add a personal “Amen, Dr. Brin!”

My personal experiences are a perfect example of what Dr. Brin is talking about.

  The deniers constantly demand that I supply “evidence” of global warming.  Personally.  As if there isn’t plenty on the NOAA, NASA and NCDC web sites.  But they disparage all of that as “old” and quote ex-TV weathermen or whomever who claim all that data is invalid.  And when one of their own commits scientific blunders (e.g., Roy Spencer’s satellite and balloon data that showed falling temperatures) they gloss it over. 

They constantly harp on the talking points that Brin discusses…about the “hoax” or “consipiracy” or “power seeking scientists” who want to control the world through CO2-limiting legislation.

  They carp constantly about the economic impact of limiting CO2 emissions, without ever acknowledging the vast damage caused by extracting and burning hydrocarbon fuels IN ADDITION to the global warming issue.  They ignore the huge subsidies that the fossil fuel industries enjoy. 

But most of all, they have chosen sides, ignoring the overwhelming facts that refute their position.  Their position is:  “Don’t confuse me with facts, my mind is made up.!”

[1] http://www.davidbrin.com/climate3.htm

[2] http://www.davidbrin.com/biography.htm#honors

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