Some say climate change represents the biggest challenge ever faced by human civilization. Others say climate change is a hoax invented by self-serving environmentalists. Some say an overwhelming "scientific consensus" agrees that climate change is a serious problem caused by human activity and that it requires a global response. Others say the science is "unsettled."
How can a citizen -- or the laymen who govern--know which side to support? Well, here's a fact:
A study published recently by the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences identified --by generally accepted methods--the leading scientists in the study of climate. These leading experts--the top 5%-to--10% in their field--were asked whether climate change is a serious man-made problem that needs to be addressed. The results: 97% said yes. Only 3% said no.
Clearly, there is scientific consensus. That does not mean that there are no uncertainties. But 97% is overwhelming agreement.
And since when have we acted against possible threats only when there is certainty? In the Cold War, there was no certainty about Soviet intentions or capabilities, but our country took actions, costing hundreds of billions of dollars, based on "worst-case scenarios." And a family's breadwinner is expected to buy life insurance, even if the actuarial tables say there's only a small chance he'll die in the coming year and leave his family in dire condition.
We protect against threats that are less probable than what the scientific consensus is telling us about climate change.
A statement was recently issued jointly by well over a dozen of the premier U.S. scientific organizations. It read, in part:
Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is
occurring, and rigorous scientific research demonstrates that the
greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver.
These conclusions are based on multiple independent lines of evidence,
and contrary assertions are inconsistent with an objective assessment of
the vast body of peer-reviewed science. Moreover, there is strong
evidence that ongoing climate change will have broad impacts on
society, including the global economy and on the environment.
The organizations making this statement included the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Meteorological Society, and the American Geophysical Union.
Clearly, science is speaking in a loud --almost unanimous--voice.
There is that dissenting 3 percent. These scientists, outstanding in their field, presumably have respectable reasons for dissenting from the consensus of the other 97 percent.
But what about the rest of us? For us non-experts, there is no responsible choice other than to credit the overwhelming consensus. There are times in the history of science when the great majority are wrong, but much more often the majority of those who know the most are right and the dissenters are mistaken.
Given the odds, and the possible consequences, how can we laymen justify betting that the tiny minority is right in this case?
The conclusion is inescapable: There is no honest way for any non-expert --including our political leaders--to side with the dissenters.
When a non-expert rejects the scientific consensus, dishonesty can take three forms:
1) There are those who knowingly deceive others. We have seen how the tobacco industry knowingly worked to create doubt in order to protect its profits. Corporations far richer and more powerful than tobacco companies have a financial interest in Americans disbelieving the science of climate change.
2) There are those who are deceived by those who know better. They themselves may be sincere, but their beliefs are the fruit of the dishonesty of others.
3) And there are those who choose to believe what they wish to believe. Just as a smoker might not want to kick a difficult addiction, so also many people in a society addicted to the forms of energy that fuel climate change may not want to adjust their way of life. And so also will some ideologues seek to deny realities that would require them to adjust their worldview. However unconsciously, desire can overcome an honest appraisal of the facts.
Although there is no honest way for the American people or their leaders to dismiss the scientific consensus, half the new Republicans in Congress deny that climate change is a problem. And most of the Republican contenders for president take positions at odds with the scientific consensus. Polls show that only 38% of Republicans think there's solid evidence that the earth is warming (Pew) and that almost three-fourths of Republicans don't believe that atmospheric CO2 warms the planet (Harris).
This, unfortunately, is only one of many ways in which today's Republican Party is in thrall to falsehood.
As a candidate for Congress, I yearn for the truth to prevail again in our politics--on the issue of climate change as for all the other challenges that we face.
Science has proven itself to be humankind's most powerful tool for learning the truth about a whole spectrum of matters. The issues of what's happening to the earth's climate, why it is happening, and what will be the consequences for our civilization if we do not make adjustments are precisely the kinds of questions that science is well-suited to answer.
As responsible people, we must honestly confront the choices we face and weigh the consequences of our actions.
Yet we as a society are doing little to meet this challenge.
If we continue on this irresponsible path, with its possibly disastrous consequences, how will future generations ever forgive us?