No, Global Warming Will Not Be Overturned By A Paradigm Shift

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Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions concept of paradigm shifts does not apply to global warming and climate change. That’s a recurrent denialist trope, one I saw again in the past few days online, but it’s based on an at best a shallow read of Kuhn’s work, a lot of cognitive biases, and a deep misunderstanding of the science of global warming.

A Kuhnian paradigm shift occurs when the fundamental explanatory theory for a set of observed phenomena turns out to be incorrect. This is signaled by many failures of the theory to explain related phenomena and increasingly baroque and unlikely explanations being created to paper over the cracks. As more experiments based on the theory are performed, more of them deliver negative results.

Historical examples include the universe revolving around the earth versus the sun, the phlogiston theory which held that fire was an element released during burning, and the aether theory which held that an invisible substance conducted electromagnetic waves. All those paradigms were set aside because they were inadequately explanatory of observable reality when experiments and observations were made. As Kuhn pointed out, it takes time to overthrow paradigms.

A great scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it. — Max Planck

Global warming isn’t a scientific theory, it’s an observed reality. The atmosphere and oceans are getting warmer. That’s a recorded fact based on ground and satellite data sets, supported by global observations of things such as seasonal onsets and durations, plant growth, and the like. It’s not a theory. It’s a fact.

Facts and observations are not subject to paradigm shifts.

Anthropogenic global warming is a set of overlapping theories that arose from experiments as far back as the 1850s. That’s when Eunice Newton Foote published her paper on her experimental observations of the warming effect of the sun’s rays on different gases, including the observation that increasing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would increase atmospheric temperatures. That CO2 is a greenhouse gas — it absorbs and re-emits infrared more than visible light spectrums — is experimentally rock solid. It’s a fact that has been tested to the point where it is incontrovertible. CO2 being a greenhouse gas is not a theory, it’s a fact.

In the 1890s, Arrhenius calculated the effect of increased CO2 on the atmosphere. His calculations have proven to be remarkably accurate. His projection was a theory, in that it was not an observation of reality, but a calculation of the effects of changes. It was also limited, as it did not include substantive feedback models.

Since Arrhenius, a subset of science was devoted to experiments to determine if his theory was borne out by empirical reality. Assessments of ground temperature data sets did indicate increases, but were indicative, and insufficient in themselves to prove warming was occurring with any certainty. The quest to validate or refute Arrhenius continued.

One of those efforts was the measurement of parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, most famously in the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which has maintained a daily record since Keeling started the observations in 1958. This is measurement of reality, not a theory. The increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is an observed fact, and not a paradigm or subject to a paradigm shift.

In the 1940s, carbon dating became a technique used to find the historical ages of organic materials based on the presence of the isotope carbon-14. The isotopes carbon-13 and carbon-12 became important, as observations of their ratio in the 1970s made it clear that increased CO2 in the atmosphere was from organic sources, and the only additional organic sources were the fossil fuels being dug up and burned. Once again, the ratio of carbon-13 to carbon-12 is an observed reality. The only source of new carbon in the atmosphere that has withstood experimental scrutiny is fossil fuels.

This is one of the many pieces of evidence and well-supported theories underlying anthropogenic climate change, and it is deeply unlikely to be overturned by any new paradigm, as carbon dating and isotopic analysis are widely used and time-tested techniques and approaches. There is no evidence that carbon dating is not doing exactly what it says on the box, and hence, the conditions for a paradigm shift do not hold.

In the 1970s, we had both ground temperature data sets and satellite temperature sets. At that point, warming was a clearly detectable reality. Historical data sets and related material such tree rings, geological records, and the like gave a solidly accurate perspective on historical temperatures, and the new satellite data sets showed clearly that observed warming at the ground was not an isolated occurrence, but part of a whole atmosphere change. Global warming was an observed reality that had been indicated as highly likely by calculations from 80 years earlier.

The measurements of historical and current temperatures have only had reduced error bars since then, including the work of the “skeptic” and physicist Richard Muller, who found that automated, identical, and rigorous adjustments of base temperature data sets showed more warming than the previous manual adjustments, eliminating his theory that manual adjustments had accidentally created the appearance of warming. That was the last major question that was reasonable to ask about whether warming was a reality or not, and I like to call it one of the Koch Brothers’ least satisfactory investments, as they put up $250,000 for it.

In the past couple of years, the satellite and ground data sets have reached such a statistically large size that all but the most remote possibility of us having got anything wrong in assessing them has been removed. We are now at 99.9999% confidence that global warming is real, and further, that it is caused by us. That is the gold standard of scientific confidence, and it’s the reason why scientific consensus on climate change being real, serious and caused by us is so high, as proven by — at last count — 6 different studies.

All scientific observations support anthropogenic global warming. The large collection of theories that make up anthropogenic global warming are strongly supported by experimental evidence. Consilience — independent, unrelated studies leading to the same conclusion — is absurdly high.

None of the conditions for a Kuhnian paradigm shift exist for global warming. No paradigm shift will occur.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast ( , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 721 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard