COLUMN: Skepticism and climate science

Columnist Al Lehmann considers IPCC report and skepticism of climate change

Al Lehmann

Another IPCC report on climate change was released only days ago, the sixth since 1990. Each report has been increasingly scrupulous in its research, writing and editing. Each has been more and more firm in its presentation of evidence leading to the conclusion that, yes, human-caused climate change (global warming) is an ‘inconvenient truth.’

The full report, including all its references, glossary, maps, graphs, and so on is hundreds of pages long, a challenge for non-scientists. Because it is politicians and diplomats who will make policy decisions based on the report’s findings, the report features a ‘Summary for Policymakers’ (41 pages long) that outlines:

• the current state of the climate;

• possible climate futures;

• information for risk assessment and regional adaptation;

• suggestions for limiting future climate change.

Hundreds of specialist scientists from around the globe contributed to the huge trove of research leading to the report’s conclusions, including scientific literature accepted for publication as late as January 31, 2021. Its findings are up-to-date.

Its conclusions?

It is unequivocal [undeniable] that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land. Widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.

The scale of recent changes across the climate system as a whole and the present state of many aspects of the climate system are unprecedented over many centuries to many thousands of years.

Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe. Evidence of observed changes in extremes such as heatwaves, heavy precipitation, droughts, and tropical cyclones, and, in particular, their attribution to human influence, has strengthened.

Given the hostile and deliberately misleading responses of various parties expressing opposition to these reports in the past, it is predictable that further such efforts will be forthcoming over the coming months.

Beyond special interests, though, general society’s reluctance to address this issue leads one to ask, where does all this skepticism come from?

Given that our culture is largely founded on public relations, advertising and spin, there is a lot to be said in favour of skepticism in general. We have been immersed in rhetorical strategies designed to manipulate our credulity for so long that we perceive claims by anybody to be (more likely than not) some form of scam. The oft-quoted comment, “I’m from Missouri; you’ll have to show me,” is admired for good reason.

However, the extension of this attitude is, “Whatever you say I’m not going to believe it,” a willingness to abandon statements about reality altogether (except for the dismissals that “it’s all rigged” or “it’s fake news,” which serve only to reinforce our disinclination to look for real facts).

This reluctance reveals a general suspicion of expertise. When someone who has studied and worked on complex, difficult issues for many years tells us something, we might at least try to understand what they are endeavouring to tell us. But all too often people prefer their own comfortable ignorance to the difficulty of understanding and then acting on problems currently beyond their ken.

We’ve been sleep-walking past the climate issue for so long, it seems to be the default setting for our reaction to its threats.

The question now emerges, how many towns have to burn before these incendiary slaps to the face wake us to the need for concerted action?

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally and incorrectly attributed to Andre Carrel in the Aug. 26 edition of the Terrace Standard