It is clear there is a strong appetite for debate about human-caused climate change. This is not a surprise, given the complexity of climate change and the seriousness of its impacts on our health, economy and environment.
Several recent opinion pieces have accused scientists and activists (two very different groups, by the way) of multiple kinds of dishonesty in the climate change debate. The argument goes that political pressure and financial interests are causing widespread exaggeration or even fabrication of evidence linking climate variability with human activity. In this “lynch-mob fervor,” to quote one author, any contradictory evidence is sidelined or suppressed and dissenting voices are deprived of funding and promotion. Such conditions would be toxic to real research. So, are climate scientists under pressure to toe the climate change line?
I study permafrost, the frozen soil in the Arctic that contains as much carbon as the atmosphere and all living things combined. I sample plants, rivers and soils, and my measurements sometimes end up in complex climate models that cause so much of this controversy. In my 10+ years as a scientist, I have worked closely with dozens of climate modelers and hundreds of other climate scientists from all over the world. They have diverse social, political and religious backgrounds. They come from the petroleum industry, academia and the government sector. They argue fiercely and criticize each other publicly in scientific journals when their models fail or their observations conflict. Is this a sign that climate science is falling apart or attempting to pull the wool over the public’s eyes? Quite the contrary. This is evidence of the openness and vitality of the scientific process.
The consensus on climate change has not been imposed. It has emerged as thousands of dedicated scientists apply diverse methods learn how the climate system works. It is true that 97 percent of researchers affirm that humans are driving climate change, but that majority is not the main reason you should accept climate science.
After all, science is not democratic. The majority cannot decide what is true with a vote. The scientific method repetitively challenges accepted understanding. The most elaborate theories can and do fall victim to the humble data of a graduate student. In this environment, if any researcher could present convincing evidence of an alternative explanation for climate change, their work would be snatched up by the top scientific journals faster than you could say “nature” or “science.” The incentive structure of science rewards skeptics when they come armed with evidence.
If there isn’t pressure to accept human-caused climate change, then why aren’t alternative explanations more popular? The truth is that every effort to explain observed climate behavior without including humans has massively missed the mark. The factors most commonly cited by climate skeptics, such as changes in the sun, volcanoes, clouds and nonhuman-caused greenhouse gases like water vapor simply cannot explain the warming we have seen over the past 50 years.29 comments on this story
Acceptance of climate science does not impose a specific policy agenda. The role of science is to inform policy, not dictate it. Likewise, the goal of policy should never be to influence science. However, some advocacy groups do just that, using disproven theories or rhetorical tricks to throw doubt on objective science. In the name of scientific honesty, are we as skeptical of those counterclaims as we are of mainstream climate science? No scientific claims should get a pass because of political considerations. Let’s throw pseudoscience out of the climate change debate so we can work on the real policy questions at hand.
Ben Abbott is an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Wildlife Sciences at BYU. He is a longtime Utahn who studies the effects of climate change and agriculture on water quality and ecosystem functioning.