Who you gonna trust?

It’ll be better in the long run if I ‘fess up now (just don’t tell anyone). I’m a petrol head. I get childish kicks out of fast, beautiful, agile (loud) cars. Well, we all have our foibles.

So, the thing is… I don’t want to believe that climate change is real.

I’d much rather fantasise about getting myself a small two-seater with a dirty great V8 donk under the bonnet, than think about a sensible-shoe-wearing hybrid. So I want to know if we really are in the process of causing major problems for ourselves and I’d prefer the answer to be a resounding ‘no’.

But it isn’t.

We could talk about the simple physics of carbon dioxide as a heat trapping mechanism, or endlessly sift through the mountain of temperature measurements, both direct and via archeological proxies. Or we could contemplate what happens when you add energy (in this case heat) to an otherwise stable system – and how dangerous a science experiment it is when you rely on said equilibrium to survive and prosper.

But others, much more knowledgable than I, have done so (ad nauseam). And the truth is, I’m not competent to judge the evidence. And, well I don’t want to be rude, but… neither are you (unless you’re a climate scientist, in which case the following comments may not apply).

So how do people like you and I decide?

We do what we always do. We decide who to trust.

We happily watch people being sent to prison (or worse in some countries) because others have seen evidence we’ve not been privy to, and they’ve decided the criminal is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. And that’s all science does. It’s nothing more (or less) than a process, a disciplined approach to assessing evidence. And like the court system, the approach is structured around vigorous challenge and specialists.

So forget “it’s just a theory”. The arbiters of the scientific process are telling us that the evidence proves, beyond reasonable doubt, that climate change is real. And caused by us. And dangerous.

So what’s the problem?

Mainly it’s that we’re too good at resisting information we don’t want to hear and really good at rationalising what we want to believe.

But it’s also because the great power of the scientific process is a two edged sword. Science, which has given us medicines and electricity (and washing machines and hot water heaters and computers, and…) relies on the never-ending invitation to challenge established wisdom. That’s the source of science’s strength.

But sometimes science threatens big, powerful businesses and they respond by saying, “Wait. Before you destroy all this capital and throw all these people out of work, we are going to demand absolute proof and we’re going to throw every bit of contrarian evidence we can find at you.” That sounds fair enough. But of course, there’s no such thing as absolute proof and, well… people will be people. Capable, driven, goal oriented people (on both sides of the argument) will occasionally get carried away with the battle, close their own eyes to inconvenient truths, travel past putting all the evidence on the table, and find themselves slipping down the slope of deception.

But, just like courts have judges to keep the lawyers in line, science has the peer review system to keep scientists in line.

Like any human system it isn’t perfect but we see through the “its not 100% proven” line, don’t we? And we know that we need to look at the motivations of the people trying to persuade us, don’t we? We’re smart enough to recognise snake-oil salesmen when we see them. Aren’t we? …when we’re not sabotaging ourselves with our fears and desires, that is. (Damn! That glorious V8 rumble is getting fainter by the moment.)

So let’s accept that the science is telling us the truth. Most of the really nasty repercussions are many decades away aren’t they? Well… no, it doesn’t seem that way. It may take decades for the evidence to build up. After all, climate by definition is long term average weather. But we’re destabilising an equilibrium by injecting extra heat into it and when you destabilise an equilibrium, you risk wild fluctuations before a new equilibrium is established.

Think wild weather. Lethal storms, terrible droughts then terrible floods. Heat waves. Desertification. (Starting to sound familiar?) Think disturbed growing seasons for the crops that keep many of the seven billion of us alive. Think skyrocketing food prices and economic problems as increasing resources need to be devoted to food production. Hmm, I seem to recall that civilisation can only exist when food surpluses allow some of us to do things other than concentrate on food production.

Hmm, what if…? 

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