Rick Perry is making headlines with more Bachmannesque brayings. This time, he is accusing scientists of basically making up global warming as some sort of evil joke – the way they did with evolution. As the competition to win the nomination of the Inherit the Wind Party heats up, it’s getting harder and harder for rational conservatives to get their point across on any subject.
Many reality-based conservatives are concerned about the shape of the debate over climate change. Their concerns are being starved out by the low-fact diet that politicians like Perry are serving. If we allow ourselves to be painted into an anti-science corner, we will lose this and other critical debates in the long run.
It’s important to recognize what the science does and doesn’t tell us about climate change.
The Earth is warming. That warming over the past century has been dramatic, but not at all unprecedented on a 10,000 year scale. We have to remember that climate is constantly in motion. Despite the recent increase, global temperatures are still in the low range when compared to averages over the past 5,000 years according to EPA and IPCC research.
It is not the degree of heating, but its apparent cause and the unknown potential for it to trigger abrupt, accelerating climate change that have scientists worried. There is clear consensus among scientists not hired by Exxon that human carbon emissions are contributing to that heating in some manner. But that’s about where genuine scientific certainty ends and a very interesting debate about the limits of science in determining policy begins.
Before going any further on the subject of climate change, let’s remind ourselves what science is. Science is a process we use to determine facts, not a method for establishing truth. Truth is a more complex matter. Science takes a question like, “what is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”, and finds an answer through observation and repeatable experiments. If there is any lesson we learned from the 20th Century, it’s that science is only helpful in defining reality, not determining our values.
Science is very good at answering a specific question like “how much fat is in this doughnut?” It has a harder time answering complex matrix questions such as, “What should I eat?” In science, the farther you get from any experimental capability, the less reliable the results. It’s not terribly hard to build an experiment that will predict with confidence how much salt there will be in your next order of French fries. It is very difficult experimentally to establish which combination of foods over a lifetime is best for any particular person.
You can find a perfect example of what happens when science is divorced from experimentation by talking to a physicist. The field of particle physics outran its experimental capabilities a long time ago. The mysteries physicists confront, with only limited tools for proof, are making them sound slightly mad.
Listening to a physicist explain string theory is a disheartening experience for anyone who confuses science with the pursuit of truth. Close your eyes while the physicist describes the multiple dimensions and parallel universes necessary to make their theoretical math work, and you could imagine you’re listening to some hippie on a bad trip.
That brings us back to climate science.
Climate is a classic matrix. It is not one thing, or even a dozen things, but millions of things interacting in ways that we scarcely understand. Understanding how a change in one of those variables will affect the whole is no small challenge. Scientists have been able to build computer models that simulate historical climate patterns with some impressive accuracy, but that is not the same thing as having a genuine experimental capability.
Though researchers generally agree that human carbon emissions are influencing our climate, there is serious and genuine disagreement as to the exact nature and meaning of the influence. For example, as carbon levels and temperatures begin to rise, will other factors such as levels of atmospheric water vapor or carbon uptake by vegetation operate to blunt the heating? Or will factors like glacial and icecap melt contribute to a feedback cycle that accelerates the increase? How many factors will affect these cycles and in what ways? Which factors will have the most influence?
If the fix for climate change were as simple as changing a light bulb, then the disagreements over these details might not matter much. The evidence we have would be enough to justify the effort.
But we’re being asked to undertake the wholesale re-engineering of the entire global political and economic order. This radical shift is based on a complex research subject in its scientific infancy and beyond our ability to experimentally test. Worse yet, the left’s giddy enthusiasm for global warming, and the supposedly inevitable solutions it requires, make their arguments sound just as politically driven and scientifically suspect as Michele Bachmann’s enthusiasm for intelligent design.
Even assuming that the most extreme predictions of man-made global warming are correct, we will not fix it by strangling western economic development with artificial bureaucratic constraints. The solutions proposed by the left aim to leverage this problem to build the economic order they have failed to achieve by other means.
If we must find ways to reduce carbon concentrations in the atmosphere, we will do it through technological innovations and adaptation. In other words, we will fix/adapt to this problem in the same manner we’ve done with every other environmental challenge we’ve faced in human history. Strangling western economies will make that goal harder to reach, but it won’t change what we have to accomplish to get there.
Rational conservatives trust science, but are skeptical of politically motivated hype. Most of the GOP’s remaining rational wing shares Gov. Perry’s reluctance to embrace the left’s “solutions” to climate change even while his ridiculous characterization of climate science make us cringe. Perry is right, if only by accident.
Even a blind squirrel will sometimes find a nut.