Cool Headedness about Global Warming

Posted: September 3, 2010 in Science
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Every once in a while I feel like ranting. This is one of those times. The object of my censure? Global warming. You read that right. I’m one of those people who actually questions whether, a) the earth is getting warmer and, b) whether humans are the cause of the warming. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get into the science or try to convince you. On the other hand, I do wish to point out what I believe are some fundamental fallacies in the debate.

I think it is critical that leaders in business, government and science take a stand against simplistic explanations and policy prescriptions that could be massively disruptive to our quality of life, now and in the future. Labelling as a “denier” someone who questions the policy prescriptions (some of which are decidedly moral in scope), or even the science, only serves to stigmatize people whose doubt is genuine and moves the debate further away from rational discourse about possible causes and consequences.

We’re bombarded by claims that the earth is getting dangerously warm, and will continue to do so for the next decades. We’re also being told that this warming is caused by humans’ excessive use of fossil fuels, because this causes us to spew too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, which means it has some part to play in keeping the temperature of Earth liveable, along with other greenhouse gases such as water vapour, methane and the nitrogen that makes up about 80 % of the atmosphere. To put things in perspective, the surface temperature of the planet would be about minus 18 Celsius were it not for the greenhouse effect.

We are told that there is a “scientific consensus” about anthropogenic global warming. There may indeed be a majority of climate scientists who think that the earth is getting warmer and that this may be caused by greenhouse gas emissions. But does that mean that there really is a consensus? That would imply that there is agreement on what is happening to the earth’s temperature over long timescales and this phenomenon’s implications for the atmosphere, biosphere, ice cover, oceans, continents, and humanity. My research leads me to the conclusion that there is actually very little scientific consensus about these matters. In fact, there seems to be healthy scientific debate, which is exactly the way things should be. I would go even further and assert that the concept of scientific consensus is bogus, because debate and disagreement are fundamental to science. If you take away the debate, doubt, and disagreement you get ideology.

There is also a principle in science that states that the simplest explanation for a phenomenon is usually the best and most accurate one. The hypothesis of anthropogenic global warming is indeed simple, but the explanation that is proffered must be weighed against competing theories. Just ask yourself this: If humans are causing global warming now, then what caused the glaciers to melt? Could there not be other theories of climate change that could explain the many climate changes in Earth’s history? There are scientists (usually not climatologists and more often geologists and astrophysicists) who have been proposing alternative hypotheses and theories for global warming which don’t necessarily involve human activity as the principal driver of climate change. They don’t say the latter isn’t possible, but merely that it isn’t likely given all the other potential explanations.

A vocal minority has taken control of the debate and is telling us that we have to consume less energy (not a bad idea in and of itself), that we should be paying taxes to penalize excessive fossil fuel use, and that we should be changing our civilization to make it “greener.” The problem is that many of the solutions to replace fossil fuels are not as reliable or efficient, are more expensive by orders of magnitude, and would take decades, if not centuries, to implement. New taxes or policies may be appear salutary in the short term, but they always have unintended consequences. Even worse though, are all the do-gooders who want to ensure that the poor of the world don’t have access to the same quality of life and wealth as we do by restricting their ability to benefit from a high-energy lifestyle. It’s no surprise that developing countries have opposed treaties to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. They know that doing so could hamper their economic development, just as it’s taking off.

What does this have to do with management and leadership? In a nutshell, I think that leaders in all fields must take the initiative in denouncing ad hominem attacks, overly emotional arguments, and calls for conformity. Humans have done an excellent job over the centuries of improving quality of life through new energy sources and uses for the power they provide. It is economic necessity and logic that will bring about more efficiency in our energy use, not global treaties and arbitrary taxes that are imposed by do-gooders and others who have nothing better to do than control others’ lives.

In other words, we need a global cooling of rhetoric, and a rational approach to energy use. I believe a healthy scepticism about totalising explanations and prescriptions, combined with scientific curiosity and the practices of sound management are what will give us the best approach to our problems.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.

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