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The Climate Debate Froth

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJuly 13, 2011 7:19 PM


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In an interesting essay in the NYT, a philosopher reminds us that there is

no denying that there is a strong consensus among climate scientists on the existence of A.G.W. "” in their view, human activities are warming the planet.

Since there is no denying this, hardcore climate skeptics (who don't believe in AGW) take a broad brush approach to tar an entire discipline: they will point to Climategate or IPCC mishaps as a means to condemn all of climate science as hogwash. I don't get this. It's like saying all journalism is rotten because of a plagiarism scandal or the deviant behavior of a newspaper. And the journalism scandals I cited are way worse than any controversy (in terms of actual misdeeds) that's dinged the climate science profession. Moreover, there's an erosion of public faith in journalism after such incidents that is way deeper than what the climate science community experienced after Climategate. I know some people like to think that public confidence in climate scientists plummeted after Climatemage, but it's not borne out by polls. (See here and here.) Also, as Roger Pielke, Jr. has said many times,

the battle for public opinion on climate change has been won by those who argue that there is a profound human influence on climate and action is warranted.

At any rate, what I like best about the philosopher's piece in the NYT is this:

I am not arguing the absolute authority of scientific conclusions in democratic debates. It is not a matter of replacing Plato's philosopher-kings with scientist-kings in our polis. We the people still need to decide (perhaps through our elected representatives) which groups we accept as having cognitive authority in our policy deliberations. Nor am I denying that there may be a logical gap between established scientific results and specific policy decisions. The fact that there is significant global warming due to human activity does not of itself imply any particular response to this fact. There remain pressing questions, for example, about the likely long-term effects of various plans for limiting CO2 emissions, the more immediate economic effects of such plans, and, especially, the proper balance between actual present sacrifices and probable long-term gains. Here we still require the input of experts, but we must also make fundamental value judgments, a task that, pace Plato, we cannot turn over to experts.

Sure the battle over global warming's particulars, such as climate sensitivity, time scales, impacts, and threat risk continues apace. Combine that with the overheated, politicized rhetoric and the dueling value judgments that people bring to this debate and you have the frothy state of the climate debate.

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