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My view: Anti-science ruins the climate debate

By Tom Harris

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, April 20 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama delivers his 2013 State of the Union address. Obama centered his address on boosting job creation, immigration reform and climate change.

Susan Walsh, Associated Press

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We have become accustomed to politicians, environmentalists and alternative energy companies telling us that the science of climate change is "settled." Scientists supposedly know with certainty that our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are causing a climate crisis. There is no need to further investigate the validity of the theory or to consider alternative evidence. We need not even consider whether adaption to climate change is more effective than trying to prevent it. We are told that we must take action to stop the unfolding human-caused climate catastrophe, no matter the cost.

Professors Chris Essex (University of Western Ontario) and Ross McKitrick (University of Guelph) call this the Doctrine of Certainty. In their award-winning book “Taken by Storm,” they explain, “The Doctrine is a collection of now-familiar assertions made about climate, all of which must be accepted without question.”

If one dares question the Doctrine, the reaction from true believers is immediate — you are a denier, an enemy of nature, a pawn of big oil and you must be silenced. As demonstrated last month when activists protested in front of Washington Post headquarters brandishing an open letter signed by 110,000 people demanding that the paper not publish Charles Krauthammer’s skeptical opinion piece, censorship is fair play if you are on the side of the angels. The possibility that, as Essex and McKitrick say, “The Doctrine is not true. Each assertion is either manifestly false or the claim to know is false,” is not even considered.

In recent years, former Vice President Al Gore has been joined by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry as America’s leading Doctrine of Certainty campaigners. Following Obama’s assertion in January’s State of the Union address that “the debate is settled,” Kerry told Indonesians last month that the science backing what he called “the greatest threat that the planet has ever seen” is “something that we understand with absolute assurance of the veracity of that science.” Kerry concluded that climate science is “simple” and “not really a complicated equation.”

In reality, trying to unravel the causes and consequences of climate change is arguably the most complex science ever tackled. Essex and McKitrick explain, “Climate is one of the most challenging open problems in modern science. Some knowledgeable scientists believe that the climate problem can never be solved.”

The Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change cites thousands of peer-reviewed scientific papers to demonstrate that much of what we thought we knew about climate is wrong or highly debatable. The science is becoming more unsettled as the field advances.

It is the job of national science bodies to encourage the use of science and rational thinking in science-related policy discussions. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) asserts that they are “charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.” Similarly, the UK’s Royal Society (RS) claims that they provide “independent, timely and authoritative scientific advice to UK, European and international decision makers.”

So one would think that the NAS and the RS would do everything in their power to defeat the anti-science Doctrine of Certainty distorting the climate debate. Instead, as demonstrated by the NAS/RS report, “Climate Change: Evidence & Causes,” released on Feb. 27, they are doing the exact opposite. Rather than using the careful language scientists normally employ when describing difficult fields of study, the NAS and RS engage in propaganda, making absolute assertions concerning topics about which we have little knowledge.

For example, they say the following in their report:

— “If the rise in CO2 continues unchecked, warming of the same magnitude as the increase out of the ice age [i.e., 4 to 5 °C] can be expected by the end of this century or soon after.”

— “If emissions of CO2 stopped altogether. … Surface temperatures would stay elevated for at least a thousand years.”

— “The amount and rate of further warming will depend almost entirely on how much more CO2 humankind emits.”

Not only are such statements unscientific, they are irresponsible, since they encourage governments to prepare only for warming while ignoring the possibility that far more dangerous cooling is on the way as the sun weakens into a "grand minimum" over the coming decades.

The NAS/RS report will undoubtedly be cited by Obama, Kerry and other Doctrine of Certainty supporters as an excuse to intensify their war on coal, America’s least expensive and most reliable source of electric power. To reduce CO2 emissions, they will continue to divert billions of dollars to wind and solar power, the least reliable and most expensive options available, in the vain belief that this will stop the climate from changing.

Instead of providing ammunition to help destroy our most important energy sources, the NAS and the RS should encourage an expansion of energy-intensive hydrocarbon fuels such as coal to help us cope with whatever nature throws at us next. While environmental change has always presented serious problems for societies that did not properly adapt, it is almost certainly nature, not humankind, that controls the climate of planet Earth.

Tom Harris is executive director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition.

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