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Discussion 1 to Meditation 816
Given the importance of the question we probably need to have a position

by: Clay Chesney

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I suppose global warming is an appropriate topic for the Church Triumphant because we have to decide whether we want to be agnostic about it. Our great national sideshow is full of sound and fury, most of it signifying nothing, but given the importance of the question we probably need to have a position. Most of the public doesn't seem to know how to evaluate the subject, or they think they do, but they don't, which is worse. Can we look at a few facts and apply some good old fashioned agnostic logic to this problem? I think a reasonable assessment can be worked out with a little thought.

First, we need to recognize that global climate change is basically a scientific question. The topic has become a political issue but the major public argument underway in the US is centered on the two scientific questions of whether climate is changing and if so whether human activities contribute to the change.

Because it revolves around science, the opinions of experts in that field should have considerable weight. We depend on experts in every other area of life to guide us, treat us, maintain our machinery and property and deliver us from ignorance. Unfortunately, on scientific and intellectual issues there has been a popular trend toward the attitude that all such questions are a matter of opinion and that our own opinion is as good as anyone's. Power to the people! Those who wouldn't think of asking their plumber to repair their car or their mechanic to remove their appendix, nevertheless will go to Yahoo Answers and ask what people think of global warming, then await the replies of others who are similarly uninformed. Climate change is a very complicated science and a large part of the public perception of it is incomplete or incorrect.

And what do the experts, the climatologists, have to say about it? They are overwhelmingly on one side of the issue. More than 40 scientific societies, including all the academies of science of the major industrialized countries, support the conclusions that average temperatures are increasing and that human activities are partly responsible. A survey of several hundred peer reviewed scientific papers published in the field of climatology a few years ago found none that contradicted these conclusions. Climatologists who disagree are in the distinct minority according to all current accounts.

Bertrand Russell (can we make him our patron saint?) said that when the experts agree they can still be wrong. But he also said that ". . .when the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain. . ." When he says, "the experts are agreed" I will have to take that to mean the great majority of the experts, because all of the experts never totally agree on anything. So, I'm pretty sure Russell would say that the people who are shouting hoax are not justified.

If our mind were the cumulative mind of climatology experts it would be something over 90% certain of global warming and anthropogenic affects. But the mind of science is not running the show here in America. It has become a political debate, a public debate. A few years ago, those of us who followed the debate knew it as a real scientific dispute among the experts and watched as opinion moved increasingly from uncertainty toward a consensus among climatologists as it is now. But the arena has changed; moneyed interests have influenced the political process and the public media has magnified the importance of dissenting opinions. Ultimately it might not be the experts who decide the course of action toward global warming but the mass of public opinion, which is shaped more by current political forces than scientific fact.

Very few people have the interest or capacity to dig into the science of global warming and do the research needed to develop an independent opinion based on science. If you go to an internet site that deals with the science in detail, such as realclimate.org, you quickly discover the complexity of the issues involved and the level of concentration and study it takes to understand even the basics of the science. The public debate trades in selected pieces of information that impress the uninformed and it includes a tremendous amount of misinformation and distortion of fact. If it didn't, the conversation would have to begin with the facts that carbon dioxide is known to trap heat in the atmosphere, that we are releasing large amounts of that gas into the air, and move to the question of why, then, are we not causing the earth's atmosphere to heat up? There have been some experts who find fault with that line of thought, but those arguments have been aired and rejected by most.
Maybe the majority of the experts are wrong, but our flimsy logic is hardly an answer, and we shouldn't bet the world on it.

An interesting site that discusses many of the popular misperceptions about global warming can be found at: http://www.skepticalscience.com/