On being a climate sceptic

When it comes to climate change, it’s taken a lot to convince scientists that there’s a problem because they’re natural sceptics.  “Climate sceptics” aren’t real sceptics, but badly informed and easily swayed by pseudo-science. [6 November 2007 | Peter Boyer]

I consider myself a climate sceptic. I’m also firmly of the view that our climate is being altered by human activity. For those who find this puzzling, let me explain.

Science depends on scepticism. When we talk about “scientific rigour”, we really mean the degree to which a scientific idea has been subjected to disbelief – tested against all alternative possibilities for the tiniest flaw that could bring the whole thing crashing down.

On this “sceptical test” depends all the credibility, effectiveness, value – and ultimately the truth – of scientific thought.

Of course, scepticism is useful in all sorts of ways. I’m not a scientist, but I know the value of applying the sceptical test to major personal decisions, such as in buying a house or investing in a business. When it comes to sorting fact from fiction, it’s important to be sceptical.

Let’s look at the scientific idea that gases produced by human activity have caused our planet’s surface to heat up, and that this warming threatens human and other life on Earth.

The idea has been around a long time. The Swedish scientist Svante Arrenhius showed in the 1890s that human-produced carbon dioxide could warm the atmosphere, and in the 1930s the Englishman Guy Callendar produced evidence that the process had already begun.

All this took a long time to get traction among the world’s scientists. It wasn’t really a widely-supported view until the 1980s. Why?

The answer is that the world of science tends to be conservative. These people take a lot of convincing. As with all new ideas, they applied the sceptical test to global warming theory, again and again. They’re still doing it, because it’s their nature, and the rule by which they work.

Our climate involves such big, complex processes that we can never expect to achieve a complete picture of it. But for decades the idea of global warming has been put through the sceptical mill, and as scientists continue to weigh the various possibilities, the picture is getting clearer – and the need for action increasingly urgent.

Which brings me to “climate sceptics”, a tag happily accepted by some people who say there’s significant doubt that the world is warming, or that humans have caused it, or that we need to do anything about it.

But when their alternative scenarios are subjected to the sceptical test, they simply don’t stack up. “Contrarians” they may be, but as sceptics, they don’t cut the mustard.

• Walk against Warming: Next Sunday, 11 November, is being marked around Australia as a day for ordinary people to show their concern about global warming. Tasmanians can join the “Walk Against Warming” from 1 pm in Hobart (starting at Parliament House) and Launceston (starting at Regatta Ground, Park Street).

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