A reader of this magazine sent an e-mail admonishing me not to associate our Mennonite faith with the “fear narrative” of climate change. He provided some links to seemingly credible people who refute the common global-warming argument. My impulse was to either delete or politely—or impolitely—sidestep it. Instead, I took it seriously.
Some of you, like me, probably feel immediately defensive when someone questions climate change. Others probably feel immediately vindicated. We should not follow either of those impulses.
People on both sides of many issues scoff and sneer at each other, instead of engaging in mature dialogue. Just watch Question Period, raise same-sex issues with church friends or tell your lefty friends you’re studying the climate dissenters.
But experience has taught me the value of letting that initial impulse pass and then crossing the boundaries of my ideological enclave. So I propped a stone up against the door of my mind to keep it from slamming shut and I entered, for the first time, the realm of climate dissension.
I watched videos of Patrick Moore, the Greenpeace founder who has since changed his tune; Nigel Lawson, former finance minister under British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; Richard Lindzen, professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; energy policy expert Alex Epstein; and others. I cross-referenced their arguments with reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), NASA and seemingly official ice-monitoring organizations.
What did I learn?
1. It’s complex, involving many academic disciplines, complex computer modelling and almost countless variables.
2. Science is not always scientific. You can find duly credentialled scientists on both sides of pretty well any issue. Many times the outcomes of funded studies predictably align with the bent of funders.
The popular notion that 97 percent of scientists agree about global warming is at best a dubious and decidedly unscientific assertion. Lindzen says science, which is commonly distorted by political agendas and financial interests, too often “becomes a source of authority rather than a mode of inquiry.” Groups find scientists to place in their corner, instead of engaging in genuine pursuit of knowledge.
3. Beware the graph. Facts are not necessarily as factual as we think. Stats are remarkably malleable.
4. It is not hard to poke holes in the arguments on either side. Both sides cherry pick data, focus on their strengths, gloss over their weaknesses, and refute the other side’s weakest arguments, instead of their best ones. They lazily seem to assume people will not do any double checking.
5. I cannot dismiss all climate dissension based on the assumption it is funded by big oil. I don’t believe it all is.
6. Among climate change believers, I found two key areas of uncertainty. First, within the past 150 years—the period of most accurate record and most frequent reference—the warming started before, not after, significant greenhouse gas emissions. Second, the 114 different computer-climate-modelling tools that the IPCC draws on cannot yet account for the seeming fact that the warming trend has flattened significantly over the past 15 to 20 years.
Yes, last year was the warmest on record, but not as warm as the models predicted and not warm enough to bend the graph line significantly upward. The IPCC addresses this modelling shortcoming—which is foundational to its most basic predictions—but only by offering possible, as yet unproven, explanations.
In the end, it boils down largely to who you are going to trust and to what extent. I'm still inclined to take seriously the IPCC, but I have less confidence in their confidence, and less respect for the climate campaigners.
Wendell Berry—an elder in the progressive realm—says we should back off of apocalyptic predictions, whether religious or climate related, and, instead, focus on taking care of the actual places we live right now.
He also says the following: “I always suppose that experts may be wrong. But even if they are wrong about the alleged human causes of climate change, we have nothing to lose, and much to gain, by trusting them.” By trusting them, he means reducing “waste and pollution.” I agree that we should reduce waste and pollution, but to say we have nothing to lose is simplistic. We all need to be more rigorous in our analysis.
In part, I’m just using climate change as a case study. My point is, life is complex; we need to embrace that complexity. I found it invigorating and healthy to look carefully at both sides of an issue. We need to talk to each other. We need to be humble enough to accept our limitations and confident enough to venture straight into enemy territory with an open heart. I believe that is where we find creativity, community and maybe even God.
See Will’s follow-up in “Is climate change real? Part 2.”