Can we know the climate? Climate change denial and the role of experts | Alexander Ruser

26 November 2018

From my office at Agder University I'm overlooking a parking lot with a small score of trees in the back. Although the leaves have all turned yellow and red, temperatures are still mild, my window is open.

It has been an “unusually warm” autumn, especially for Norway. Everybody is saying that.

The weather has been rather “unusual,” hasn’t it? The Summer was unusually hot, the latest storm unusually strong, floods and droughts seem to be more frequent (how unusual!), not to forget the hail just a few weeks ago….

But can we attribute these unusual conditions to climate change? With reports like the most recent Special Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on the 1,5C target painting a dark picture of a changing climate this question becomes more important.

But what can we know about “the climate,” what about “climate change”? Or, perhaps, we should start with a slightly more provocative question: Do we need to know about the climate? Maybe not. According to the media, political debate on climate change is pitting “climate believers” against “climate sceptics” or “climate deniers,” leaving “knowledge of the climate” to “the experts.” Climate politics seems to be more a matter of trust than a question of how much one knows about the climate.

Can we know the climate?

Let's start with the most fundamental question: What can we know about the climate? Not that much if we follow the official definition given by IPCC:

Climate in a narrow sense is usually defined as the “average weather,” or more rigorously, as the statistical description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant quantities over a period of time ranging from months to thousands of years. The classical period is 3 decades, as defined by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). These quantities are most often surface variables such as temperature, precipitation, and wind. Climate in a wider sense is the state, including a statistical description, of the climate system. (Source)

Knowing about the climate involves reading statistics and comparing “averages” of a pre-defined set of variables. This means that “the climate,” unlike the weather, isn’t directly observable but has to be deducted from long-term observation and statistical calculation. In consequence, “climate change” is also nothing but a deviance from these averages. Climate change becomes visible in charts and graphs, in time-series and longitudinal data sets. Sometimes these graphs themselves can “stand in” for an experience of climate change. A figure displaying the ups and downs (and then a dramatic “up”) of hemispherical mean temperature for the past 500+ years, published by Mann, Bradley and Hughes in Nature in 1998 drew a lot of attention becoming widely known as the “hockey stick”:

Figure 1: The original “hockey stick” graph: Mann, Bradley & Hughes (1998)

The impression that global average temperatures are seriously “out of tune” was picked up upon and emphasized by former American Vice President Al Gore using an actual lift to explain the hockey stick graph in his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Scientific graphs like this as well as the iconic image of a polar bear desperately trying to climb up an ice floe epitomize climate change. Displaying the results of long-term observation in a particularly vivid way or highlighting one consequence of global climate change can raise awareness and lead to an “emotional attachment.” The blade of the hockey stick, formed by average temperatures spiking to new highs in the most recent past catches the imagination of readers, simplifying complex research and therefore making people believe in climate change. Of course, neither the “hockey stick” nor any other scientific evidence (let alone footage of a drowning polar bear) is directly “proving” climate change.

Do we know (climate) science?

To say that climate science has yet to find definitive proof for human-made climate change seems like a political statement made by some “climate sceptic.” Pointing towards the high levels of certainty that anthropogenic climate change is happening and “overwhelming consensus among climate scientists” would be the “standard defense” of a “climate believer.”

Interestingly enough, both sides are, in a way, right. It is true that climate scientists don’t have definitive proof of climate change happening. It is also true that all available evidence is pointing towards this conclusion. The problem with these kinds of debates is that they often conflate disputes about climate science with disagreement about climate politics. Climate science, like any other field of scientific inquiry adheres to the standard of good scientific practice and operates within the limits discussed by philosophers of science and connoisseurs of epistemological questions. These practices and principles demand that scientists test carefully formulated hypotheses, always aiming at falsifying them. Moreover, within the scientific community it is common knowledge that science will never arrive at absolute certainty and will never be able to provide final proof for a given hypothesis. In fact, as philosophers of science would point out, even the most tested and most trustworthy scientific findings, like, say, the law of gravity, rest upon the assumption (!) that the Universe operates on a set of universal, stable laws.

This philosophical understanding of science differs quite dramatically from our everyday-understanding of scientific research. Most people would argue that we can build and fly planes, for instance, because scientists have discovered the laws of aerodynamics and gravity. Infections can be treated with antibiotics, because scientists found out about their impact on certain bacteria. Likewise, we don’t feel like we're taking a risk when we board a plane because some universal laws of nature could stop working. If the plane is built and maintained properly, it will surely fly. We're not questioning general physics because we have good reasons to believe its main propositions aren’t true. However, if asked, physicists, medical researchers or any other scientists would use expressions much like climate scientists to point out that their theorizing and their empirical research rest upon not yet falsified, but falsifiable hypotheses. However, in contrast to climate science, “discoveries”, say in theoretical physics, rarely affect us directly (planes can still be built the same way for instance).

Climate scientists, on the other hand, discover “things” that do affect us directly. Climate scientists might claim that flying a plane increases the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, thus contributing to climate change. No wonder that they are constantly asked about their levels of confidence. People understandably want to know how “certain” they are that accepted ways of moving around, producing energy or making things have dangerous side-effects. When they “confess” that their findings - like any other scientific knowledge claims – are preliminary, reflecting a current state of research rather than an “absolute truth,” this relates to scientific as well as to non-scientific practices. Particularities of the scientific research process can thus become “excuses” for not changing “dangerous” behavior.

Particularities of scientific practice, normally of no interest to the wider public, can become “political ammunition” exactly because and when our everyday understanding of science tends to differ from what science is actually about and what it is capable of achieving. Why should I stop taking a cheap flight when climate scientists aren’t 100% sure about global warming, right?

Knowing or trusting? “Outlaw Experts” and Climate Skepticism

Maybe the question is not so much whether I should decrease my carbon footprint when scientists are “only” very confident that their findings point towards human-made climate change. Maybe the question should be whether I'd have to do so once science has established anthropogenic climate change “as a fact.” Would politics have to follow scientific discoveries? Scientific findings certainly do play a role in informing the public. For instance, medical research, after long years (and against various attempts to interfere with its findings), has now established that smoking causes serious illnesses, most prominently deadly lung cancer. There is not much disagreement about that “fact.” However, there is room for political debate about appropriate reaction. Should cigarettes be banned? Should the producers be forced to print warnings on their products? Should smoking be made illegal in public buildings? The problem here is that policies cannot (and from the perspective of democratic theory, should not) simply be “read off” scientific research. Even when some research discovery is accepted as a fact, political interpretations of appropriate answers or the urgency of the problem may differ.

This means that scientific facts don’t travel easily into the political realm. They rather have to be interpreted by “experts,” integrated into political advice or public rhetoric and related to political agendas. The findings of climate science, for instance, are communicated by a variety of actors. Science journalists write articles about major findings or interview researchers, research institutes and think tanks publish studies designed to inform about a particular aspect of climate change. Politicians, activists or corporations may draw upon certain findings to formulate a political agenda, form a movement or adjust a business plan. This means that climate science, as soon as it enters public debates, becomes the object of public discourses. Moreover, not only the content of research, but scientific authority itself becomes an asset in political disputes. Findings published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are backed by “leading international climate scientists” and should therefore be trusted, right?

Right. However, there are (still?) dissenters. Climate sceptics and deniers of human-made climate change. And they have their own experts. Especially in the United States a number of well-funded, highly visible and quite aggressive think tanks (such as the libertarian Heartland Institute or the Competitive Enterprise Institute) provide scientific (or: “scientific”?) information that contradicts the claims of “mainstream” climate science. Their “interpretation” or “translation” of climate science indeed differs remarkably from the majority of climate scientists. For instance, in May 2015 the Heartland Institute, on the basis of a dissenting interpretation of the 2014 IPCC report and a self-published report under the label “Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC),” declared the global warming crisis to be over, envisioning “a bright future for fossil fuels.” It is easy to dismiss attempts to give credibility to “counter-expertise” by establishing a bad copy of the IPCC and publishing fake studies. It is also tempting to discredit the people who actually believe in this counter-expertise as “misguided” and gullible. And it is true. The NIPCC/Heartland report has no scientific value whatsoever. It might have political importance, though. And offending climate sceptics for believing in the wrong things will not diminish this importance. Rather, as a look at history shows, discrediting dissenters can actually strengthen their determination. For instance, the “Anti-Vaccination Society of America”, formed in the late 19th century to oppose government programs to eradicate infectious diseases like small-pox by introducing large-scale vaccination programs, had been heavily attacked by representatives of the medical professions. Interestingly enough, members of this Anti-Vaccination Society of America adopted the derogatory labels portraying them as “half-mad” people (see below) in order to attract new members.

Figure 2: Advertising Material “Anti-Vaccination Society of America” 1902, Source: Wikimedia

But why should it be desirable to join a club of “half-mad,” “misguided” people? The case of the Anti-Vaccination Society is interesting because it reveals an important parallel of contemporary climate skeptics: both groups take pride in disagreeing with “mainstream science”; both groups consider themselves to be “mavericks”, boldly expressing their dissenting view and putting up with the insults of the majority. The ongoing attacks by “the mainstream” increases the appeal of “outlaw” experts. Climate-sceptic think tanks like the above-mentioned Heartland Institute portray themselves as targets of “misinformation,” criticism, and lies by mainstream (that is “left-wing”) scientists and media representatives. Moreover, leading figures like Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the conservative Competitive Enterprise, accept their role as “outsiders” wearing the title of “enemy #1 to the current climate change community” as a badge of honor. More importantly, being a declared enemy of the current climate change community makes Mr. Ebell more trustworthy for people who also experience nothing but hostility from the same community.

To understand the divide between climate believers and climate skeptics is to understand whom they trust. With neither of us being able to “experience” climate change first-hand and most of us incapable of understanding the complexity of climate science it all comes down to trusting (whatever) experts. However, there are more than just scientific experts around. Moreover, since science doesn’t translate easily into political programs there is a need for experts who translate scientific research, inform about implications, warn about challenges and offer solutions. This also implies that in political debates there is room for experts that offer interpretations or solutions that fit in with political preferences and normative convictions. Surely such interpretations wouldn’t hold in a scientific debate about climate change. In a political or public debate about climate science they can be the most influential. The first is concerned with justifying knowledge claims within the range of good scientific practice. The second is about political advantage and normative preferences. In the first scientific knowledge is an end, in the latter it is - at most – a means.

Both debates circle around what we know about the climate and climate change. However, as I have argued here it shouldn’t be assumed that anyone can get acquainted with the particularities of scientific research. This implies that “knowing about the climate” inevitably involves trusting some experts to communicate and translate the complex findings of complicated research. Moreover, however, influential climate science will never replace (debates about) climate politics. This means that climate science will not only be the object but also the plaything of political debates. Policymakers, think tank staffers, consultants and activist can “use” and “abuse” knowledge to back political preferences and set the agenda. No scientific discovery is going to change this. No scientific evidence can settle the political dispute.

Snow, finally

I was busy last week, planning meetings for the upcoming semester, among other things. As a result, it took me three days to complete this text. In the meantime, temperatures dropped, it even started to snow. Had difficulties to cycle in this morning, gloves all wet, hands ice-cold: Is climate change a hoax?

Further Reading

Ruser, Alexander (2018) “Knowledge and Climate” in: Alexander Ruser Climate Politics and the Impact of Think Tanks. Scientific Expertise in Germany and the US. Palgrave: 11-42.

[Blogpost received 31 October 2018; published 26 November 2018. The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this text belong solely to the author.]

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Image: Federico del Bene (public domain)