Ocean current visualization courtesy NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Having sex leads to having babies.
This is an indisputable fact on which 100 percent of biologists agree. But if more people have more sex, does it therefore follow that there will be a global surge in baby-making?
Well, no. It’s more complicated than that. The gender of the people having sex with one another makes a difference. So do their ages. So does their access to, and use of, contraceptives. Even whether either of the participants is already pregnant can affect the outcome. If people are having sex more frequently but a pregnancy is already in progress, no additional babies are expected.
This example illustrates the core of the debate about climate science.
It is not a question of whether the climate is changing. Everybody knows it is, and always has. It is not a question of whether human activity influences climate change. It is unreasonable to believe that there is no impact at all, given the number of humans on the planet and the industrial scale of our activities. Climate scientists all agree that certain gases promote the retention of heat in Earth’s lower atmosphere; that’s not the question either.
What climate alarmists do when they accuse climate skeptics of being anti-science is akin to claiming that people who do not accept that more sex automatically results in more babies are denying a fundamental biological fact. They aren’t; they simply recognize that the world comprises far more moving parts than a simplistic cause-and-effect argument allows.
Climate is influenced by everything from cloud cover and snow to ocean currents and sunspots. Any climate model must incorporate a huge array of assumptions about the current and future state of hundreds of variables. Few of these assumptions are clearly stated, and almost none are subject to testing and measurement. Predictions, after all, cannot be measured in advance.
What we can measure is how a model’s past predictions have held up when compared with reality. Those who warn of impending climate doom say their models have accurately predicted past climate changes, but that’s like accurately predicting past stock market moves. It is neither terribly useful nor terribly impressive on its own. When we look at predictions for what was then the future but is now the past, a clearer picture comes into view. Since the climate debate gained political prominence a few decades ago, models have generally greatly overestimated its effect to date.
The aforementioned variables could be to blame, of course. An article that ran in The Guardian last summer described the findings of a group of scientists who compared climate models’ accuracy in global surface temperatures to how accurately that model reflected ocean cycles like El Nino. Some believe that if you correct for such variables, the climate models can, indeed, be termed “accurate.” But that assumes that ocean cycles like El Nino are a constant, whose frequency and extremes can be accurately assumed in a long-term climate model. Yet it seems unreasonable to simply presume that other changes in global climate will have no impact on El Nino. They probably will; we just don’t know in what direction or to what degree. A model whose predictions are only accurate in hindsight is not terribly useful when making decisions about the future.
Rather than acknowledge the uncertainty built into their climate modeling and the spotty track record of the models to date, climate alarmists attack the motives of those who question their science, and particularly the corporate funding of climate research that diverges from their preferred talking points.
The New York Times recently reported on documents showing evidence of such funding. Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, who holds a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering, has often written and spoken on his claims that variations in solar energy explain much of the recent rise in global temperatures. The Times article says that Soon accepted over $1.2 million in funding over the last decade from corporate sources in the fossil-fuel industry, and that several papers he has published omitted a disclosure of the potential conflict of interest created by his funding source.
Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University, told the Times, “Willie Soon is playing a role in a certain kind of political theater.” Oreskes is the co-author of “Merchants of Doubt,” a book that purports to expose corporate campaigns to create doubt among the public by paying scientists to publish dishonest results or to ignore inconvenient data.
It is fair to point out the financial support, and resulting potential conflicts of interest, for climate researchers. But if you want to dismiss all corporate-funded science out of hand as untrustworthy, we may as well shut down all the pharmacies and pray we don’t get sick. Nearly all modern pharmacology is the product of corporate funded research.
What is unfair is to tarnish the reputation of skeptical climate scientists with guilt by innuendo, comparing them to tobacco company shills who denied the links between smoking and premature death. (Oreskes’ book makes this comparison explicit, including a chapter on the dangers of smoking side-by-side with a chapter on global warming.) Nobody needed to model the links between smoking and untimely death, however. Those links were there for all to see in the mortality data compiled by insurance companies and census takers.
Climate skeptics do not doubt what has already happened. They are questioning the certainty with which predictions of what will happen are being marketed to policy makers and the public. What “Merchants of Doubt,” the Times article about Soon, and other rhetoric like them is selling is also doubt: doubt about a side of a debate the climate alarmists are not winning when their past predictions based on computer simulations are compared to actual results in the world around us.