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Why climate change deniers owe us a (scientific) explanation

September 24, 2013

For a while now, I’ve considered climate change denial to be akin to superstition, which the Oxford Dictionaries site defines as “a widely held but irrational belief in supernatural influences.” I mention this because when challenged, deniers often claim that the climate changes we are witnessing are not man-made, but products of ‘natural variability’.  In this context, I find that ‘natural variability’ appears to be a synonym for ‘supernatural influence’.

Why? Because they can’t explain it. Not just that: many seem to believe they are not obliged to do so, which is suspiciously convenient, and all too reminiscent of those who would claim they don’t need to ‘explain’ God. In this, they share a view once expressed in a Guardian forum which, to this day, remains one of my favourite denialist non-sequiturs. When challenged, a poster calling himself Hamlet 4 insisted “I don’t need to prove climate change is caused by natural variability. It just is.”

*****

Recently in the Guardian, Dana Nuccitelli wrote an interesting article entitled Magical climate contrarian thinking debunked by real science. The first sentence creates the context:

“One of the most important concepts to understand when trying to grasp how the Earth’s climate works, is that every climate change must have a physical cause”.

He follows that up with the premise on which his argument is based:

“It’s not sufficient to say global warming is the result of “a natural cycle” – which cycle is causing the change? For example, is it due to the Earth’s orbital cycles around the Sun, which operate very slowly over periods of thousands of years? Is it changes in solar activity, which has on average remained flat and even declined slightly over the past 60 years? Is it ocean cycles, which shift heat between the oceans and air, and don’t cause the Earth to accumulate more heat?”

Dana is taking issue with a specific paper, authored by Syun-Ichi Akasofu, a retired geophysicist and former director of the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks:

“[Akasofu] claimed that the current global warming is merely a result of the planet “recovering” from the Little Ice Age – a cool period (the cooling mostly isolated in Europe) that lasted between the years of about 1550 and 1850. Problem – Akasofu didn’t identify any physical cause for this supposed ‘recovery.’”

I’ve often remarked that climate change deniers have no science. A common retort is that since we ‘warmists’ are making the claims, it is us that need to produce the evidence to support it. On the face of it, this seems fair enough – and indeed we have produced the evidence, not that deniers are prepared to acknowledge any of it. (No surprise there). However, as with calls for probity, accuracy and transparency, one might imagine that such virtues, attributes or burdens of proof would be applicable to us all, not just scientists, advocates or journalists. Evidently, one would be wrong.

Clearly, deniers do not care to understand that when they make claims, the same rules ought to apply. Describing the changes we have already witnessed as ‘natural variability’ without explaining the forcing or its origin is exactly the superstitious ‘magical thinking’ that Dana discusses, which explains absolutely nothing and has as much credibility in scientific terms as claiming that God did it.

*****

Since we killed God, deniers have required some kind of new, unknowable force to conveniently explain climate change; they invoke the new superstition of ‘natural variability’. They don’t seem to understand that, in the scientific context in which these claims are usually made, this is yet another hypothesis, and requires exactly the same standard of scientific examination they demand of existing climate science.

Natural variability is not an explanation of cause, but the observation of a pattern of effect. It is not a mechanism, nor is it a description or function. Natural variability is an attribution, a generalisation, a convenient catch-all. When this is offered as an explanation, the missing component is how and why ‘natural variability’ takes place at all.

To bring about a ‘natural’ change still requires an energy input or output. Climate change deniers cannot produce any science that attests to energy changes that might cause this recent ‘natural variability’ any more than creationists can produce science (or evidence) to support their claim that it was God what done it. This should not be surprising, because climate change denial is a belief system, founded not on science and evidence, but something akin to a religion, or superstition.

The problem with the claim that all the climate changes we are already witnessing are within the bounds of natural variability is that deniers cannot identify the forcing – the change in energy levels – required to increase the global temperatures rapidly over three decades, to melt glaciers, to warm oceans, to change seasonal periodicity, to expand deserts, to cause extreme weather, change precipitation patterns, to decrease Arctic ice volume or increase Antarctic sea ice extent.

All these and many more changes in our environment require energy, and what climate change deniers cannot produce is even a convincing alternative hypothesis to explain where this energy is coming from, let alone produce empirical evidence for it. Yet this is their ‘theory’, their alleged explanation for what is happening to the climate. I think they owe us more than some vague, hand-waving generalisation. They owe us a scientific explanation of what drives this ‘natural variability’, because without it, they are asking us to dismiss a cohesive, consistent, consilient scientific theory in favour of nothing but untestable, unprovable, unfalsifiable superstition. They might as well be asking us to dump science in favour of magic – and then again, perhaps that’s exactly what they are doing.

*****

When it comes to credibility, a source of information should surely maintain some kind of balance. That isn’t to say that an editorial policy can’t be applied – the Guardian is still (barely) a left-wing media outlet but that doesn’t mean its output is mere propaganda, even though its detractors might conveniently characterise it as such.

This point is particularly salient when considering the main denial websites. These sites cannot possibly be considered sceptical, for a simple reason; they find fault in all climate science, not just some of it.

Think about it: thousands of papers published over the last 50 years. I just wrote about the Charney report – a remarkably prescient bit of work dating from 1979 – but the audit trail goes a long way further back than that, all the way back to Fourier, Tyndall, and Arrhenius with his greenhouse theory, published in 1896. (Arrhenius received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903 by the way, and in 1905 became Director of the Nobel Institute, where he remained until his death).

Surely I can’t be alone in thinking that a site calling itself ‘sceptical’ would find some papers to be accurate, some to be debatable, and some to be in error. That would be the logical assumption in regard of any statistical breakdown of technical materials, particularly when the material originates from scientists so geographically and culturally diverse.

The probability that all climate science is wrong (or right, for that matter) is, statistically speaking, zero. Indeed, a website to which I contribute that has the word ‘skeptical’ in its name, while lauding many papers for their insight, had no compunction in finding fault with a recent paper about an alleged methane bubble. (A fine demonstration of true scepticism, the lack of an agenda – and the pernicious corruption of proper spelling by the colonies. Have they no respect?).

The unfortunate result of finding fault in everything is that one can no longer be seen to persuade, but to hector and harass, to denigrate and deny. Without a counter-argument, all that’s left is propaganda. Persuasion requires a counter-position at least as credible as the one argued against; propaganda requires only a credulous audience willing to believe something that confirms a view they already hold. When the subject is climate science, it isn’t a valid argument to dismiss one theory without being able to propose an alternative. As I’ve said before, to knock down an edifice, all that’s required is brute strength and a sledgehammer. Constructing a new edifice out of the rubble requires more; intelligence, architecture, planning, skills and crafts, design and construction. Deniers certainly know how to wield the hammer, but there’s not much evidence of anything constructive in their position.

Why do I claim that criticism without a counter-theory is invalid? For the same reason Dana eschews ‘magical thinking’. At the heart of the climate change debate there is a question being asked, and to answer it requires science. (The Oxford Dictionary on-line defines science as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment”).

We study the physical and natural world for many reasons, but chief among them must surely be the desire to understand changes in the world around us that may affect us for better or worse. So we find ourselves contemplating an important question; the climate is changing – why is that?

If deniers want to argue their case, it is not sufficient to be dismissive of climate science, any more than it is appropriate to pitch opinion against theory. There is no material explanation for climate change proposed by deniers, except the magical thinking of ‘natural variation’. The only valid way to improve science is through better science, and better science is not achieved by taking a sledgehammer to the existing canon, any more than it could be improved by burning books.

We have a really important question to answer: why is the climate changing? This question cannot be answered through rhetoric or debate. It is the stuff of science, and until those who take issue with anthropogenic climate change can produce an alternative theory of equal merit, they must rely entirely on hyperbole, demagoguery, personal attacks, misrepresentation, and bad science to promote their invidious case.

I’m open to persuasion, but only by one means; science. ‘Natural variation’ doesn’t explain anything. It doesn’t answer the fundamental question, which cannot be put back in the Pandora’s box it came from. We need an answer, and ‘natural variability’ isn’t it.

All physical change involves changes in energy states. Until climate change deniers can come up with a plausible, testable alternative explanation as to where this energy is coming from and why it is changing in distribution and quantity, they cannot present an argument that will persuade by force of logic. Appealing to pseudo-superstitions like ‘natural variation’ is an appeal to a mob mentality. It depends on predisposition, a certain ignorance, a credulous audience and a lack of sceptical enquiry. What it will never do is stop the ice melting, nor explain why it is.

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15 Comments leave one →
  1. September 24, 2013 12:02 pm

    Well said. The deniers don’t even hold a single source of natural variation, and often have contradictory theories. Ask them for evidence, and they’ll invoke handwaveium and unobtainium before resorting to ad hominems and conspiracy theories.

    As you rightly comment – its harder to do the science and build and create the knowledge and understading. It is intellectually lazy simply to decry the science without valid alternatives.

  2. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 24, 2013 1:02 pm

    hasturhasturhastur: Thanks – been meaning to get that one off my chest for a while now. It was only that Dana essentially beat me to it that made me get on with it.

  3. September 24, 2013 1:11 pm

    What really amuses me is when they pontificate and make grandiose claims to understand science and or have relevant qualifications….and they make school boy errors of logic and are oblivious.

  4. johnrussell40 permalink
    September 24, 2013 3:19 pm

    There’s another denial belief that I’ve come across recently and it smacks of desperation. Rather than explain it, I’ll just post the comment from ‘Magic Turtle’ (how fitting!). He says (a short excerpt): “It is fundamentally unscientific to declare that something can only be explained in one way. Only a closed-minded dogmatist would do that.”

    My response was: “So rather than accept the multiple lines of evidence to show global warming is real and man made you’d prefer to put your faith in something else causing warming — something as yet for which there is no evidence and is therefore undiscovered? Your denial of scientific evidence and reliance on a greater but unknown influence smacks of the mysticism we normally associate with religions.”

    It did give me a little pleasure to accuse Mr Turtle of religious fervour; and it was very appropriate. The entire thread can be found here: http://www.carbonbrief.org/4907.aspx (worth a read).

  5. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 24, 2013 5:48 pm

    hasturhasturhastur – there’s no ‘joining up’ of the dots, is there?

    johnrussell40: Hi John, hope you’re doing OK. I had a look at the thread on Carbon Brief. It’s uncannily like CiF, isn’t it? My problem with posters like Magic Turtle is that one cannot engage in a debate with people whose position is absolute. Religious fervour is dead right. When I read about people going mad with guns in the US, I wonder what could possibly drive them to extremes. Then I read a thread like that…

  6. September 24, 2013 6:04 pm

    Graham thanks for some excellent thoughts.
    Also, thanks for having a Creative Commons license and allowing folks like me to reprint your thoughts and hopefully reaching a few more people.

    : whatsupwiththatwatts (dot) blogspot (dot) com
    /2013/09/climate-change-deniers-owe-us (dot) html

  7. ahaveland permalink
    September 24, 2013 6:41 pm

    Senator Sheldon Whitehouse did a great “Time to Wake Up” piece, which summed up the situation pretty well.

    Magical Thinking on Climate Change

    If you have the time, watch the other videos in the series.

  8. johnrussell40 permalink
    September 24, 2013 6:53 pm

    You’re totally right that it’s pointless arguing with people like ‘Magic Turtle’ and ‘Blue Screen of Death’, Graham, but it’s worth doing for any ‘don’t knows’ who might come across his comment and think he’s made a valid point. I hate leaving denial memes sitting around without a suitable response.

    [PS: I’m very well now, thanks, Graham. We must meet up for a pint one night.]

  9. Thomas Brinsmead permalink
    September 27, 2013 7:29 am

    The terms of debate are changing, when put in context of the longer term global opinion cycle. Twenty years ago even the temperature change was disputed. Now it’s far more frequently the causes. Nice observation that natural variability is not an explanation, but a statement of ignorance. Same epistemological status as “context sensitive dependence” (a favorite in some social sciences).

  10. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 27, 2013 9:01 am

    Thomas – good observation, thanks for that.

  11. todd cook permalink
    September 30, 2013 12:01 am

    What varible are you monitoring to see the trend in warming?

  12. Graham Wayne permalink*
    September 30, 2013 7:10 am

    Todd – I don’t monitor anything. I just read science, and it tells me that, for example, the top of atmosphere discrepancy between inbound and outbound radiation continues to grow at the frequencies absorbed by CO2, methane and other GHGs. This, coupled with measurements of ocean energy, are the primary metrics for the continued trend in warming – or more accurately, the increase in the planet’s energy budget imbalance.

    See the IPCC AR5 SPM for details.

  13. Todd S. permalink
    December 24, 2013 10:16 pm

    Laudable and agreeable, but for an observant analytic such as yourself, I find the used phrase “…it is us that…” A disturbing pothole in the otherwise well-kept grammatical highway.

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