By Mark R. O’Brian
SPECIAL TO THE NEWS
In an effort to avoid becoming politically narrow, I have a subscription to a newspaper generally viewed as left-leaning and to another one that leans to the right. Both newspapers report on science, and if the topic is the Higgs Boson, gene editing or nanotechnology, the perspectives of each source are similar. However, when anthropogenic global warming is the topic, the presentations follow a predictable political slant, with substantial disagreements between the newspapers. Anthropogenic global warming refers to climatic changes due to human activity, primarily the burning of fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Science is often controversial. Physicists argue over whether there is one universe or many. Archeologists disagree over whether the Clovis people were the first to inhabit the Americas. Biologists debate the degree to which genetics contributes to personality traits. However, these controversies are based on differing views among scientists that do not correlate with political ideology.
So, is the idea that the Earth is warming due to human activity a controversial question among climate scientists? To address this, an article published in 2013 in the journal Environmental Research Letters examined over 23,000 peer-reviewed articles by climate scientists. Among the articles that specifically addressed global warming, 97.1 percent endorsed the position that human activity is causing global warming, and 0.7 percent rejected it. Additional studies have yielded a similar conclusion.
This conclusion may appear to be at odds with the so-called Oregon Petition, which claims to have the signatures of 32,000 scientists who dispute climate change. However, most of the signers are not scientists at all, much less climate scientists. One needed only a bachelor’s degree in science to sign, and although 32,000 seems like a large number, it represents only about 0.3 percent of people with a science degree.
Although politically controversial, the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warming is clear. How should a non-scientist process this information, and how should it shape public policy?
Let us imagine that water in your kitchen sink won’t drain. About 97 percent of plumbers conclude that there is a clog that must be dislodged, and 0.7 percent think that there is insufficient gravity under your sink to pull the water down. Just about everyone will reach for the drain snake, not because plumbers are always right or because the minority view must be wrong, but because we take action based on the best available information.
Science and scientists are not infallible, and it is easy to find examples where scientists got it wrong. Nevertheless, the scientific process is the best approach to finding the truth about the natural world. Global warming has been studied for decades, and bad ideas usually do not withstand scrutiny over a long period of time, especially now where the pace of science is fast.
Importantly, if global warming turns out to be wrong or overstated, that conclusion will also be the result of scientific inquiry. Therefore, a sincere skeptic should embrace climate research, not seek to dismantle it.
When we consider other examples where conflicting scientific views align with political or social positions, we see that the problem is not with the certainty of the science, but rather with its implications within society. Galileo’s advancement of the Copernican view that the Earth revolves around the sun was accepted by the scientific establishment of the day, as is biological evolution today. However, both of those theories dispute a central role for humanity within the universe as codified and reinforced by religious texts, leading to discrepancies between scientific and societal acceptance. The same seems to be true of global warming.
Because global warming is due primarily to burning fossil fuels, solutions revolve around using less of it, which may have a large negative economic impact. Sen. James Inhofe, a strong denier of climate change, admitted that he had initially supported solutions to global warming until he found out what it would cost. Although Inhofe’s insistence that global warming is a hoax is disingenuous, his comments underscore a problem that cannot be dismissed.
Cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels has driven Western prosperity for decades, and now it is helping to bring millions out of poverty in developing countries. Alternative energy sources such as solar and wind power cannot yet support the burgeoning economies of China or India.
Moving forward requires that two realities be acknowledged. Firstly, science supports the conclusion that the Earth is warming due to human activity, and action is needed to address it. Secondly, broad acceptance of solutions to global warming, particularly in the United States, require that negative economic consequences be minimized. Human creativity is a marvelous thing, and it can accomplish goals that political rhetoric and grandstanding cannot.
Mark R. O’Brian, Ph.D., is a professor of biochemistry at the University at Buffalo.