Climate Change: Debate and Trust

Recently a member of my family was surprised when I informed her that there was no debate about global warming and that it was merely the consequence of basic physics. The widely held belief in the community that there is a debate about climate science is a myth. For decades the man on the street has taken his cue from the conservative media heavily influenced by the vested interests. Taking advice on climate change from the likes of Bolt and co in the Murdoch press is like having your local garbo give advice on a heart operation. Unfortunately it is mainly bad news we don’t want to hear. So we rationalise our mistake with personal (anecdotal) weather accounts – almost invariably wrong. The media sow the seeds of doubt and do it very well.

The truth is that the science has been ‘in’ on man-made global warming for more than thirty years. The ‘greenhouse effect’ is as established a part of the scientific lexicon as anything can be. I apologise for repeating myself but to deny the greenhouse effect is like denying gravity or the shape of the earth. If we increase greenhouse gases in the atmosphere the temperature of the planet will rise. Humanity has been doing just that since the industrial revolution and the planet’s temperature has increased by an average one degree over the last 100 years.

The statistic commonly bandied around is that 97.5% of climate scientists consider that global warming is happening and is man-made. This figure comes from a study by John Cook who describes in detail here how scientists arrive at a consensus on any particular issue – in particular examining, testing and retesting various hypothesis until only one remains. He notes: “But the testing period must come to an end. Gradually, the focus of investigation narrows down to those avenues that continue to make sense – that still add up – and quite often a good theory will reveal additional answers, or make powerful predictions, that add substance to the theory.” So it is with climate science.

This aspect of science should never have been politicised. Mostly we just accept best science as a normal part of our lives as in the case of medicine. We take the advice of our doctor and if there is a problem we may get a second or third opinion.  But do we go to one hundred before we find a diagnosis we like or agree with? There are various analogies about things we do based on trust and experience. We fly and trust the expertise of airline pilots.  We use a mobile phone without understanding its inner works.

Who then to trust? If we accept the basic physics and the building evidence from various sources which all substantially support one another then we can safely conclude that the global warming is real and that most of the news will be bad. Conversely we can also conclude that any article, news item or other information source that denies or questions the basic physics is to, say the least, suspect and almost certainly wrong. Some years ago when speaking to a group on the Nungurner foreshore I pleaded with them “to trust the scientists, not the politicians”. To the pollies we can add a small, but influential, number of mostly unqualified journalists.