02 December 2011

About Those Skeptics

In last weekend's FT, Simon Kuper had a provocative and on-target column about the role of so-called skeptics in the climate debate.  Kuper writes;
It’s tempting to blame “climate sceptics” for the world’s inaction on man-made climate change. (The United Nations’ latest summit, starting in Durban on Monday, won’t save the planet either.) Greens often talk as if the enemy were not climate change itself, but a self-taught band of freelance sceptics. No wonder, because fighting culture wars is the fun bit of politics. However, this fight is pointless. The sceptics aren’t the block to action on climate change. They just wish they were. Instead, they are an irrelevant sideshow.

Sceptics and believers quarrel about the science because they both start from a mistaken premise: that science will determine what we do about climate change. The idea is that once we agree what the science says, policy will automatically follow. That’s why the Nobel committee gave Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change a peace prize.

Mysteriously, though, the policy still hasn’t followed the science.
I would go even further than Kuper to argue that the demonization of skeptics is a key strategy in elevating the importance of science in the political debate. If it wasn't for the alleged risks that skeptics pose to our future, we'd have to instead be arguing about things like values, goals and priorities, which are messy and carry with them none of the imputed authority of science. It is in the interests of both skeptics and their opponents to argue about science, because it suggests that their debate is somehow directly relevant to policy action. It is not.

The debate over climate science is over and has been won by those who assert a human influence on the climate system. This then is what victory looks like. (For supporting evidence on the science and opinion, see chapters 1 and 2 of TCF). The larger reality of course is that global climate policy is no longer about science, if it ever was, and is today about far more practical topics.

Kuper concludes:
The sceptics and the apathetic will always be with us. There’ll never be full consensus on climate change. But if governments could only act when there was unanimity, no law on anything would ever be passed. The US invaded Iraq, bailed out banks and passed universal healthcare with much less consensus than exists over climate change. In short, the sceptics are not the block to action.

Rather, the block is that the believers – including virtually all governments on earth – aren’t sufficiently willing to act. We could do something. But shouting at sceptics is easier.
He is right.

I am often asked why I don't spent more time bashing skeptics (the answer is obvious). For those who wish to engage that topic or bash skeptics themselves, this post is for you.  Have at it!