In this short series of articles, I’m going to cover a variety of topics to make one very important point. Science, politics, mythology, and studies of long-term climates all show us that not only is there no excuse for the rapid changes we’re making to our planet, but that we’ve already lost a lot more than we should have.
How Misunderstandings Happen With Emerging Science
One of the cool things about science is that it’s supposed to be a method for finding truth, and not a canon of sacred and unchangeable belief. There’s no verse at the end of science textbooks promising a divine curse on anyone trying to add information. In fact, the whole point of scientific education is to train the next generation of questioners who can test the existing knowledge base and add to it.
While science does often find very solid facts we now rely on every day, even the most established science can and should be thrown away if better facts come along. The process may be slow at first, with resistance from the scientific establishment and the public, but that resistance often forces dissenting scientists to better prove their case, leading to better science.
That’s the theory, at least, but practice is more complicated.
Because science is done by imperfect beings living in an imperfect civilization, this process of finding better ideas doesn’t always work like it should. Sometimes solid findings that gain wide acceptance have a fundamental error that we don’t see until later. Sometimes the support for the status quo is irrationally strong or intentionally propped up, and keeps science from gaining traction (ex. climate change denial). Other times, hateful ideologues and traditionalists latch onto old or out of context scientific ideas, and then use old “science” the way they use scripture — as a bludgeon against their enemies.
When disingenuous people weaponize a perverted version of science like this, the result is the intentional sowing of misunderstanding in the public. “Scientists keep changing their minds, so obviously they don’t even know what they’re doing.” they say. “Open your Bible, guys. It never changes. God wouldn’t have blessed us with fossil fuels if they were really bad for us in the long run.”
However, when that’s not a convenient argument, they embrace “science” again. “I know we said we can’t trust scientists, but trust this old misunderstood version of genetics. You can trust it this time because it makes transgender people and minorities look bad.”
It’s the art of telling people what they want to hear.
Let’s Talk Long-Term Climate For A Minute
One common thing climate deceivers use is the long history of climate. To explain this, we have to explain some scientific terms that differ from common language.
What we commonly call “the ice age” is actually just one episode of cold that our planet has gone through. Scientists call these freezing episodes “glacial periods” because glaciers grow and cover the land much farther from the poles and much further down the mountains than they do today. When it warms up again, they retreat further north again, almost to where they are today.
Scientists call these warmer periods, like the one we live in today, an “interglacial” because the ice hasn’t disappeared from the earth completely. The last time the ice went away completely was roughly 2.5 million years ago, so in scientific language, we’re still in an ice age, even today. We’re just in one of those interglacials between glacial periods. Over billions of years, there have been a number of real ice ages and real times where the ice went away completely.
This information alone has been misused by climate deniers. “See? The Earth was so hot in the past that all the ice melted! There weren’t SUVs and pickup trucks 2.5 million years ago. Checkmate, liberals!”
What the chuckleheads didn’t understand (or do understand and hope the public doesn’t) is that these changes occurred over many thousands of years, driven largely by periodic changes in the orbit of the earth. Sometimes, the planet is closer to the sun. Other times, it’s a bit further out. This leads to ice ages, glacial periods, interglacial periods, and hot periods with no ice at all. Species, including our own, could survive these changes because they happened gradually enough for adaptation to happen. Fast-moving change like we’re seeing today doesn’t give life a chance.
“Stupid Scientists Used To Scare Us About Global Cooling!”
After the public caught on to the nuances of gradual natural climate change compared to the rapid man-made warming, the liars moved on to another way to discredit climate science. A short-term cooling trend mid-century, combined with better understanding of long-term climate science, led some to think that global cooling was about to become a big problem.
The facts behind this seemed pretty solid at the time.
Glacial periods have a rhythm or pattern to them, largely because there’s a pattern to changes in the earth’s orbit. It would take a long, long time to explain how all of it works together to create the glacial periods, but if you want to learn all of those details, you can learn more here. All of the information pointed to a pattern that seemed likely to repeat, so the earth seemed like it was overdue for another glacial period that would freeze civilization to death.
Add to that a minor short-term cooling trend at the time, and the result was sensational headlines about the planet slipping into a deadly ice age. While some scientists were concerned about cooling, the general scientific consensus, even then, was that the greenhouse effect was warming the earth. That didn’t stop journalists from exaggerating the issue, and even calling for government interventions to warm the earth to save humanity.
These old headlines are now routinely used by climate deniers to discredit climate science. Take these old articles, claim that they reflected the understanding of all scientists, and then say things like “These scientists can’t make up their mind.” or “Look how stupid they were.” and then point out the calls for government intervention. “Clearly, they just make stuff up to support their real agenda: big government!”
It Turns Out Both Warming and Cooling Are Real
Science never has a complete understanding of the universe. Sure, we know a lot of things, and those things have been extremely useful, but we don’t know all that there is to know. The gaps in our knowledge sometimes lead to situations where we’re like the blind men and the elephant. One person might feel the legs, and think it’s a tree, while another might feel the trunk, and think it’s a snake of some kind. The unknown big picture, meanwhile, can prove everyone correct.
It turns out that the scientists concerned about global warming and the scientists concerned about global cooling were both right. They just didn’t have the full picture. To show this full picture, we have to look back over 10,000 years, and that’s long before humans wrote anything down for us to read today.
In Part 2, I’m going to explore some ancient myths, and then later, I’ll show how everyone, including ancient humans, was at least partly right about climate.
Featured image by Public Library of Science, CC-BY 2.5 license.