A Philosopher's Blog

Climate Change & Skepticism

Posted in Business, Environment, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 7, 2011
Al Gore

While I am not a philosophical skeptic (I do believe that knowledge is possible), I am a practical skeptic (I require proof before I believe). While some folks are skeptical of climate change, the evidence seems adequate to support the claim that humans have had a measurable impact on the climate. Given the scale of human activity, this seems inherently plausible. The climate data and causal explanations also seem fairly compelling.

Naturally, there are skeptics regarding climate change. Some of these folks are rational skeptics. That is, their doubts are founded on legitimate concerns about the methodologies used in climate science as well as the data in question. This sort of doubt and skepticism is actually a rather important part of the scientific approach: just as Socrates argued for the importance of the gadfly in the context of society, there should also be gadflies in science. Scientists are, after all, only human and are subject to all the same cognitive biases and frailties as everyone else (plus are especially vulnerable to certain biases).

Some folks are, however, irrational skeptics. They base their doubt not on legitimate critiques of the methodology or the data. Some of these folks base their doubt not on logic, but on their emotions. They feel hostility towards the idea of climate change and the people who claim it is real. They feel positive towards the folks who deny it. However, feeling is not a good guide to the truth. John Locke argued quite effectively for this in his essay regarding enthusiasm. However, you can test this yourself: try taking a chemistry test or solving a complex engineering problem solely by how you feel about the matter. Let me know how well that works out. To be fair, there are folks who believe in climate change based on how they feel. While I am inclined to say that their belief is correct, I am even more inclined to say that they are not warranted to hold said belief since it is based on feeling rather than on actual reasons.

Some of the skeptics base their doubt on the fact that the truth of climate change would be contrary to their interests. In some cases, they are not consciously aware that they are rejecting a claim based on this factor and they might very well be sincere in their skepticism. However, this is merely a form of wishful thinking. Other folks are well aware of what they are doing when they express their “skepticism.” Their goal is not to engage in a scientific debate over the matter-that is, engage in argumentation to achieve the truth. Rather, their objective is to persuade others to doubt climate change and thus protect their perceived interests. To be fair, there are folks who push climate change because doing so is in their own interest. As Al Gore will attest, there is considerable money to be made in this area. This, of course, does not show that Al Gore is wrong-“reasoning” this way would be to fall victim to a circumstantial ad homimem fallacy. Saying that the climate change deniers are wrong because they have an interest in denying it would also commit this fallacy (the sword of logic cuts both ways).

Interesting, while whether climate change is occurring or not (and whether or not it is our doing) is a scientific matter, much of the fighting is done in the realm of politics and rhetoric. However, factual claims about climate are not settled by who has the best rhetoric or who can get the most votes. They must be settled by scientific means. As such, it is important to cut through the rhetoric (and fallacies) and get to the heart of the matter.

While the consensus of the experts is that climate change is real and is caused, at least in part, by humans, I am not an expert on climate change. But, I am rational and, as such, I will accept their view unless adequate contrary evidence is provided from unbiased sources.

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  1. […] Climate Change & Skepticism (aphilosopher.wordpress.com) […]

  2. FRE said, on September 7, 2011 at 1:30 pm

    There is no absolute proof that human-induced climate change is real. However, the likelihood that we are causing significant climate change surely is greater than zero, based on the scientific evidence. To me, the real question is what risk is acceptable. If the risk that we are causing climate change that could adversely impact billions of people is 50%, surely that would be excessive. Considering the large number of people who would be affected, I would say that a risk of only 10% would be excessive. I think that the risk is probably greater than 10% and therefore, to reduce the risk, we should be taking action.

    Some argue that the amount of CO2 generated by human activity is small compared with the amount of CO2 released by nature, such as in volcanoes. That is true, but consider that there is a balance. If, for centuries, nature has been removing the CO2 at the same average rate at which nature is releasing CO2, then the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere would remain constant. Then, if we generate only a relatively small amount of CO2, we would be upsetting the balance and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would steadily increase which could cause serious long-term problems. It is our potential to upset the balance that many people don’t seem to understand.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 8, 2011 at 12:44 pm

      Even if our impact is minor, it does seem worth addressing. In any case, even if we are wrong about climate change, would developing alternative energy sources, increasing efficiency and reducing pollution be bad things?

  3. magus71 said, on September 7, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    What is the perfect climate?

    I could go on forever on this one.

    “Some folks are, however, irrational skeptics. They base their doubt not on legitimate critiques of the methodology or the data. Some of these folks base their doubt not on logic, but on their emotions. They feel hostility towards the idea of climate change and the people who claim it is real. They feel positive towards the folks who deny it.”

    Really? Have you seen the rhetoric against the “climate change deniers?”

    And I think you’re ignoring many new scientific discoveries–the least of which isn’t the fact that the Earth isn’t warming.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 8, 2011 at 12:48 pm

      Really. There are irrational skeptics. You’ll note that I also claim that there are rational skeptics and that I am, as a rational person, open to legitimate evidence against climate change. I also make a point of noting that there are irrational folks who accept climate change on the basis of feeling rather than reasons.

      The evidence seems to be that the earth is warming. In any case, the climate does seem to be changing-whether this is natural or not, it is something we have to address. Rhetoric is not going to stop flooding and storms.

      • magus71 said, on September 8, 2011 at 3:08 pm

        Flooding and storms and bad weather are NOT increasing in frequency or intensity.

        WSJ again: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704422204576130300992126630.html

        Another myth created by over-attention to frequency of media reporting.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 9, 2011 at 10:18 am

          Citing one editorial, which seems to be written by a non-expert, is hardly conclusive proof. Again, the method of science is based on the general consensus, not by picking a view one likes. If the experts reach the consensus that climate change is not occurring, then it would be rational to accept that.

          Also, it would be rational to accept that view if significant and confirmed evidence were presented by an objective source to refute said claims.

          I am open to both possibilities, but neither has occurred (yet). In fact, I would be glad if climate change was not a problem-then I would need to be concerned about this matter and its impact on humanity.

          • FRE said, on September 9, 2011 at 11:53 am

            The climate seems to have overlapping cycles of varying length. It is long term trends that have to be considered. Although there is considerable evidence that the earth is getting warmer, that is not conclusive proof that we are responsible. However, that is not the only indication and although the evidence is not totally conclusive, it is more than strong enough to warrant taking action especially since the consequence of global warming cannot be entirely predicted and could be very detrimental.

            Fossil fuels will not last forever. As they become scarcer, their price will increase and eventually cause serious economic problem. The pollution resulting from burning fossil fuels is also a serious problem. So, even if we are not responsible for climate change and even if there is nothing that we can do about it, there is still sufficient reason to migrate away from using fossil fuels.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 12, 2011 at 6:51 pm

              Quite right. Weather poses a threat to humans, acting to deal with these natural threats makes sense-even if one rejects climate change. Also, fossil fuels must be finite. After all, the earth is clearly finite and the fuel only makes up a minute fraction of the earth. Sure, more is being made-but presumably far slower than we consume it. We will eventually need non-fossil fuels.

  4. magus71 said, on September 7, 2011 at 1:47 pm

    Wall Street Journal:

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111904537404576554750502443800.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEADTop

    Cato: Earth hasn’t warmed in 15 years.

    http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=13427

    Hardly fringe sources, Mike.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 8, 2011 at 1:00 pm

      Cato is not “on the fringe”, agreed. However, the fact that the Koch Borthers fund it serves as a legitimate point of concern. Another point of concern is Cato seems to have only a single expert on climate (Patrick Michaels) and there are also legitimate questions about whether or not he is biased. After all, look at the source of his funding. This is not to say that this is conclusive evidence he is mistaken, I am just noting that two critical factors in assessing the credibility of a claim made by an expert are 1) lack of bias and 2) the claim is consistent with the consensus of the experts in the field. He seems to fall short in regards to these two factors, thus providing grounds to be suspicious of his claims.

      Naturally, the standards apply to all experts and so-called experts. So, for example, Al Gore lacks scientific credentials and clearly has a financial stake in climate change. This does not entail that he is in error, but they do raise concerns about his credibility.

      • FRE said, on September 8, 2011 at 2:30 pm

        The credibility of National Public Radio must also be questioned, at least partly because of donations it receives from the Koch Brothers.

        Not long ago, NPR had a rather lengthy and detailed program (“Need to Know”) about the problems of dealing with nuclear waste. Never did they even mention nuclear technologies which could generate energy while generating only a tiny fraction of the waste that our pressurized water uranium-fueled reactors generate.

        Before the program, there was considerable publicity about a recently-implemented Chinese nuclear reactor that generates only about 2% as much nuclear waste as more common reactors. Also, there has been enough written about the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) that NPR should have been aware of it; a prototype has been successfully tested. It would circumvent most of the problems associated with uranium reactors which extract only about 1% of the available energy from the uranium fuel. And, because renewable sources of energy are intermittent and unreliable, it is very doubtful that they could, at an acceptable cost, provide for the energy requirements of a prosperous country. So, in all likelihood, nuclear power has to be a large part of the solution for CO2 emissions as well as the other problems associated with fossil fuels, a position that NPR ignores in its reporting on energy issues.

        Naturally the Koch Brothers would oppose a superior nuclear technology which would cut into their fossil fuel business. Of course that does not PROVE that NPR has been unduly influenced, but it does bring NPRs objectivity into question.

        • magus71 said, on September 8, 2011 at 3:46 pm

          FRE,

          Why don’t companies that make nuclear reactors start donating money to media outlets? It’s all part of competition, isn’t it?

          I’m with you on nuclear power. I just don’t buy the evil Big Oil stories so many toss around.

          • FRE said, on September 8, 2011 at 7:02 pm

            Nuclear reactors are no longer made here in the U.S. Westinghouse designed the latest pressurized water thermal reactor, but now Westinghouse is 90% foreign owned. Here in the U.S., we no longer even have the capacity to make the huge pressure vessels required for PWRs. Japan does, but it’s not clear what the nuclear future is for Japan. Although there is not one documented case of a death resulting from the recent nuclear plant failures in Japan (although a few deaths may possibly result in the future), the media concentrate on the nuclear aspects almost to the exclusion of the more than 16,000 deaths resulting from the earthquake and the following tsunami. So, it’s not clear what nuclear plant manufacturer would be donating money to influence media outlets; Babcock & Wilcox, perhaps?

            From the extensive reading I’ve done on the subject, I think that the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) is the way to go. However, manufacturers make considerable money fabricating fuel rods for PWRs. LFTRs, which use thorium tetrafluoride for fuel, require no fuel rod fabrication. ThF4 is a crystalline solid at room temperature but a liquid at reactor operating temperature (making melt-down impossible); unlike uranium fuel rods, it is very cheap. Thorium is a waste product of mining rare earth metals so there is already enough around to last for centuries without mining more.

            Regarding oil stories, nuclear power could not directly replace petroleum products for transportation fuel. However, LFTR technology would probably produce electricity very cheaply and that could be used to recharge battery electric vehicles which, although currently having cost and range problems, could become much more practical in the future. Also, cheap energy could be used to manufacture artificial liquid fuels to power vehicles. Thus, in the long run, nuclear power could indirectly practically eliminate the need for petroleum.

            Considering the above, the coal and petroleum industries do have a motive to oppose nuclear power. Also, they know that wind and solar are never likely to become practical (at least unless a suitable energy storage technology becomes available) so, by supporting wind and solar, they may delay the transition to nuclear power.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 9, 2011 at 10:07 am

          Yes, NPR’s credibility can be questioned to the degree it is unduly influenced. We all have our credibility gaps (fire away WTP).

      • magus71 said, on September 8, 2011 at 3:02 pm

        There’s tons problems with the global warming stuff and people have started to back track and change their stories.

        At best, with experts siting opposite views, it seems like a wash.

        Mike, here’s another article from Cato written by one of the most respected climate scientists in the world from MIT. I blogged a couple years ago about an article he wrote.

        http://www.cato.org/pubs/regulation/regv15n2/reg15n2g.html

        There’s tons of problems with global warming theories and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s not a problem. Libs have two major concepts that they claim scientific hegemony on: Global Warming and Darwinism. In both cases they assure us everything happens so slowly we can’t see it.

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on September 9, 2011 at 10:14 am

          The general consensus among the experts is that climate change is real. Even Huntsman accepts this, thus inflicting a career ending injury on his bid for president.

          Citing one expert does not overturn the consensus of the majority of experts. After all, why accept the one expert over all the others? The consensus of the experts is not infallible, but provides the gold standard for appealing to authority.

          Evolution is, as Huntsman also claimed, an established scientific truth. While I have written about flaws in the theory (especially when people take it beyond its boundaries), it is rational to accept it as a correct theory. Now, the metaphysical issues behind it are still subject to debate. As Catholic scholars have argued, evolution is compatible with God’s existence.

  5. T. J. Babson said, on September 7, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    A great post on the Coyote Blog on this issue:

    Denier vs. Skeptic

    We all know why Newsweek and many others (like Kevin Drum) choose to use the term “denier” for those of us who are skeptical of catastrophic anthropogenic global warming: These media folks, who are hesitant to use the word “terrorist” because of its emotional content, want to imply that we skeptics are somehow similar to Holocaust deniers.

    But beyond just the issues of false emotional content, the word denier is incorrect as applied to most skeptics, including myself, and helps man-made warming hawks avoid a difficult argument. I try to be careful to say that I am a skeptic of “catastrophic man-made (or anthropogenic) global warming theory.”

    So, does that mean I think the world is not warming? In fact, the evidence is pretty clear that it is warming (though perhaps not by as much as shown in current surface temperature databases).
    So does this mean that I think that human activities are not causing some warming? In fact, I do think man-made CO2 is causing some, but not all the current 20th century warming trend. I also think that man’s land use (urbanization, irrigated agriculture, etc) has effects on climate.

    Where I really get skeptical is the next proposition — that man’s burning of fossil fuels is going to cause warming in the next century that will carry catastrophic impacts, and that these negative effects will justify massive current spending and government interventions (that will have their own negative consequences in terms of lost economic growth, increased poverty, and reduction in freedoms).

    Strong supporters of catastrophic man-made global warming theory do not usually want to argue this last point. It is much easier to argue points 1 and 2, because the science is pretty good that the earth has warmed (though the magnitude is in question) and that CO2 greenhouse effect does cause warming (though the magnitude is in question). That is why skeptics are called deniers. It is in effect a straw man that allows greenhouse supporters to stay on 1 and 2 without getting into the real meat of the question.

    There’s more here:

    http://www.coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/2007/08/denier-vs-skept.html

  6. T. J. Babson said, on September 7, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    More from the Coyote Blog:

    A funny thing has happened in climate science to scientific inquiry:
    the usual ethics of free discussion and fact-based criticism have been
    discarded in favor of ad hominem attacks on critics of AGW theory.
    The usual approach is to find some connection (even an imagined one) between
    any researcher who raises the smallest doubts about AGW theory and an oil or
    power company and then declare that the research is tainted by the bias of
    these companies that have a strong economic reliance on fossil fuel combustion
    (and thus the production of CO2). A good example can be found in a Boston
    Globe article on MIT’s Alfred P. Sloan professor of meteorology Richard
    Lindzen. Mr. Lindzen has become the bete noir of AGW supporters,
    since his skepticism is harder to dismiss given his scientific pedigree and his
    co-lead author status on the first IPCC climate change report.

    “We do not understand the natural internal
    variability of climate change” is one of Lindzen’s many heresies, along
    with such zingers as `”the Arctic was as warm or warmer in 1940,”
    “the evidence so far suggests that the Greenland ice sheet is actually
    growing on average,” and “Alpine glaciers have been retreating since
    the early 19th century, and were advancing for several centuries before that.
    Since about 1970, many of the glaciers have stopped retreating and some are now
    advancing again. And, frankly, we don’t know why.”

    When Lindzen published similar views in The Wall
    Street Journal this spring, environmentalist Laurie David, the wife of comedian
    Larry David, immediately branded him a “shill.” She resurrected a
    shopworn slur first directed against Lindzen by former Globe writer Ross
    Gelbspan, who called Lindzen a “hood ornament” for the fossil fuels
    industry in a 1995 article in Harper’s Magazine….

    For no apparent reason, the state of California,
    Environmental Defense, and the Natural Resources Defense Council have dragged
    Lindzen and about 15 other global- warming skeptics into a lawsuit over auto-
    emissions standards. California et al. have asked the auto companies to cough
    up any and all communications they have had with Lindzen and his colleagues,
    whose research has been cited in court documents.

    “We know that General Motors has been paying
    for this fake science exactly as the tobacco companies did,” says ED
    attorney Jim Marston. If Marston has a scintilla of evidence that Lindzen has
    been trafficking in fake science, he should present it to the MIT provost’s
    office. Otherwise, he should shut up.

    “This is the criminalization of opposition to
    global warming,” says Lindzen, who adds he has never communicated with the
    auto companies involved in the lawsuit.

    While I have no doubt that corporations are heavily
    influenced by their own economic interests, it is more of stretch to argue that
    anyone who has ever taken money from them or had any connection with them would
    purposely bias their research. When I learned to debate, I was taught
    that understanding biases was useful in knowing when to apply more or less
    skepticism, but one still has to refute the opposing position by meaningful
    critique of procedures or data. For example, one might say given
    their strong desire to buttress the case for AGW, the researchers cherry-picked
    only the most extreme data, which I will demonstrate by showing the data they
    included and the data they chose to exclude. However, many modern AGW
    supporters believe that insinuating possible sources of bias is sufficient to
    exempt one from having to actually critique their opponents’ methods and
    findings.

    This is particularly odd given that public funding for AGW
    projects absolutely dwarfs any funding coming from private sources whose
    incentive might be to disprove AGW. In fact, just this year, President
    Bush declared that the US Government alone spent more money on AGW research
    than on AIDS research, and the US is actually late in the climate funding
    game.

    http://www.coyoteblog.com/coyote_blog/2007/07/chapter-2-is-it.html

  7. FRE said, on September 8, 2011 at 12:38 am

    Even if we could be certain that we are not significantly contributing to global warming, there are sufficient other reasons to migrate away from fossil fuels.

    • magus71 said, on September 8, 2011 at 3:49 pm

      Does anyone of this blog believe that any scientist wouldn’t love to be the guy who comes up with alternate energy sources comparable or surpassing the effectiveness of fossil fuel? For every evil oil baddie out there trying to stop it, there has to be one hundred other guys trying to find the ultimate, alternate fuel.

  8. Nick said, on September 8, 2011 at 6:30 am

    I too am curious about the sources of this “adequate evidence” of anthropogenic climate change.


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