Climate change advocates impugn anyone and everyone that so much as raises an eyebrow over the various claims about climate change with the words “Climate Change Denier”. The trouble with this, however, is that it is inflammatory speech and is wholly inaccurate. It is inflammatory because it evokes the concept of a “Holocaust Denier”. This is not unintentional. It is inaccurate because there are no actual Climate Change Deniers. Well, OK, there might be but at the same level of volume as there are “Flat Earthers”. The problem is that the language is not correct, there is a deeper meaning to what is being referenced in calling someone that pejorative term that is not born out by the actual language. Understanding this will hopefully produce some more meaningful discussions around climate change.
Here is why there are no “climate change deniers”. Because everyone knows that climate change happens. Anyone that understands that there has been an ice age on Earth at some point in the past fundamentally grasps the concept that the Earth’s climate changes over time. It is fundamental. Therefore, calling someone a “climate change denier” is inaccurate because no one actually fits the ostensible meaning of those three words. That being said, that is not what is really intended by those three words in the first place.
What is actually meant when someone utters those words is that the person in question may not agree with the statement that the Earth is currently warming at a rate that is greater than the average, that this will continue indefinitely and that the primary cause for this is anthropogenic (caused by mankind’s actions), specifically from carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels. You see, this is a very different thing than that someone simply denies that there is climate change because calling someone a “climate change denier” automatically makes that individual look foolish because, of course, the Earth’s climate changes over time. No reasonable individual would argue otherwise. But, if an individual is skeptical about any of the three real meanings behind that term, then they are labeled a “climate change denier” and made out to be a fool when there are legitimate reasons to at least be a little skeptical of at least one or all of those three underlying premises.
First, we must consider whether the current temperature increases are greater than average. The reality is, science does not know. There is no generally accepted “average” amount of temperature change. Why is that the case? Simple, we didn’t have satellites and other things measuring temperatures and CO2 levels hundreds, thousands or millions of years ago. Since modern temperature measurements didn’t begin until the 1970’s, scientists rely on archaeological evidence, glaciers, vegetation, pollen analysis, dendroclimatology (tree rings), ice cores, animal remains and fossils and sea level changes. This NOAA report does a decent job of trying to obfuscate the fact that there is no consensus “average” temperature change but proves this fact unequivocally. The report effectively states that only the last 150 years are recorded by instrumentation and that everything past that is inference and that “significant uncertainties remain”. So, could one be legitimately skeptical of the alarm over today’s temperature increases? Absolutely. If we do not know with certainty what an average is or really have no idea if temperature increases/decreases of similar magnitude have occurred in the past (and we don’t), then why couldn’t a reasonable individual be skeptical?
The IPCC’s fourth report, AR4, states that the Earth has warmed by 0.74 degrees Celsius from 1906-2005 OK, so considering that modern global temperature measurements did not begin until the 1970’s, could one also be skeptical of this figure? The answer here again is yes. It would be reasonable to be skeptical of temperature measurements made in 1906 as these would either be by devices that may not be calibrated to today’s standards or temperatures arrived at indirectly or through inference.
Perhaps more troubling, AR4 specifies that over the 50 years from 1956-2005 that the rate of increase is 1.3 degrees Celsius per 100 years or essentially 0.65 degrees Celsius over those 50 years. This is used to raise alarm over the current rate of climate change. Now, could one be skeptical of this? The answer again is, sure. And the reason, again, is that we do not know for certain whether any comparable such temperature change has occurred in the past or even what an “average” is. In addition, this presupposes looking into the future and assuming that the next 50 years will continue this increase of 1.3 degrees per Celsius. Predicting the future is really hard, so might one question or be skeptical of this? Sure.
Thus far, the analysis has shown that there are legitimate questions that could be raised by a reasonable, fair-minded individual regarding the first two premises that underlie the phrase “climate change denier”, that the Earth is currently warming at a rate that is greater than the average and that this will continue indefinitely. The primary arguments that underpin such reasonable skepticism being that methods of inferring temperatures beyond the last 50 years or so are indirect and potentially imprecise and that it is difficult to predict the future. Let us now turn our attention to the third underlying premise, that the primary cause for this climate change is anthropogenic.
First, can one be skeptical of an anthropogenic cause on the basis that there are other potential explanations? Sure, the list of natural causes of climate change includes orbital variations, solar output, volcanism and plate tectonics. The list of natural carbon dioxide emissions includes the oceans, animal and plant respiration, decomposition of organic matter, forest fires, and emissions from volcanic eruptions. If one just looks at human population growth, one sees that there are over 3 times as many humans alive today than in 1950. Hmm. Double the warming from 1950 to today versus the previous 50 years relating to double the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and 3 times the human population. Could one not reasonably conclude that the natural respiration of that many more humans is actually the main contributor to the increase in CO2 levels and thus the warming trend being experienced? Or, considering that we can only approximate the CO2 generated by ocean-atmosphere exchange, animal and plant respiration and soil respiration and decomposition, which account for about 750 billion metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, what if we are off in our estimates and those emissions are closer to a trillion metric tons of CO2 emissions?
Second, and perhaps more interestingly, the primary reason given for establishing an anthropogenic cause for climate change is a consensus among scientists. This consensus is established through a review of peer-reviewed, scientific papers that either support or deny this anthropogenic cause. Current estimates are that around 97% of such recent papers support an anthropogenic cause for climate change. Now, here is the problem with this. Scientific consensus has not only been wrong in the past, but spectacularly wrong in the past. Consider the following:
- Prior to Einstein’s general theory of relativity, a magical “luminiferous aether” was considered by scientific consensus as the medium for the propagation of light. Einstein was actually still trying to work the aether into the theory of relativity as late as 1924.
- Prior to the 1970’s, the scientific consensus for macro geologic processes was not plate tectonics.
- Prior to the 1980’s, the scientific consensus was that there was no such thing as dark energy and dark matter. Scientific consensus was that we could see 100% of the matter and energy in the universe. We now understand that visible matter and energy represent only a small fraction of the matter and energy in the universe.
- Prior to the 1980’s, scientific consensus would tell you that sauropods lived in lakes and that dinosaurs were cold blooded and extinct. We now understand these things to be entirely false.
These are just four examples of where scientific consensus was not only wrong but spectacularly wrong. Additional examples are numerous, including the consensus scientific beliefs in phlogiston, a flat Earth, an Earth-centric solar system, that there was no such thing as evolution, the “plum pudding” model of the atom and on and on and on. Science, particularly young science, tends to get things wrong. Spectacularly wrong. And climate science is at most 100 years old but in reality more like 30-50 years old. Physics, astronomy, paleontology and other sciences are orders of magnitude more mature and all of them have gotten things spectacularly wrong and likely have some consensus scientific opinions today that will eventually be proven wrong.
In conclusion, the term “climate change denier” is pejorative and wholly inaccurate. It is used to attack individuals that might reasonably question underlying assumptions and premises of a very young science. There is no reason for this and it is fairly unprecedented in the history of science for science to have become so political and descend into the realm of personal attacks and a concerted attempt to belittle opposing scientific views. The presumptions that underlie the term “climate change denier” can be legitimately questioned by a reasonable individual because the science, particularly in terms of historical climate change rates, is inexact. Finally, this reliance upon the supposed infallibility of this consensus science is ill-placed because scientific consensus has repeatedly been shown to not only be wrong, but to be spectacularly wrong in the past.