Skepticism: No Longer Intellectual Virtue

In the face of another diplomatic disappointment in Cancun’s climate change talks, we approach the end of the hottest year on record. While experts again try to ring alarm bells, our media still gives voice to the pseudo-intellectual pursuit of climate scepticism. Perhaps while Rome burned, some bravely questioned the finer qualities of fire. Perhaps on Easter Island, as the last trees fell, some elders courageously debated the necessity of wood. Today, our own Margaret Wente and Rex Murphy sing in tune with the likes of Glenn Beck, sincerely believing their scepticism to be a form of intellectual virtue. It is not.

Angel Merkel calls the low-carbon economy the ‘third industrial revolution’. A new energy Internet supplied by clean energy sources like biomass, wind solar, hydro and geothermal is spread across the continent. There are new storage technologies like compressed air and low-friction flywheels. Large-scale efficiencies make economies more competitive. If Canada gets it right, we’ll sell this stuff to the rest of the world.

The transition to a low-carbon economy brings huge economic opportunity, but it is not optional.

While Wente asks whether humans can control the climate, global average ocean temperatures hit record highs. More ominously, as the oceans have warmed since the 1950s, plankton levels have dropped 40%. As goes plankton, so goes the rest of oceanic life.

Scepticism becomes a vice when hammering a broad consensus of expert opinion warning of existential danger. The policy commitments demanded by climate science need broad public support. Sceptics sap that support without intellectual justification.

We have known since the early 19th century that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, insulating the earth like a blanket. In the 1960’s, the US National Science Advisor warned the build up of carbon dioxide would cause catastrophic overheating. In 1989 Margaret Thatcher declared to the UN General Assembly that climate change was the single greatest threat to our very existence. The Iron Lady, no shill of the environmental movement, was scientifically literate.

The same cannot be said of those who scoff at the accumulated wisdom of our scientific elite. All National Academies of Science in the developed world have endorsed the basic premises of human-caused climate change. The only scientific argument remaining is not about whether it is real or imagined, but whether the results will be catastrophic or merely disastrous.

Yet untrained sceptics assure us the dangers of which the scientists speak may not be real.

To Murphy, public acceptance of expert opinion on climate change amounts to religious indoctrination. Wente asserts that climate cannot be controlled by human behaviour. Beck argues it’s a Communist conspiracy. The purported dangers are at best hypothetical constructions of a few scientists, at worst mere monsters under our bed easily dismissed by a dose of adult scepticism. The sceptics explicitly cast themselves against the orthodoxy of our time, as noble knights standing up to society’s pressure to conform.

This is nonsense. Climate change is not like politics or a painting. The opinions of laypersons, are not relevant. It’s hard science, and the truth of the matter has been settled by those qualified to make the judgment.

But we’re far past the complex theoretical models now. Ask an Australian farmer what climate change means. It’s the longest drought in human memory. To a BC forester, it’s the pine-beetle destroying their timber. Lloyd’s of London, like most insurance companies, faces escalating costs due to extreme weather events. Russia’s scorching summer that temporarily ended grain exports, and the floods in Pakistan, are but appetizers of the main event.

The pseudo-intellectual pursuit of climate scepticism delays Canada’s participation in a new economy, and it makes it harder to have that public and adult conversation we so desperately need. The one about how volatile nature has become, and how angry it will get.

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2 Responses to Skepticism: No Longer Intellectual Virtue

  1. greengrift says:

    >Yet untrained believers assure us the dangers of which the scientists speak are real.

    Sorry Tom, but your obvious financial interest is to exaggerate the findings of scientists. Scientists who adhere to the true methods of science must always remain skeptical, otherwise science would never advance.

    I'm sure most honest scientists cringe at the thought that their work is being used to justify spending trillions of dollars on harebrained schemes to prevent the temperature from going up an additional 0.2 degrees by the end of this century.

    If Merkel is right about the low-carbon economy, it will come when real breakthroughs are achieved, not through subsidies to ethanol, biofuels, industrial wind and solar pv. Such ill-considered diversion of society's resources only sets us back.

  2. Anonymous says:

    >I'm not talking about scientists being skeptical – of course they are – it's about non-scientists believing their skepticism amounts to intellectual virtue.

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