Emotional Warning

In a talk on “Scientific Skepticism” sponsored by Stanford in Government in November, Dr. Fred Singer sparked a heated debate as he combated the widespread view that humans are causing climate change. Meanwhile, a mostly indignant audience exchanged glances of frustration and disbelief, bubbling with counterarguments they did not have the opportunity to express. One audience member became accusatory, demanding to know whether Singer also rejected other established scientific results, such the role of ultraviolet rays in causing melanoma. His implication was that Dr. Singer’s stance was unscientific, and almost blasphemous.

Although the audience members likely possessed valid arguments that Dr. Singer did not address, their emotionalism represented an unscientific method of considering the science behind global warming. Dr. Singer affirms in an article in Imprimis entitled “Global Warming: Man-Made or Natural?” that science does not progress based on a “show of hands” but rather through scientific “evidence.” He points out that scientific advances often come from a minority that challenges the majority view, or the scientific consensus. The term “consensus” is a political rather than a scientific term, as John Kay writes in an article appearing in the Financial Times entitled “Science is the pursuit of the truth, not consensus.”

Dr. Singer, who has served on multiple high-level state and federal advisory panels and is now President of the Science and Environmental Policy Project, asserted that scientists agree that global warming is occurring; they disagree as to whether or not this change is anthropogenic. He referred to “unstoppable global change,” mentioning that cycles of warming and cooling have occurred throughout earth’s history; in the period from 1940 to 1975, the climate was cooling and people were afraid of a coming Ice Age. He further affirmed that the pattern of greenhouse warming predicted by computer models don’t match observed patterns, overstating the human-produced greenhouse gas contributions to climate change. A possible explanation for this overstatement is that water vapor feedback could be negative rather than positive, reducing the effect of carbon dioxide. Solar variability could also play an important role in controlling climate. In observing the correlation between temperature increase and carbon dioxide emissions, Dr. Singer noted that temperature has historically increased before the rise in carbon dioxide levels. He went so far as to argue that a mildly warmer climate could be beneficial.

Other scientists could undoubtedly bring counterarguments to the stage. They would argue that cyclical warming and cooling cannot explain the current rise in temperature and that the presences of greenhouse gases account for the difference. They would add that computer models remain our best predictor of climate and that the effects of solar variability and water vapor remain uncertain. Dr. Singer himself admitted that scientists differ in their interpretations of the data regarding global warming.

These differences in interpretation among scientists, however, should be a call for an open-minded evaluation of alternate theories. Dr. Steven Hayward, senior fellow in Environmental Studies at the Pacific Research Institute argues in his movie “An Incovenient Truth… or Convenient Fiction?” that climate change is “one of the most complicated phenomena the world has ever studied” and mentions the presence of evidence which “confounds our grasp of the issue.” Despite the uncertainty in the evidence, he offers examples of how emotional and politicized the climate change issue has become, concluding that people have become either “alarmists” or “skeptics”; being uncertain is simply “bad faith.”

Emotionalism is easy to understand given the dire consequences portrayed of global warming. In Al Gore’s movie “An Inconvenient Truth,” he envisions glaciers melting, polar bears drowning, fatal heat waves, floods, droughts, the rise of invasive species and infectious diseases, among other expected catastrophes due to global warming. His persuasion techniques reflect those used in campaign adds, rooted strongly in emotional appeal. He suggests that taking action to prevent human-induced global warming has become a moral issue. A high court judge in the United Kingdom recently found that nine of Gore’s claims were exaggerated or erroneous, while agreeing with Gore’s overall message. His verdict again emphasizes the importance of questioning sources of data and the conclusions presented.

Assuming that even some of Gore’s predictions are true, the possibility that humans are causing global warming may merit a preemptive strike to cut greenhouse gases. In fact, developing alternate sources of energy would be beneficial for other reasons such as national security and pollution control, in addition to global warming. At the same time, policy decisions regarding global warming should be made taking into consideration all of the scientific evidence. Because radical policies to “correct” global warming could have enormous political and economic effects, considering all of the interpretations of the data becomes even more critical.

The problem with adopting an emotional stance toward the causes of global warming is that it prevents people from changing their opinion. The evidence, even if presented with hesitations and uncertainty, becomes incontrovertible fact, to be dealt with in only one way. It is possible that people are missing options by believing without question that human-produced greenhouse gases produce global warming and that cutting them will reverse it. Understanding the complexities and assumptions underlying the claims behind global warming introduces the possibility of other creative solutions. It means analyzing the issue from its basis in science rather than considering it through the film of an entrenched ideology.

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