Saturday, March 06, 2010

What are climate skeptics afraid of?

I’ve noticed a fantastic increase in the number of postings in recent months by people that claim to be “skeptics” of climate change. Perhaps they were always there and I just didn’t run across their posts, but I’d wager that that others have noticed an increase also.

Is it a coincidence that this increase comes in the lead up to the US Senate considering a major piece of legislation (cap and trade) that will raise the cost of carbon emissions? Actually the increase started shortly after the hacking of the East Anglia Univ. email accounts in the lead up to the Copenhagen climate summit—but the two events semi-overlap.

I therefore draw the conclusion that climate skeptics are mainly afraid of an “external” form of carbon pricing. I say “external” because there wasn’t a similar increase in climate skeptic postings when oil prices hit a series of record highs in 2008 as a result of “market forces”.

It is especially hard to pin a climate skeptic down as to what they do believe and why…beyond vague (laughable?) conspiracy theories and the need to question everything “establishment” scientists say and why they say it. Oddly they really latch onto whatever quackery an untrained (in the field of climate science) armchair geologist or meteorologist spouts—no matter how thoroughly or repeatedly that idea has been debunked. As near as I can tell the closest thing to a universal belief among “hard” skeptics of climate change is that all observed warming is “entirely natural” (in that the planet has warmed and cooled repeatedly in the past so warming and/or cooling is quite evidently “natural”) and therefore cannot be blamed on human activity. “Soft” skeptics will admit that human activity may contribute but then argue that the contribution is minor or potentially even advantageous—and claim more research is needed, while simultaneously casting doubt and aspersions on the whole body of work accumulated over the past 50 years. Note that only “deniers” will actually admit that they don’t believe the planet is actually warming. Deniers are quite literally modern day “flat earthers” and deserve to be called out as lacking basic climate perception. I wonder if there is measureable correlation between climate change deniers and creationists/religious fundamentalists. If there were it might explain the blatent urge to refute well establish scientific theories—and I mean theory in the strict scientific definition.

Obviously there are times when a scientist outside the mainstream is able to contribute an idea that while initially greeted as quackery, over time shows merit and gains acceptance. I’d say this occurs in several fields of science at least once a generation. Therefore it is somewhat healthy on balance for people to generate alternate theories that explain what we may be observing. But for the alternate theories to contribute to the body of science they need to do a better job of explaining what is happening/what we observe than leading institutional theories. Skeptics have offered no such alternate theory.

All of this might be simply amusing except for the fact that in order to avert catastrophic climate change this century, I believe we need to establish a price on carbon emissions that will allow “market forces” to—within my lifetime—replace high carbon energy sources with very low/zero carbon energy sources.

If there is a single activity that our society needs to accomplish--and the sooner the better--it is to put a price on carbon emissions, sufficient to change our collective behavior. I don't even think it needs to be very high...for example, just a $0.05 charge per grocery bag seems to have had led to a major shift in consumption of grocery bags in places it has been put in effect. That said, it is substantially more attractive to set and modify up or down one carbon price society wide than to implement a million individual taxes on products or services. Talk about big brother!


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