The Wrong Way to Debate Methane and Global Warming
A few days ago, I wrote a piece melodramatically entitled Methane: be afraid…be very afraid (and that’s putting it mildly). It’s about a Nature article by Gail Whiteman, Chris Hope, and Peter Wadhams called Climate science: Vast costs of Arctic change, and it’s reaches some pretty dramatic conclusions, including a potential cost of a sudden release of sub-sea methane as “an average global price tag of $60 trillion in the absence of mitigating action”.
I was already aware that the paper was controversial. A number of prominent climate scientists were pretty dismissive, and it seemed to me that there was a lack of real scepticism; too much certainty, too much faith invested more in opinion than fact.
Then Skeptical Science (SkS) published an article by Chris Colose, a well-qualified climate scientist with relevant expertise. However, the article left me feeling disappointed.
As a writer, I’m quite sensitive to tone, and the opening paragraph of the article, called Toward Improved Discussions of Methane & Climate, exemplifies my cause for concern:
Here at Skeptical Science, there is an ongoing effort to combat disinformation from those who maintain that climate change is a non-issue or non-reality. From time to time, however, individuals or groups overhype the impacts of climate change beyond the realm of plausibility. Some of this is well-intentioned but misguided…
A few observations; this opening statement is prejudicial and dismissive. It is not the language of science. To imply that the ‘big burp’ methane scenario is ‘beyond the realms of plausibility’, that it is ‘misguided’ reduces the scientific method to that of mere opinion. That Colose felt it necessary to open his article with such a statement is revealing, because it signals not open-minded scepticism, but bias. In a single statement, he positions the work of other scientists as inept, yet he cannot disprove anything that has been claimed, only allude to inconsistencies in what we know so far (“so far” being the key to this issue, I believe).
Too many people within the climate science community have been equally dismissive. Nafeez Ahmed, writing in the Guardian (Seven facts you need to know about the Arctic methane timebomb) makes some good points about the conflicting evidence, clear lines of dissent mirrored in the well-informed comments below the Skeptical Science piece. As a lay person, I’m not qualified to comment either way, but I do note some troubling inconsistencies in the way this is being discussed, but in particular the prejudicial nature of many remarks exemplified by the quote from the SkS piece.
I’m moved to wonder why it is necessary to be quite so insistent about something about which there is so little real information, on which so little work has been done. My theory – and that’s all it is – is that climate scientists are, in fact, very conservative in nature. Extraordinary and dramatic claims like those made in the paper that kicked off this debate seem to have raised the hackles of a community who occupy a most invidious position; messengers with a message nobody wants to hear, or act on.
I don’t think it outrageous either to suggest that climate scientists are being persecuted, vilified, their reputations traduced, their work ridiculed and their qualifications demeaned. In such circumstances, it is inevitable that climate scientists are going to react, to feel defensive, and consequently downplay or even under-estimate the probabilities their work describes – a phenomenon for which there is already some evidence.
It’s as if the original Whitman paper triggered a defence mechanism: “Don’t say anything so bloody dramatic, else the deniers will eat us for breakfast”. Too many people were dismissive far to quickly for their rebuttals to be considered, let alone properly sceptical.
So where the hell are we? First of all, it is clear the science is not settled, so Colose and others should stop being quite so certain when the evidence supports neither assertion conclusively. My reading of the various arguments suggests that the scenario described by Whitman is not beyond the realms of possibility. It may also be the case that it won’t happen, or that the release of methane will be persistent and chronic, not sudden. It is, in every respect, an argument parallel to climate sensitivity, something we’re going to know for sure only in retrospect.
What I wrote about in my first post on this subject was my belief that the thing most likely to undo us all is the unexpected consequence. In this case, the consequence seems unexpected by that audience you might think would be most receptive to it – climate scientists. Instead, it seems that on this issue, they might be as closed-minded and lacking in genuine scepticism as everyone else.
I think the naysayers should be more circumspect, for their arguments appear tainted with confirmation bias. All predictions of future impacts based on climate science are about probabilities. Nothing I’ve read reduces the probability that methane could contribute to global warming. Nothing I’ve read conclusively demonstrates how this will occur. Everything I’ve read suggests a lack of solid science, too little evidence to support so many apparently firm conclusions.
The same rules that apply to denial apply to climate science. The only way to prove or disprove Whitman’s claims (and others) is through better science. Being dismissive and self-righteous isn’t science, and too much of the commentary on this issue smacks of exactly the same opinionated certainties that infect denialist arguments. Nobody knows anything for certain about Arctic methane, and anyone basing their certainty on what little we know is standing on thin ice.