Where are we going? NOAA image via Unsplash.

Is It Right To Call Anthropogenic Climate Change A Theory?

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Or does that term do a disservice to our understanding?

In 2017, the Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society published a paper titled “Climate Scientists Virtually Unanimous: Anthropogenic Global Warming Is True.” The lead author was James Lawrence Powell, a man who was appointed to the National Science Board by both President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush.

The following is that paper’s abstract (the full article is behind a paywall):

“The extent of the consensus among scientists on anthropogenic global warming (AGW) has the potential to influence public opinion and the attitude of political leaders and thus matters greatly to society. The history of science demonstrates that if we wish to judge the level of a scientific consensus and whether the consensus position is likely to be correct, the only reliable source is the peer-reviewed literature. During 2013 and 2014, only 4 of 69,406 authors of peer-reviewed articles on global warming, 0.0058% or 1 in 17,352, rejected AGW. Thus, the consensus on AGW among publishing scientists is above 99.99%, verging on unanimity. The U.S. House of Representatives holds 40 times as many global warming rejecters as are found among the authors of scientific articles. The peer-reviewed literature contains no convincing evidence against AGW.”

I want to share my first reaction I had to this. In effect, the author of the paper went (metaphorically) to 69,406 climate and weather scientists and asked, “Is it true that you believe that AGW is not happening?” There were four who answered positively. I expect I would get more than four positive responses if I went to 69,406 physicists and asked, “Is it true that you believe you are the reincarnation of Issac Newton?”

Pointing out that AGW is a theory implies that there is some viable alternative. But when only 0.0058% disagree, the best they would be able to come up with is a fringe theory, even if the four all agreed on what it was. Of course, the four could disagree with each other, coming up with four fringe theories. I suppose that if they are sufficiently confused, they could have even more. In any event, we have a dominant theory and one or more fringe theories, but nothing else. [Editor’s note: I did see several years ago that the few scientists who disagreed all had different ideas about what was actually causing the warming. —Zach Shahan]

Okay, maybe a fringe theory is correct. But only a complete fool would bet his planet on it.

Years ago, President Ronald Reagan was faced with the problem of the growing hole in the ozone layer. I was told that he weighed two questions: (1) What would the cost of action be, if scientists are wrong? And (2) What would the cost of inaction be, if they are right? When he understood the answers to those questions, he decided to face dealing with the problem by eliminating the chemicals causing the hole in the ozone layer. That turned out to be a wise move.

We could approach climate change the same way. What would the cost be of eliminating use of fossil fuels if the dominant theory is wrong? With a fair amount of research on the subject, I could guess that we would save a heap of money going to cheaper energy sources and eliminating a lot of health problems. The amount of money needed for renewable generating capacity should not hold us back, because some investment, possibly greater, is needed to replace old generating plants anyway.

On the other hand, what would be the cost of failing to eliminate fossil fuels if the dominant theory is right? I am not sure I could imagine where we could go with that, but there are learned people who would have us consider the destruction of our society, and possibly our species, as possible outcomes.

Honestly, I have no doubt that the bunch of climate deniers currently trying to gain power in Washington, D.C. are nowhere near as smart as President Reagan, a man well loved, but not for being especially smart. And I believe there are some rascals in the world of commerce who are willing to take advantage of the climate denying politicians. Reagan can be faulted in some ways, as we all can, but I have never doubted that he loved his country. Today’s bunch? Well…

We do have one problem that President Reagan did not have. Today, there is a number of enormously wealthy companies who seem to have taken the cynical view that the short-term benefit to them for extraction and sale of products that cause climate change is more important than the condition of the world when their great-grandchildren are trying to live with the consequences of their actions.

I wonder what the officers of fossil fuel companies think when they pay lobbyists to push legislators into supporting their misanthropic, anti-environmental causes. Do they think they are right and nearly all climate scientists are wrong, just because they believe that anthropomorphic climate change is a theory?

Or is it something else? Possibly they have a different viewpoint, and it is both more realistic and more cynical. I wonder how many officers of fossil fuel companies would be willing to write a letter to their great-grandchildren saying this:

“If you ever wonder whether I thought about you as I was making all my money, I want you to have the answer. I thought about all the money I could make, and I considered whether you would suffer as a result. I decided the money was more important.”

I do not wish to be among those whose grandchildren curse their memory.

Featured image from NOAA, via Unsplash.


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George Harvey

A retired computer engineer, George Harvey researches and writes on energy and climate change, maintains a daily blog (geoharvey.com), and has a weekly hour-long TV show, Energy Week with George Harvey and Tom Finnell. In addition to those found at CleanTechnica, many of his articles can be found at greenenergytimes.org.

George Harvey has 80 posts and counting. See all posts by George Harvey