A little while ago I came across a remark by Stephen Mosher, whom I’ve mentioned before, to the effect that unless the sceptical minority came up with their own theory about how and why climate changes they would never be taken seriously. I didn’t think he was right, because one doesn’t need one’s own theory in order to see weaknesses in another. If they are there, you can point out weaknesses in any theory — you don’t have to argue from the position of a rival theory. Or, perhaps, a sceptic can start from the position of the null hypothesis: there is nothing to explain. The sceptic suggests to the believer that he set out what he think has to be explained, and then offers a critique of that theory.
Then I came across the same point again, this time on a website that is new for me, that of the Fabius Maximus Website, which seems to me a real find. The Editor of the site, in reviewing new survey findings about the supposed ‘consensus’ of climate scientists, said that there were two debates, one about science the other about policy, which were often conflated, but that until sceptics developed their own theory they would always be in a minority. This time I got out my pen, so to speak, and wrote as follows:
You may be right in saying that unless skeptics can put together a theory they will remain minor players in the science debate about climate. But I don’t think that is the case with respect to the policy debate. There the issues are, at least in principle, much clearer. The MAGICC calculator shows that no matter how much we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, global temperature will stay largely unaffected. Why therefore are we doing this? The policy outcomes involve costs and benefits, and are easier to argue on the part of those who don’t come from the lab bench.
Otherwise, I agree with your post and its conclusions.
To my surprise the Editor accepted my argument, and changed his text to incorporate it. That is the first time such a thing has happened to a comment of mine, so it was a cause for celebration. Then I thought I ought to enlarge the point, and set out what the two debates are, here.
The science debate
I have set this out several times, most recently here. The orthodox position is that adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere must led to warming, the warming will lead to more warming, the rising of sea-levels, droughts, floods and extreme weather events; the end is dire. Therefore we must quickly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, by ending our reliance on fossil fuels.
The sceptical counter to this is that carbon dioxide is not the only influence on climate, that warming does not necessarily lead to more warming (if it did we wouldn’t be here), that the dire forecasts are based on assumptions and modelling that have not shown themselves to be reliable. Ipso facto, there is no need to demonise fossil fuels. Not only that, the real evidence so far is that more carbon dioxide is good for the ecosystem. Inside all that is the null hypothesis: what is there actually to explain?
The policy debate
As I have said on a number of occasions before, I don’t think that the ‘science’ of climate, as embodied in the orthodox position above, is so complex and laboratory-based that only a real scientist can understand it. But the policy debate is even easier to comprehend, and it may not actually be helpful to be a scientist in coming to terms with it.
The policy debate starts with the assumption that there really is a problem, and we have to deal with it now. That is the basis of the Garnaut Report, and the frequent statements, most recently by Mr Shorten, and before him Mr Rudd, that humanity faces a crisis, and that only deniers refuse to take it seriously.
Then the sceptic asks what it is that is proposed to deal with this problem. If the answer is a carbon tax or an ETS, you ask what its central purpose is, and whether or not the benefits outweigh the costs (answer: the benefits are non-existent). If you are told that the aim is to keep temperature below the magic 2 degrees C increase, you ask on what basis that figure has been produced (the answer: it was a political compromise). If someone tells you that aim is to reduce global temperatures, you show them the MAGICC calculator, that suggests there would be no decrease that was discernible, even by 2050.
And you keep asking why are we doing this? Mind you, the sceptic will need to know a good deal of the literature, but not at a highly scientific level. The real problem in all of this is that, as I said in a recent essay, once you have decided to accept a job, like Ross Garnaut, or you are a senior public servant told that the Government’s position is that ‘climate change’ is real and dangerous, you have no alternative other than to take it seriously.
That leads to a second mind adjustment. Once you have done this for a little while, you find yourself committed to it for all sorts of reasons. The reasons may have only been a shrug at the beginning, but once you have put some time, energy and work into the question of how to deal with ‘climate change’, you become committed to it emotionally too. That means that you will be unable to deal with serious objections to the policy.
It is that awkward position, I think, that causes such people to yell at you that ‘the science is settled’, or that ‘the time for talk has passed’, or refuse to debate the issue publicly, or put your objection on their website into moderation, from which it never returns. The policy debate drives the science.
I haven’t thought about the issue from quite that perspective before, but I think it is at least one of the reasons that ‘climate change’ is so difficult. There may not be all that many believers in high places, but they are stuck with it. And they will remain stuck with it until we move into a long cooling period, or someone, somewhere, points out that the Emperor has fewer clothes than was at first thought.