Beyond Certainty and Doubt: A Better Conversation on Climate Change

Journalist Bret Stephens recently moved from the fairly conservative Wall Street Journal to the fairly liberal New York Times. Overall, I think it was a good move for the Times. The paper should be commended for fostering a diversity of viewpoints.

For his first column with the Times, Stephens decided to take on climate change, with an article titled “Climate of Complete Certainty.” He attacked the climate of “scientism” among climate scientists and their popularizers.

Why Bret Stephens was Right about the Climate Change Debate

It was a bold column to begin his career with the Times. Stephens has received a lot of criticism for the article. Many readers demanded the Times fire him, and some readers even threatened to unsubscribe from the paper after reading the article. He touched a nerve with many. And to be honest, he touched a nerve with me, too.

He touched a nerve because there is truth in his article, but there’s also a dangerous falsehood when it comes to the scientific debate about climate change. For example, this mixture of truth and falsehood appears in one particular paragraph:

Let me put it this way. Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates opening for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong. Demanding abrupt and expansive changes in public policy raises fair questions about ideological intentions. Censoriously asserting one’s moral superiority and treating skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables wins few converts.

Let’s start with the truth. When it comes to the human aspect of the climate change debate, I think Stephens is absolutely right. It’s true that when those who warn about the dangers of climate change act with a sense of “moral superiority,” treating “skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables,” they will win few converts.

How Not To Win Converts – Bill Nye

Bill Nye might be the most frustrating example of this dynamic Stephens points to. He was recently on the Tucker Carlson show. Carlson asked Nye about a recent statement he made that climate change deniers suffer from “the psychological delusion of cognitive dissonance” and even suggested that we might want to put deniers of climate change in jail. Carlson then asked some pointed questions about climate change, questions that Nye struggled to answer.

Similarly, Nye was recently on the Bernie Sanders show. Sanders pleaded for help in explaining the dangers of climate change to his fellow senators. Sanders said, “I have colleagues right here, in the United States Senate, who say, ‘Well, you know, yeah, it looks like the earth is getting a little bit warmer, but you know, these things have always gone on. Hot spells. Cold spells. And the science really is not clear. There are always two sides to the story.’ Tell me why they are wrong.”

This is THE question I wanted Nye to answer! I am deeply concerned about climate change. But I have family members, people whom I love, who are skeptical about climate change. I desperately wanted a down-to-earth explanation of why the earth is in so much trouble because of human activity.

So, how did Bill Nye answer? “Well, the science is settled everybody. Sorry. 97% of scientists agree.”

That was it. A simple claim to authority, along with a jab. “Sorry! You are wrong. And you suffer from psychological delusions.” If I gave that explanation to members of my family who are skeptical about climate change, they would laugh at me, and for good reason. Yes, “97% of scientists agree,” but unanimity doesn’t guarantee truth. Merely quoting that statistic is a power-play that gets us nowhere in the debate. We don’t need power-plays. As Stephens says, it treats “skeptics as imbeciles and deplorables” and “wins very few arguments.”

The Mimetic Dynamic of Debate

So, Stephens is right about the human dynamics within the climate change debate. Bill Nye, one of the foremost popularizers of the dangers concerning climate change, does us no favors when it comes to winning converts. In fact, his method only backfires. Nye’s claim to certitude is naturally mimicked by those who deny climate change. It’s not so much cognitive dissonance as it is mimetic. That is, the debate follows a predictably imitative pattern. When those of us who believe that climate change is a big deal and is exacerbated by human activity claim with certitude that the other side is just ignorant, people on that side naturally respond in kind, claiming with certitude that we suffer from the bias of scientism that blinds us to alternative data. Soon, the truth behind the data no longer matters. All that matters is the rivalry.

And yet, while Stephens is right about the mimetic dynamic within the climate change debate, I fear that he’s dangerously wrong in his portrayal of scientists. Take this statement, for example, “Claiming total certainty about the science traduces the spirit of science and creates openings for doubt whenever a climate claim proves wrong.”

In one sense, Stephens is right to warn about scientism. He claims that, “ordinary citizens … have a right to be skeptical of an overwheening scientism” when it comes to climate change. Scientism is when scientists bury their heads in the sand when it comes to “alternative facts.” Indeed, we should always be on the lookout for scientism.

Why Stephens is Wrong about “Scientism”

The problem is that climate scientists don’t tend to bury their heads in the sand when it comes to alternative data about climate change. This is what I find frustrating about Stephen’s article. He seems to suggest that climate change scientists are under a dogmatic spell that leads them to reject anything that contradicts their data, so we are right not to trust them. That mistrust of climate scientists has spread throughout many segments of the United States, and Stephen’s article adds fuel to the fire.

Of course, climate scientists are fallible human beings. But the good news is that they haven’t been dogmatic in their findings. In fact, they have admitted mistakes and have changed their views over time because of the data.

For example, Stephens writes about fallible climate change models, or graphs. It’s true that early scientific models predicted a more dramatic rise in global temperatures than what we have experienced. Stephens does admit that humans have had some influence on the climate, but that “much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future. To say this isn’t to deny science. It’s to acknowledge it honestly.”

He’s exactly right. And guess what? Climate scientists agree. The early models of climate change were wrong. And scientists engage those early models honestly. They didn’t dogmatically stick to their old models. Instead, they asked, “How did we get it wrong?” and they looked for the evidence.

Climate scientists say that their early models were wrong because they failed to consider that the oceans would absorb carbon dioxide emissions at a faster rate than the earth’s atmosphere. Indeed, the air temperature hasn’t risen as fast as the early models expected, but the ocean temperature has accelerated at a much faster pace.

We Can Be Certain About What Is Happening and Predict What Might Happen

We can be certain that the more carbon dioxide we use, the more the oceans will absorb it. Not only will ocean temperature rise, melting polar ice caps, but this will also lead to the acidification of the oceans. That acidification will continue to destroy coral reefs and other oceanic ecosystems.

As Jeffrey Bennet states in his book A Global Warming Primer, these changes the oceans, “are likely to disrupt the food chain critical to sustaining the global fish stocks on which billions of the world’s people rely for food and livelihoods. The ecosystem changes in the oceans may also have feedback effects on other changes arising from global warming, potentially amplifying many other effects on human civilization.”

Notice that Bennet is very careful in his wording. He uses phrases like, “this may happen” or “the potential is that…” The tricky part about climate science is that we can’t be totally certain about the future, because the future hasn’t happened yet. Bennet’s humility is sorely needed in our climate change conversations.

A Better Conversation about Climate Change

Still, the warning about carbon emission and other greenhouse gasses is clear and has been for decades. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush remarked to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that, “We all know that human activities are changing the atmosphere in unexpected and unprecedented ways.”

Indeed, we know the consequences of human activity changing the earth’s atmosphere and the oceans now better than we did in 1990. We don’t need accusations from journalists of “overwheening scientism” that calls into question the very good scientific research into climate change. Nor do we need accusation from popularizers of the scientific research that climate change deniers have a psychological disorder. Rather, we need journalists and climate change popularizers to do a better job of presenting the data with humility so that the public can learn more about this issue.

But we need more than humility. We also need compassion. Compassion for our planet and her people, but also compassion for those who stand to lose their livelihoods from a transition to green energy. We need to be honest about the cost of change. But we also need to be honest about the cost of staying the course of fossil fuels. We can show humility and admit uncertainty—maybe not to the science itself—but to our path forward.

No matter what side we are on in this debate, listening to the other with compassion and humility while also presenting our case is the best way to have a better conversation about climate change. Jeffrey Bennet’s book mentioned above models an excellent way to begin.

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