Astonomer Phil Plait, creator of the skeptics site Bad Astronomy, has a post up in Discover Magazine attacking an article by Robert Bryce in the Wall Street Journal which shows as so often how badly out of their depth many skeptics quickly become when they stumble into the quagmire of the climate change issue.
Plait begins by referring to Bryce as of “the far-right think-tank Manhattan Institute”.
That is worth a double-take and alarm-bells- far-right?? In conventional parlance, the “far-right” is a term reserved for neo-Nazis and fascists. This most certainly does not apply to the Manhattan Institute, which might better be described as “libertarian”. By opening with this egregious error Plait sets out his stall as taking a political stance on the issues he examines- while hiding behind science and skepticism.
Plait calls the article “one of the most head-asplodey antiscience climate change denial pieces I have seen in a while- and I’ve seen a few” ignoring that Bryce’s piece clearly identifies itself as being, not about climate science per se, but concerning what he sees as “five obvious truths about the climate-change issue.”
This is what usually happens when so-called “warmists” or those who accept unquestioningly the consensus view of climate change, namely that this is the most pressing issue facing us and we must respond immediately with drastic CO2 cuts and international treaties if we are to save the planet and humanity- examine the climate change issue- science and policy and politics are confused, and claims are made to the effect that, since in their view “the science is settled”, so must be the policy response.
Plait goes on to say the article is “almost a textbook case in logical fallacy”, an attempt to “smear the reality” of climate change, but then skips the first four points of Bryce’s article- ie. the bulk of it- because in these Bryce “doesn’t actually deal with science and makes points that aren’t all that salient to the issue”.
But as already made clear, the issue Bryce is addressing is much broader than just the science, and since this is a topic that is indisputably highly politicized- underlined by Plait’s opening salvo of the “far-right” connection- the issues Bryce raises appear to be extremely pertinent to any understanding of climate change:
-1) despite Al Gore’s notorious film winning an Oscar, and sharing the Nobel Peace Prize with the IPCC in 2007, and despite the international convention in Copenhagen in 2009, carbon emissions just keep rising:
Carbon-dioxide emissions are growing because people around the world understand the essentiality of electricity to modernity. And for many countries, the cheapest way to produce electrons is by burning coal.
This is not a smear designed to obscure the reality of climate change, but a very salient fact exposing the failure of climate change activists to address issues of poverty and global development.
2) Regardless of whether it’s getting hotter or colder— or both— we are going to need to produce a lot more energy in order to remain productive and comfortable.
Now, how exactly we are to do this- or even if it is possible- is a very different issue, perhaps more pertinent to Peak Oil than climate change- but again, it is an obvious point that activists really need to take on board- rather than merely repeating the usual platitudes about how scary climate change is, I would urge activists to get real about how scary not having enough energy to keep warm or cool is as well.
Bryce’s third point is that you can’t just keep pointing the finger at Big Bad Gas Guzzling America- because of massive and rapid increases in energy consumption in China and India, which is helping those countries to lift millions out of poverty,
over the past decade, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions—about 6.1 billion tons per year—could have gone to zero and yet global emissions still would have gone up.
Again, this is clearly a pretty important and amazing statistic which really needs to be engaged with if people are serious about a realistic climate policy.
Bryce’s fourth point is about increases in efficiency- this is actually his weakest point, because while certainly true that we should work to increase efficiency in appliances and power generation, the evidence seems to support Jeavons’ Paradox, which means that increased efficiency tends to lead over-all to increased energy consumption as we find more useful things to do with the energy savings. So this is not really a point about climate change but about energy use.
But it is Bryce’s fifth point- about science- that really gets the Bad Astronomer’s goat:
The science is not settled, not by a long shot. Last month, scientists at CERN, the prestigious high-energy physics lab in Switzerland, reported that neutrinos might—repeat, might—travel faster than the speed of light. If serious scientists can question Einstein’s theory of relativity, then there must be room for debate about the workings and complexities of the Earth’s atmosphere.
And he’s wrong anyway: even if the neutrino story turns out to be true, it doesn’t prove Einstein was wrong. At worst, Einstein’s formulation of relativity would turn out to be incomplete, just as Newton’s was before him. Not wrong, just needs a bit of tweaking to cover circumstances unknown when the idea was first thought of. Relativity was a pretty big tweak to Newtonian mechanics, but it didn’t prove Newton wrong. Claims like that show a profound lack of understanding of how science works.
But this is clearly a response to the “climate science is settled” meme which Plait- with his repeated use of the toxic phrase “climate deniers” has apparently bought into unquestioningly. Bryce is not saying, or even implying, that this proves anything- just that, in science, skepticism is the key, skepticism is the process to be adhered to and respected- in climate science just as in well-established fields such as Relativity.
It is shameful that Plait abuses this principle with his parroting of the extremely unhelpful “denier” charge.
Now I don’t actually think that CERN and neutrinos make for a particularly good example, since it would appear to me as a complete layman when it comes to physics that the most likely explanation is simply that there is an error in the measurement (last time I tried to measure the speed of a neutrino I was way out).
However, in climate change, science has constantly been pressed into the service of forcing through a particular policy response- of completely unrealistic carbon cuts- under the banner of science that must not and cannot be questioned- that there is a consensus- and that anyone who questions any aspect of this at all is a denier.
So it seems reasonable enough to compare the state of climate science with the far, far more solid case of Relativity. Are the CERN researchers being jumped on as being Relativity deniers? Could it possibly be, Mr. Bad Atronomer, that the reason for this is that there is no current highly politicized issue concerning the finer details of Relativity (apart from possibly the issue of how much more funding to throw at the LHC)? What would the correct policy response be to discovering that neutrinos might travel faster than light, given that this would open the possibility for time-travel? Maybe we would be compelled by the consensus scientists to travel back in time and prevent our ancestors from discovering fire!
Most climate skeptics- including Bryce- are not “deniers” in the sense of “denying” the scientific method as do homeopaths (with whom @SLSingh, from whose tweet I picked up this story, is fond of lumping in with what he calls the “climate numpties”) or even “denying” that the evidence suggests the earth is indeed warming- they are skeptical about the politicization of this science, and about the proposed policy responses which, as Bryce shows above, are all but irrelevant at this stage.
Let’s accept that man-made CO2 is contributing to global warming- there still remain plenty of questions:
do we know by how much? do we know what the effects will be? do we know if the feed-backs will be positive or negative? do we know what, if anything, we should do about it?
do we know for sure if drastic cutting of CO2 emissions will actually be of benefit given the huge cost to human development that they would entail?
-and should we really be expected to trust the IPCC whose leader apparently told us in 2007 that we would all be doomed if we didn’t have effective action to reduce CO2 emissions in place by 2012?
Bryce concludes by pointing to a study that suggests that the benefits of moving to cleaner fuels could be cancelled out by losing the particle pollution (eg from coal) that help cool the planet through the so-called “global dimming” effect- just one of many variables and unknowns in the still young (much younger than Relativity), still evolving and still highly unsettled science of climate change.
On the “traditional” but soft skeptics topics such as fake moon-landings and UFOs, I’m sure Bad Astronomer is doing a good job- but when it comes to climate science, he is just being a Bad Skeptic. I really wish that he, and other “celebratory” skeptics like Simon Singh would make an effort to understand the difference between science and policy- and in so doing desist from giving skepticism a bad name. Thank-you.