By Lethbridge Herald Opinon on September 9, 2017.
Science points to
a need for policy decisions to deal with climate issues
Kent A. Peacock
DEPARTMENT OF PHILOSOPHY,
UNIVERSITY OF LETHBRIDGE
Last week Hurricane Harvey dumped over 50 cubic kilometres of water on a sadly unprepared Houston. Since then, Irma has ravaged several islands and is plowing toward Florida, with Jose in her wake to administer the double-tap. Meanwhile, over 1,000 people have died in southern Asia from flooding, while here in Alberta we swelter in stifling smoke and heat.
Are these events caused by global warming? Or are they just weather? After all, droughts, floods, storms and fires have been coming and going for a very long time. Climate scientists such as Michael Mann (in a recent op-ed in the Guardian) have been careful to explain that one cannot attribute any particular event (such as a wildfire or a storm) to climate change. The immediate causes of storms, droughts and floods are complex and often subject to rapid, unpredictable fluctuations.
However (and a big however), there is very good reason to think that the intensity and in some cases the frequency of such events are being increased by the global warming that the planet has already experienced, now more than one degree C (1.8 degree F) over pre-industrial times. Despite the complexity of climate the basic reason for this is simple: there is more heat than there used to be in the atmosphere and oceans and all that heat has to go somewhere. And go it will, whether or not there are people with their vulnerable infrastructures in the way.
But when so many people are suffering, is it even polite to “play politics” by bringing up global warming at a time like this? This question rests on a deep misunderstanding of the nature of climate science, and indeed all science. Because the science of climate has policy implications, some of which are very obvious (such as that humanity must abandon the use of fossil fuels as soon as possible), people make the mistake of thinking that climate science is a political position. They think that it is advanced mainly or entirely for rhetorical reasons. Even some academics who should know better make this mistake.
Scientists are human; they are fallible and they have their loyalties and prejudices, their hopes and fears, like anyone else. However, they are also professionals. This means that they are trained, in simple terms, to tell the truth, to report what they have discovered even if it is disconcerting, inconvenient, unpopular or frightening. Some scientists are reluctant to discuss the policy implications of their work. Others (such as Professor Mann) are willing to speak out, often in the face of personal vilification. But when they report their scientific results they are simply doing their best (within the limits of human fallibility) to tell it like it is.
The visionary physicist David Bohm argued that science itself is a form of perception. Human sensation can be extended and made more acute by technology. We can use telescopes, satellites, deep-sea buoys, computers, ground-penetrating radar and a myriad other means to see what cannot be seen with the naked eye. Science is also a social institution with a long history. The scientific consensus that global warming is real and that it is caused almost entirely by human emissions of carbon dioxide is not a wild speculation by a few mavericks desperate to garner research grants or publicity. It has been built up on the basis of patient observations, calculations and cross-checks performed by thousands of scientists over many decades. It is not a political position, but just a perception. Could the perceived consensus be wrong? Of course! But are we willing to bet the whole farm on that slim chance? How lucky do we feel today?
The Great Leader in the White House recently proposed to cut $1 billion from the budget of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the U.S. agency whose job it is (among other things) to monitor climate and weather. The U.S. Senate, in a rare moment of clarity, refused to implement most of Mr. Trump’s cuts. Even they seem to realize that at a time like this, we need science more than ever. We need science not only to report on and predict ecological disasters as they unfold, but to help humanity find its way out of the jam we have gotten ourselves into. To ignore the perceptions of our scientists at a time like this would be like trying to drive in heavy traffic with our eyes closed. This is not recommended.
And what are the implications for Alberta? That is a discussion for another time. I will merely note that we now have a government in power that says that it will make its decisions about climate and energy policy on the basis of science. Let’s hold them to it.
You must be logged in to post a comment.