Contributor opinion: Global warming and the myth of ‘settled science’

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Global warming is a topic that has become a bit, well forgive me, but, “heated” over the past few decades. Public discourse is a good thing, especially when the topic being discussed directly affects society. Certainly how we use energy resources and how that use impacts our present and future lives are items we should be considering — and vigorously debating. Unfortunately the tenor of the debate has become accusatory, with people belittling their opposition. It would be better if this were not the case.

Man’s relationship with the environment invokes emotion and, as often happens in emotional discussions, what one person says is not what the other person hears.  When one says “global warming” another may hear “shoreline destruction, receding glaciers, drowning polar bears, submerging coral reefs or shrinking habitats.” Or they might hear “political hype, loss of freedom, intellectual arrogance, progressive agenda or mindless bandwagon.” I am inclined to think, like most people, that it is the other side’s position that is insensitive to true danger while my side is simply the one any reasonable person would embrace. Alas, life is not so convenient that the person or ideology with whom we disagree is as misinformed, or outright evil, as we might wish.  We should seek to learn from the other point of view and remain gracious in the process.

Global warming is interesting. To stay informed I have read critiques from both sides and have read several technical papers arguing for and against it.  So far it seems to me that the assertion of the earth getting warmer — about 0.8 degrees Celsius since 1880 — is solid. Corrections applied to historical data to reveal this trend are, in some cases, uncomfortably large. And I am a bit dismayed at how difficult it is to find the exact data that some conclusions are drawn from. But even with these caveats, it is apparent that a preponderance of independent data supports a warming. And while I personally am not convinced that all of the warming is from human activities, the majority of atmospheric scientists seem to think so, and I respect that.

Whether or not the earth is warming is not an issue for societal debate.  If it is warming, it is warming. If it isn’t, it isn’t. The issue, as I understand it, is the assertion that the earth is warming and unacceptable things will happen unless we do x, y or z; solutions x, y or z being policies that invoke governmental oversight to enforce restrictions. Freedoms are often voluntarily surrendered to government for the greater good. But one must ask if the future warming trends predicted by computer models are sufficiently secure and ominous to warrant a major restriction on our freedoms. That is the question I am interested in.

As a scientist and student of history, I am leery of anyone who proclaims global warming to be “settled science,” whatever that is supposed to mean. Certainly the predictions of future warming are not settled as illustrated by a non-warming trend for the past 15 years and recent growth of Antarctic sea ice to a 35 year high. These observations are part of longer-term trends and don’t deny global warming any more than a specific drought or hurricane affirm it. It is just that models did not predict these, and thus their other predictions may not be sufficiently accurate yet either. We should relax and let the science continue to unfold.

The cosmologist Fred Hoyle and colleagues J. V. Narlikar, Hermann Bondi and Thomas Gold tried for years to debunk the Big Bang theory of the universe. Their papers were published in the best journals and read for whatever arguments they might successfully put forth. In the end, after many years and many papers, they were not able to convince even themselves, and their theories faded away. But we don’t condemn them, we applaud them for their efforts to keep science honest. For whatever reason, I am not seeing the same culture in the global warming discussions. People such as Roy Spencer and John Christy, recipients of NASA’s Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal continue to be vilified by some as “deniers” or “flat earthers” for arguing that predicted warming trends are overstated. And conversely pro-global warming concerns are not indicative of mindless panic either. Life is just not that convenient.

We should be circumspect and seek unbiased information rather than focusing on tidbits that affirm what we want to believe.  Then only if a course correction is clearly in the best interest of all should we purposely turn the rudder of society. In the meantime it does neither side justice to attack those who ask for science, and democracy too for that matter, to play out.

Joseph Moody
Professor in BYU’s Physics and Astronomy department

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