Rebutting Wente

2010-02-10

in Canada, Geek stuff, Politics, Rants, Science, The environment

Writing in The Globe and Mail, World Wildlife Fund President Gerald Butts has done a good job of expressing what is and is not important about the recent errors in IPCC reports that have gotten so much attention and rekindled the fires of the climate change denier community:

Yes, some scientists showed poor judgment in private e-mail exchanges later hacked and made public. Yes, some errors in fact and incomplete citations have been found in the IPCC’s 1,000-page reports. That said, even scientists who have criticized the IPCC agree that anthropogenic climate change is both a fact and an urgent threat to the planet.

All independent reviews undertaken so far (by The Associated Press, the University of Michigan and The Economist, for example) agree that none of the stolen e-mails or errors bring into question the science supporting climate change. To conclude otherwise is to misunderstand the process and power of science, and to dismiss the need to draw on the best available evidence and consensus to guide national policies.

Science is not a cold body of facts, but an organized system of inquiry, discovery, evaluation and learning. Science not only welcomes the correction of errors, its key attribute is that it is self-correcting over time. As new research arises, old hypotheses gain or lose support. While this process never stops, generally accepted conclusions do accumulate, based on the overwhelming weight of evidence. The fact and threat of anthropogenic climate change are clearly among those conclusions.

It is encouraging to see such an effective rebuttal printed to Margaret Wente’s misleading recent column, though it remains dispiriting that The Globe and Mail is still happy to give a platform to people as irresponsible and scientifically illiterate as Wente and Rex Murphy. Wente’s column is a prime example of a position that – on first glance – appears prudent, in suggesting that we shouldn’t take serious action while there still seem to be scientific uncertainties about climate. Unfortunately, the known characteristics of the climate system make this position irresponsible. The full effect of emissions today will take decades to fully manifest, and the climate system has the capacity to amplify small changes into much larger outcomes. What we know about the history and character of Earth’s climate tells us we need to take action now, not at some future point when the faulty claims of deniers have finally been deflated in the eyes of the public.

I suspect that, a few decades from now, people will be puzzled about why we were so unable to separate signal from noise, when it came to hearing what scientists were saying about climate change. Part of that is surely the result of actions taken in bad faith by those seeking to prevent policy action (people quite capable of exploiting the peculiar phenomenon that arise at the intersection of science and the media). That said, much of the explanation has to lie with the complacency of a public happy to hear that no action is required at the moment, no matter how thin the credibility of those making this announcement.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Christine Penner Polle February 11, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Hi Milan –
Found you through the “Climate Action Network” facebook page. I, too, was rather dispirited to read Margarent Wente’s opinion piece (did you catch her on CBC’s Sunday Edition a few weeks ago as a panelist in their discussion of media coverage of climate change? Yikes!). It was good to see Gerald Butts’ response – although I see the contrarians are out in full force in the “comments” section.
Anyway, keep up the good work!

Milan February 11, 2010 at 1:36 pm

The internet is certainly rife with deniers. Thankfully, I don’t think their representation online in quite in keeping with their real-world influence.

That said, arguing with deniers is a never-ending task – as is making the case for why the sensible risk management approach is to reduce emissions, while also highlighting the benefits that will accompany that.

Emily February 11, 2010 at 8:48 pm

I find it interesting but not surprising that people will believe to the death that God exists with no evidence at all, but that people see a couple of emails with misleading information as totally ‘debunking’ climate change. (When faced with overwhelming evidence from credible sources pointing to a totally different reality).

Our ardent adherence to Truthiness may be one of the defining characteristics of our strange era.

Milan February 12, 2010 at 11:32 am

You are right to say that people are inconsistent about the standards of evidence they require for different claims. Sometimes, that is sensible. We should demand better evidence for very important decisions than for unimportant ones. Often, though, people apply different standards for irrational reasons, with dangerous consequences.

It is amazing to me that so many people are unwilling to accept the possibility that climate change could be dangerous, given all we know about the climate system. If we are to have a decent chance of avoiding catastrophe, that needs to change in the near future.

David J. Parker February 12, 2010 at 2:49 pm

I recently put a blog on the Green Party web site about why skeptics are as successful as they are:
http://www.greenparty.ca/blog/733
Warning: It may be a little long for modern tastes.

Milan February 12, 2010 at 3:05 pm

Deniers and delayers are a common topic of discussion here. Recently, there was a good discussion of where such views come from.

R.K. February 16, 2010 at 10:06 am

It seems Wente has an unapologetic follow-up.

Milan February 16, 2010 at 10:10 am

She actually seems to be putting herself firmly in the delayer category: “We don’t know everything, and catastrophe isn’t imminent, so let’s do nothing.”

The problem there is that we know enough to understand that the effects of emissions aren’t instant, and if we want to actually see their full impact, it will be too late to change course.

Milan February 18, 2010 at 11:47 am

Eric Reguly has written another rebuttal of climate change denial for The Globe and Mail.

He concludes that:

“The IPCC has struggled to defend itself. That’s in good part because it has no resources. It is not an institution or a company or a movement. It is a small secretariat with an annual budget of about $5-million (U.S.), insignificant compared with the financial firepower of the climate change skeptics. IPCC chairman Rajenda Pachauri’s delayed apology for the Himalayan mistake made a bad situation worse.

Sadly, the British government is one of the few to have come out in defence of the IPCC’s report, even though scientists from many dozens of countries contributed to the study.

“It’s right that there’s rigour applied to all the reports about climate change,” British Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Ed Miliband told the Observer newspaper last month. “But I think it would be wrong that, when a mistake is made, it’s somehow used to undermine the overwhelming picture that’s there.”

Hear, hear Mr. Miliband. Governments ignore the IPCC at their peril. The preponderance of evidence, to use a civil lawyer’s term, suggests climate change is real and dangerous.”

. February 18, 2010 at 2:43 pm

“More mistakes will surface, if only because the climate change skeptics, backed by well-financed armies of lobbyists employed by companies that cringe at the thought of tight emission reduction targets, are straining every word through their truth filters.

They have been doing so for three years and the biggest mistake they could find is the Himalayan claim. None of the IPCC’s central conclusions have been demolished. We know that greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere, that global average temperatures are increasing, and that natural phenomena can explain only part of the warming. Glaciers are indeed melting, including those in the Himalayas. “

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