About Uncle Harry

Who to believe: the climate scientists or your nonexpert uncle?

If 98 doctors say my son is ill and needs medication, and two say, ‘No, he doesn’t, he is fine,’ I will go with the 98. It’s common sense—the same with climate change. We go with the majority, the large majority.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, from New York Times article “The Power of Green” by Thomas L. Friedman

Humanity’s survival requires accepting the judgment of the climate scientists it has paid to educate and study the issue, and who have reached a near-unanimous conclusion that human-made climate change threatens our civilization’s survival. It is pointless to debate nonexpert “skeptics” operating from bias rather than the many years of education and experience required to reach an informed judgment.

Climatology is an unusually complicated science because it involves an unusual number of laboratory, computer and, especially, real-world variables—not only ranging over the entire world but geologic time. Those who have not studied climatology are thus simply unable to reach an informed opinion on the subject—even if they have scientific expertise in other fields.

The world’s climate scientists have not only reached near-unanimity that climate change poses a crisis but created the largest international committee in scientific history to work to understand and prevent it. Its name is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Even Princeton professor Richard Lindzen, one the few professional climatolologists who is a “skeptic,” has said that only climate scientists who have pursued post-doctoral studies have a right to an informed opinion. By this standard he has discredited any nonexpert supporting his ideas, such a Rush Limbaugh, George Will, Camille Paglia and even scientists like Freeman Dyson. Lindzen was asked at a 1998 National Academy of Sciences meeting on what basis a nonexpert, who he had just said could not have an informed opinion, could possibly side with him against the vast majority of climate scientists. “That’s a miserable question,” he replied, unable to answer.

We all have an “Uncle Harry”—the guy at a family wedding who informs you that he personally knows that Dick Cheney is a cross-dresser, or overwhelms you with facts and figures to prove that the Bilderbergs and Federal Reserve Board have conspired to cause a world depression. Nonprofessional climate-change “skeptics” are the equivalent of Uncle Harry.

This does not, of course, mean that the climate scientists will necessarily be proven 100 percent correct. Indeed, let us hope they are not. But it does mean that since they have concluded that climate change poses a major threat to human survival, rational adults concerned for the well-being of their children and humanity cannot responsibly fail to act upon on their recommendations.

The principle of responding to consensus scientific warnings was never challenged before global warming. When the scientific community warned of that the ozone layer was threatened, for example, leaders led by the conservative Margaret Thatcher responded with action to preserve it even though they were initially opposed by the businesses involved. Politicizing a scientific issue like climate change, with a political party insisting it knows more than the scientists, is both profane and absurd—as ridiculous as a group of politicians suddenly declaring that they knew more than oncologists about how to cure your cancer, or that they disagreed with astrophysicists about the big bang.

Global warming has only become politicized because business interests fear that addressing it will harm their interests and have funded many of the “skeptics,” and because Republicans have decided that they can both gain political contributions and votes by playing on people’s economic fears. The proof of this is the very politicization of the debate. If there were really valid scientific doubts, debates would be between climate scientists, not political parties.

Although laypeople cannot make informed judgments about the climatology involved, they can judge the credibility of the IPCC’s warnings using the following two key criteria:

Transparent and rigorous process and peer review: The IPCC, consisting of more than 2,500 climate scientists worldwide, have involved a majority of their profession in their deliberations for 15 years now, established a transparent process, and engaged in peer review and rigorous debate about each of their conclusions. The very fact that they have reached such a near-unanimous consensus, so often not the case in scientific history, adds to the credibility of their climate-change warnings.

Scientific integrity: Dr. Lindzen and many “skeptics” have practiced character assassination, alleging climate scientists have reached their conclusions to obtain government grants and/or attend international conferences. In fact, the opposite is true. Many IPCC scientists have volunteered countless unpaid hours of work because of their strong conviction that climate change is serious and must be slowed down. Anyone who has interviewed them is struck by their sincerity. I will never forget the climate scientists I talked with at Kyoto the night the 1997 agreement was signed. Although they had applauded the signing, they expressed tremendous and sincere alarm that that it barely began to address a problem they regarded as life-threatening.

If there is any reason to criticize the IPCC, it is that they have been too conservative. Anxious to maintain near-unanimity, involved in a process that encourages vigorous argument over every point, under attack by “skeptics” who relentlessly pounce on the most minor presumed error of fact or process, they have consistently underestimated, not overestimated, the problem.