Monday, May 5, 2008

Global warming

I don’t know about anyone else but I find that the entire ‘global warming’ debate has become a little bit bizarre. Let me explain.

Now, first of all, I am willing to say that our society put far too much faith in science and scientists. Science, like any other social institution, is full of biases. Although scientists like to think of themselves as ‘skeptics,’ they are never skeptical about reason and rationality or the concept of objectivity. Regardless of the great work of philosophers of science like Weber, Kuhn, or Feyerabend, scientists still like to believe that there is something unique about scientific endeavour in as much as it is the only form of human investigation that is an objective search for the truth. This is, of course, nonsense, and if they had paid more attention to human thought they would have noticed that even great thinkers like Montaigne demonstrated the importance of true skepticism, even skepticism of so-called ‘rational’ thought.

Now, having said that, I don’t exactly know where I stand on the issue of global warming. I think it is clear that there is a fair degree of consensus among scientists in different fields that the global climate is changing and that certain things that we have done and continue to do are contributing significantly to that change. But when people start suggesting that it must be true because few or no ‘peer reviewed’ articles are being published which dispute this conclusion, I get a little suspicious. This, surely, must not be our guiding factor. The process of peer review in all fields, including science, is fraught with political pit falls. The fact is that the scientific community, like any community, once it feels that it has reached consensus, will go to great lengths to exclude dissenting opinions. In science this happened when the scientific community resisted the idea of plate-tectonics for years and kept it out of the main stream. And more recently, this exclusion was felt around the issue of the big bang theory which is finally coming under scrutiny in a way that it wasn’t only a few years ago.

I point these things out not to say global warming is untrue but only to say let’s be cautious about our reliance on science to be ‘objective’ or unbiased, and definitely let’s be cautious about the peer review process in any field.

I make these points in order to say that I am a skeptic of both sides and while I believe science is an important institution with an essential role to play in society, it is certainly not infallible. But what I find most bizarre about the global warming issue is the way that it has been politicized. I consistently see in print and hear on the radio and television, people who ‘deny’ global warming (a very poor choice of words I should say) and who suggest that the concept of global warming is some kind of left-wing conspiracy. Do other people find this strange? Right-wingers seem to want to label any and all environmental advocacy groups as motivated by some radical left-wing agenda. Now while this is ridiculous and demonstrably false, it is a very strange charge. Many on the right are attempting to smear environmental groups with this political charge and give the impression that there are environmental groups out there promoting ideas such as global warming in order to somehow profit from their environmental advocacy. But what these particular right-wingers are forgetting is the application of the simple rule of qui bono; who benefits? Environmental advocacy groups are uniformly non-profit organizations. No one in an environmental group is gaining anything in particular, and they are certainly not making huge corporate-like profits, by saying that global warming is occurring and is a result of human interference. Now, you could argue that there are a handful (and compared to other industries it is only a handful) of people employed my environmental groups who ensure their continued employment by advocating for certain political reforms in the interests of the environment. But this could only be a small number at best and would not explain the overwhelming numbers of people who make this argument. And why would so many people who advocate for environmental issues target the concept of global warming in particular?

This is the most bizarre part. Because while global warming may be controversial and hard to ‘prove’ in the normal sense, we know that there are thousands of pollutants being used all the time that have terrible adverse effects on the health of people and the planet. There is no debate about this. We know that vehicle emissions are harmful to our health. We know that benzene can cause all sorts of health problems. There is no debate on these issues when we compare them to the debates of global warming. Ergo, if environmental advocates were really pursuing personal gain they would surely be concentrating their efforts on these issues because it would be easier to advocate in this area and therefore easier to protect their jobs as advocates. The conclusion must surely be therefore, that there is no left-wing conspiracy and that advocacy groups are attempting to popularize the concept of global warming because they honestly believe that this is a looming danger to civilization as we know it. Now, it is fair enough to say that they might be wrong but to attempt to discredit them based upon politics or self-interest is absurd. On the other hand, the groups that most consistently deny global warming seem to be tied in one way or another to the oil and gas industry. This should tell us all something.

It is bizarre too that anyone would come to the conclusion that because they believe global warming is not happening or is not occurring because of human interference in the environment, then this means that we don’t need to make radical changes in our energy use and our production of pollutants! Isn’t it enough for these people that everyone agrees that fossil fuel usage and various toxins that we use are causing myriad health problems? People can deny global warming all they want but even if they do they must admit that we are still killing ourselves with all the toxins we are using. There is no peer review issue at play here. You don’t have to like or dislike David Suzuki to believe that we have serious problems.

By all means, be as skeptical of science as you would about any set of beliefs. In fact when you consider that technology has surely caused as many problems as it has solved, skepticism is an important responsibility. After all, scientists created the atom-bomb and told us that red meat is good for us. But for all of my skepticism of science, I am significantly more skeptical of people who advocate for the oil and gas industry and people and politicians who attempt to marginalize environmentalist by accusing them of being left-wing conspirators.

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