By Dr. Tilak K. Doshi
N. Angel Pinillos, professor of philosophy at Arizona State University, opines in the New York Times about “what philosophy tells us about climate change sceptics”.
As his starting premise, he accepts the well-debunked “97% of scientists believe in climate change” meme. He then combines it with a Stanford poll that states that of those surveyed, the majority (61%) “overwhelmingly agree that the federal government needs to take significant action to curb global warming”. With an objective “97% consensus” and a survey of attitudes, Prof Pinillos constructs an argument that seems to suggest that climate change sceptics, most often conservatives, seems to suffer from some delusion of probabilities.
According to Prof Pinillos, climate sceptics “understand that 97 percent of scientists disagree with them, but they focus on the very tiny fraction of holdouts. As in the lottery case, this focus might be enough to sustain their skepticism. We have seen this pattern before. Anti-vaccine proponents, for example, aware that medical professionals disagree with their position, focus on any bit of fringe research that might say otherwise.”
This sleight of hand, comparing climate sceptics to anti-vaccine proponents focusing on “fringe research” seems a dead giveaway, even for a philosopher. Prof Pinillos goes on to cite “social psychology” literature to support the contention that “climate change deniers tend to espouse conservative views, which suggests that party ideology is partly responsible for these attitudes.”
Rather than launch into a fruitless general discussion on “party ideology”, lets agree on terms, as in all good philosophical inquiry: What does Prof Pinillos actually mean by “sceptic”? The 97% meme is ably brought to its essentials by Matt Ridley, a prominent “lukewarmer”:
· I am not claiming that carbon dioxide is not a greenhouse gas; it is.
· I am not saying that its concentration in the atmosphere is not increasing; it is.
· I am not saying the main cause of that increase is not the burning of fossil fuels; it is.
· I am not saying the climate does not change; it does.
· I am not saying that the atmosphere is not warmer today than it was 50 or 100 years ago; it is.
· There is no consensus that climate change is going to be dangerous. Even the IPCC says there is a range of possible outcomes, from harmless to catastrophic. I’m in that range: I think the top of that range is very unlikely. But the IPCC also thinks the top of its range is very unlikely.
Perhaps no one informed Prof Pinillos, as Mr. Ridley points out, that the “supposed 97% consensus, based on a hilariously bogus study by John Cook, refers only to the proposition that climate change is real and partly man-made. Nobody has ever shown anything like a consensus among scientists for the proposition that climate change is going to be dangerous”.
One can paraphrase Mr. Ridley, as many other prominent sceptics, in the following arguments that have more or less been the standard sceptic’s (and not necessarily the optimist’s) position:
Most scientists would agree that the climate changes, and has done so for aeons. Many scientists would agree that man may have had something to do with current trends in climate. But few scientists agree on the relative roles of man versus natural variability. The latter include a large number of fundamental climate variables such as the tilt of the earth, its elliptical orbit around the sun, the sunspot cycle and its impact on cosmic waves and cloud formation on earth, atmospheric and ocean currents and tectonic perturbations, etc., that have been operating since the birth of the planet.
And even fewer scientists would agree that climate change is “dangerous” in any clear actionable sense, and that we need to go all out to curtail fossil fuels, change our lifestyles, “downsize” (or in the case of developing economics, to grow slower) and impose enormously costly anti-fossil fuel policies on the basis of an impending potential catastrophe which has known probabilistic outcomes and which can be credibly acted upon by rational policy wonks working for politicians of the day.
“The vaunted scientific consensus around climate change,” notes Daniel Sarewitz, (interestingly also a professor from Arizona State University) “applies only to a narrow claim about the discernible human impact on global warming. The minute you get into questions about the rate and severity of future impacts, or the costs of and best pathways for addressing them, no semblance of consensus among experts remains.” Nevertheless, as Daniel notes, climate models “spew out endless streams of trans-scientific facts that allow for claims and counterclaims, all apparently sanctioned by science, about how urgent the problem is and what needs to be done.”
The other leg of Prof Pinillos’ argument rests on reference to a July 2018 Stanford survey which supposedly conveys the widespread support of those surveyed for “a great deal or a lot of action” by the government to combat climate change. The same poll, it should be noted, finds that “just a bare majority, 51 percent, foresees a very serious problem to the United States if nothing is done to reduce global warming in the future”.
But if it is a question of surveys, then where does one place the 2018 New York Times survey which ranks “climate ‘worry” at the bottom of 18 reasons for not having kids? What about the Gallup poll in which Americans do not even mention global warming as a problem among over 30 problems cited? What about the 2016 UN global poll which surveys people’s greatest concerns, and which put climate change at the bottom of concerns ranging from education and jobs to health and honest government (and some 15 other concerns)?
Polls and surveys can be tricky to interpret. As social scientists and philosophers might well argue, and rightly so, the problems with cognitive dissonance and “talk is cheap” virtue-signalling incentives might suggest that we be more wary of opinion surveys and polls.
It is also odd to put more weight on a survey than on political events that happen around us on the global stage on a regular basis. “Putting your mouth where your money is” may seem more relevant to actual societal outcomes than hypothetical surveys of what people say they are willing to do.
Perhaps one only needs to remind Prof Pinillos about the widespread riots and mass actions by the “Yellow Vest” activists who have vowed to bring the French capital Paris to a standstill, prolonging their campaign of disruption to force President Emmanuel Macron to ease climate change-focused fuel taxes. Or perhaps he needs reminding that the first act of the new Ontario provincial government led by “Canada’s version of Donald Trump”, Doug Ford, was to “fight any efforts by the Federal government to impose a carbon tax on the people of Ontario in court”. Or perhaps we need to turn to Australia for the lesson provided by the Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull’s humiliating backdown over his efforts to seal Australia’s Paris Agreement pledges with actual legislation. He was ultimately forced to turn over leadership to his party’s conservative faction which called for higher investments in the country’s coal sector as well as energy policies to lower Australians’ electricity bills.
It may well be that people vote with their pocket-books, whatever those nice-sounding surveys might convey to inform one’s philosophical disposition. And it may well be that climate sceptics are not the products of “party ideology” and a distorted sense of probabilities. They may just be hard working scientists, working at competing hypotheses and aware always that “consensus” is not a scientific concept, it is a political one.
Dr. Tilak K. Doshi
The writer is a consultant in the energy sector, and is the author of “Singapore in a Post-Kyoto World: Energy, Environment and the Economy” published by the Institute of South-east Asian Studies (Singapore, 2015).