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Climate change and religious beliefs

January 23, 2010

AGW has all the attributes of a religion, the one true faith that cannot be denied, else the stake and fire awaits one, rather than a scientific matter which has proponents and opponents.

The quote above is taken from a Guardian forum post on climate change (Winner of climate change denial’s premier award revealed). It is very familiar, yet the religious argument puzzles me, since it doesn’t seem to account for the lack of evidence in support of denialism, nor the history of climate change science. I’ll get to the history in a minute, but first let’s examine the premise stated here, that this isn’t a scientific debate with proponents and opponents. What would it take for this claim to be true?

This assertion would depend on one side having scientific constructs, while the other has only faith. If both sides – proponents and opponents – were armed with scientific constructs (hypotheses/theories/data/evidence) it would be as described. If only one side had science and the other had only faith, then it would indeed be a contest between a view one could describe as religious – i.e. belief in that which cannot be attested to directly or proven – and a view based on evidence. 

On this basis, I am moved to ask which shoe is on which foot here? Those who have science, theories, evidence and data are the supporters of climate change theory. Those who oppose anthropogenic climate change believe that the theory is wrong, but they can offer no proof, inferential or otherwise. 

Deniers do not have an alternative theory to explain why the climate is changing. They do not have any physical evidence that contradicts the theory. It should also be self-evident that while correlation does not prove causation, a lack of correlation certainly undermines any theory of causation. This is, for example, the problem with ‘it’s the sun’ theories, since there is no correlation between the sun’s activities and the earth’s temperatures, the former being at a 50 year low while the latter is at a 150 year high. (And since the sun has gone quiet, why is it that so many refuse to acknowledge that the current suppression or masking of progressive global temperature rise may be due to the most obvious cause – the sun’s inconsistent output?)

Nor do deniers have a consistent position. In climate change science, the consistency comes from one theory alone: that GHGs effect atmospheric temperatures. Deniers arguments are very fragmented: fraud, tax and control, world government and Marxist conspiracies, natural causes and so on. While science builds on a solid, consistent foundation (the physics determining the properties of GHGs), denialism is wild arena full of gladiators armed with only the untestable faith in their own opinions, and little else.

Testability is important. Deniers are curiously certain, despite their certainties being so varied, so fragmented, and so untestable. (Denialism would be rather more effective if everyone was backing the same horse). The sheer range of denialist arguments – which cannot be tested – is testament to the personal nature of the beliefs that underpin denialism, while the certainty with which they are elaborated reek of dogma. If it is true that we cannot prove absolutely that human activities are causing climate change, it must also be true that we cannot disprove it either. In debating terms, that’s a draw, but you wouldn’t think so given the absolute conviction of deniers that AGW is wrong, despite the fact that there are so many competing theories as to why it is wrong. Sometimes I wish they would all conspire together to agree one argument, one battleground, but I guess it’s to the advantage of those backing the science that deniers fight on as many fronts as there are deniers.

The fragmentation points to a key difference between the two sides: one side backs the work of others – science – which changes, improves, modifies itself according to new discoveries and corrects itself when errors are found. Deniers back their own opinions, and those views never change, just like religious beliefs. (It is worth noting here that this presents a problem for deniers: when one invests so much faith in dogma, it is very difficult to retreat or modify one’s position. If science tells me tomorrow that climate change is being caused by something other than human agency, I lose no face, suffer no humilation, because it wasn’t my science in the first place. Deniers do not have this luxury – if science proved beyond doubt that climate change was caused by human activities, how could those who have invested so much faith in their denial find a way to modify their views without feeling humiliated by the hubris – their own – that would be exposed?). I have never met anyone who didn’t suffer greatly from discovering they had placed all their faith in something spurious that let them down, like religions that collapse like a house of cards. Science is hardly likely to suffer any such collapse.

Now I must come back to the history of climate change. Because denialist arguments are so divergent, this debate gets pulled in many different directions. I think it is helpful to remember certain facts about how we got to this point. Climate change started out as an investigation of the effects of burning carbon that had previously been removed (sequestered) from the carbon cycle. It was posited that certain physical effects might result, and we are seeing those effects. Yet it appears that denialists don’t like the physical evidence. The concentration on emails, spurious dates for the apocalypse, the vested interests of proponents, class wars, and most of all the computer models – this focus, at the expense of the physical evidence and the fact that it was predicted by the theory (and the models) – is a further demonstration of the disarray of the denialist movement.

The climate is changing, and the evidence was found after the theory predicted it. So far, in the broad strokes of a new discipline studying the most difficult of all subjects to predict – chaos, or non-linear systems – they’ve been right and their theories have been confirmed. I guess it’s lucky for denialists that they have no theories, since non-theories are hard to rebut. But in the absence of theories, all deniers have are their dogmatic beliefs and in some cases, a rather unhealthy measure of paranoia. For any rational person, that should be cause for concern.

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