It’s time for a true confession. I don’t believe in climate science.
That’s because I’m a rational person. Belief is important in my life and I apply the term to things involving faith. Faith is how we believe when there is no rational basis for a decision – which doesn’t mean its irrational or wrong, just that there is no evidence to support the view taken. Faith and belief often apply to matters of the spiritual realm. But they also apply to matters of a more worldly nature, where the capacity for faith and belief has framed many positive developments in humanity over history. Despite the lack of supporting evidence, Churchill believed the allies would win WWII and Mandela believed majority rule would come, relatively peacefully, to South Africa. Faith is a powerful driver of human behaviour.
However, I don’t “believe” in climate science because it’s not a religious or a faith question. It’s just numbers and science on which to make rational judgements. The scientists tell us what they know, and what they don’t, and we decide how to respond. This is not a binary question, like the earth is flat or not, this is a system description based on best available knowledge.
Belief is actually a dangerous concept in relation to climate science and we should stop using the word in that context. Because belief is based by definition on “non-rational” thought, framing it this way leads to a tendency to resist counter arguments and associated data. It’s hard for more data to change a belief, because it wasn’t data based to begin with. As a result, interpreting science using a belief based approach leads to sloppy intellectual behaviour, where we discount data that challenges our “beliefs” and exaggerate the importance of data that supports them.
Climate science is at it essence just data. Always incomplete and open to challenge and debate but, fundamentally, just data which we then interpret and act on. We navigate this at times complicated process quite successfully in a range of other fields such as aeroplane and bridge design, food safety and medicine.
Where this process occurs in the absence of strong cultural or economic self-interest, there is little controversy, such as bridge design. As we move into economic self-interest, things get a little complicated, such as the reappraisal of safety levels for volcanic dust during the recent Icelandic volcano, when airlines pushed for a review, based on economic losses, from the application of what they saw as too strict an interpretation of the data. Again it worked out fine.
When we move into areas of strong cultural influence and beliefs, such as medicine and health, things get more complicated. So, for example, whereas many traditional medical scientists would argue the evidence for some alternative therapies is weak, people act on their “beliefs”, spending over many billions on them each year, including some where the science is definitely not proven and sometimes quite disproven.
In all these areas though, from bridges to medicine, as a society overall we accept the dominant scientific conventions. When a body of qualified scientists reviews the evidence and issues their judgements we generally act accordingly and the broad societal level. We make decisions on flight safety, on bridge design and on public health – not without controversy, but in the end we make decisions and we base them on rational thought.
Sometimes, though, it gets really messy, and such is the case with climate change. Here we see a great clash of cultural and political beliefs, mixed up with enormous economic self-interest. The result is quite irrational, belief-based debate and decision making or, in this case, the lack of decision making.
It’s important to recognise what’s going on in this process and to respond appropriately. So, for example, we should by now know that arguing science with a climate denier (as opposed to a genuine sceptical scientist) is as pointless as arguing the benefits of market economics and liberal democracy with an al Qaeda leader. No amount of rational data will help because they don’t want to believe, so they will deny any evidence that confronts their own beliefs.
The right approach with climate deniers is to ignore them. Fortunately their influence is on the wane and their cause now quite terminal because, in the end, we are a rational society and the evidence is clear. As US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
For genuine sceptics, and indeed for all of us, it is very important we maintain an open mind and keep the debate alive and vibrant. We must act urgently to reduce the risk of climate change by eliminating the net CO2 emissions of the economy as a fast as possible. But we must also keep researching, challenging and exploring the details as we do so, not least of all to identify the most effective actions we can take. Not all greenhouse gases are the same and, given what the science tells us about the urgency, it is going to take all of our ingenuity to pull us back from the cliff we seem to be racing towards.
So when someone asks if you’re a climate believer, tell them no, your far too rational for that.