"Do you believe in climate change?"
This question has become our generation's intellectual litmus test, with virtually no middle ground between climate "skeptics" (or more pejoratively, "deniers") and climate "believers."
Climate is technically always in a state of change, so the question is actually about the extent of human contribution to Earth's current warming. How much does man-made activity contribute to warming, through fossil fuel burning and the resulting production of atmospheric carbon dioxide? This is a question with profound social, economic, and political implications.
For the most part, neither side disputes that the Earth has been warming for the past century. The most reliable figure is that the Earth is about 1.8 degrees F warmer today than it was 125 years ago, and much of this trend coincides with increased industrial activity and man-made production of CO2 in that span. The controversy revolves around exactly how much warming, from 0 to 100 percent, is caused by humans - a deceptively simple question to ask, and a devilishly hard one to answer.
Skeptics maintain human contribution is closer to zero, while believers, in line with most climate scientists, generally say the answer is in excess of 50 percent. However, even in the scientific community there is uncertainty about the exact amount of warming caused by humans.
The importance of this figure may determine how much the Earth warms in the future and what the effects will be. Predicting the future is notoriously difficult, as presidential elections followers well know, and climate science involves complex models and simulations using incompletely understood variables. Some chide skeptics, saying that failure to believe in climate change is akin to not believing in gravity or evolution. But the analogy is imprecise because both evolution and gravity were the conclusions of several centuries spent observing phenomena less complex than climate.
Scientists constantly update findings about the Earth's higher temperature and its consequences – ice melts in the Arctic and West Antarctic, frequency of severe storms, and sea level rise. The job of science journalists who cover climate change is not simply to report but to render these issues more comprehensible. Too often they fail in that respect, only increasing public confusion and rancor. Some philosophical differences between climate change "skeptics" and climate change believers would be reduced with more complete explication.
Because the thermometer was not invented until the early 18th Century, global temperature measurements before then are indirect. The science of paleoclimatology allows scientists to reconstruct past climates by using proxies such as tree rings, ice cores, and coral formations. These findings can be compared to current observations to understand climate trends. But can proxies determine precisely what the Earth's temperature was during a 100- year period 20,000 years ago? Or a 500-year period 50,000 years ago? How does that work?
This is an example of how scientific findings are rarely clear-cut and can leave room for different interpretation. Some skeptics believe the earth was warmer than today more recently – during the Roman Warming Period around the time of Christ or the Medieval Warming Period about 1,000 years ago. If true, they believe it casts doubt on current models. But even so, an alternative explanation might be that the Earth has been cooling since the Medieval Warming Period and the recent reversal of that trend supports human contribution to warming.
This is where science journalists and scientists sell the public short. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman once said that a good scientist should translate science into ordinary language so that the findings assert a logical concept, instead of just a collection of jargon. (Feynman himself performed an elementary experiment before Congress on national television to demonstrate why the space shuttle Challenger exploded – a YouTube "must-see" for all young scientists).
The political and economic questions raised by climate change are demanding. Long-term climate change affects man's availability to the three most important resources: water, food, and energy. Climate believers may indeed be correct that CO2 emissions play a large role in warming the planet; however simply relying on reducing fossil fuel consumption will not necessarily provide access to these basics. This is especially true in Third World areas of growing population with little or no access to grid electricity.
With so much uncertainty and so much importance surrounding the climate debate, there should surely be room for reasonable colloquy and in some cases rational middle ground between skeptics and believers. Right now, the two sides simply talk past one another, each with a different interpretation of information. And all the while, as a French philosopher once observed, the worst most corrupting lies are problems poorly stated.
Cory Franklin is a retired physician and an Editorial Board contributor for the Chicago Tribune.
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