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Discussion 3 to Meditation 816
Global Warming, Politics and Religion

by: Clay Chesney

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I commend Gordon Barker for taking the time to look into the literature and evidence on climate change, and form his own opinion, something that few people will do.  

Most of his conclusions disagree with prevailing views on climate change and they make little sense to me.  To say that climate is unpredictable is incorrect as it applies to global warming.   Weather and short term climate might be unpredictable but climatologists have been able to make good predictions about average temperature changes over time.   A good description of this can be found at:  http://www.skepticalscience.com/The-chaos-of-confusing-the-concepts.html

Barker says climate is driven by thousands of factors, but lists only three.   He says the process is beyond the ability of our computers to model, but in fact a number of computer models have been developed for predicting climate change based on a set of known factors.  Although no model matches reality perfectly, the IPCC model output for years from 1860 – 2000 matches the actual temperatures fairly well when the effects of all the “forcings” including CO2 are taken into account.

Barker’s description of historical climate change sounds as if he thinks climatologists are saying that current climate change is caused solely by human activities, but they are not saying that at all.  Climatologists recognize natural forces as major factors in climate change, and say that human – induced warming is added on top of those natural effects. 

Yes, there certainly is a shrillness surrounding global warming.   I am watching to see if Al Gore Bashing is entered as an Olympic event this year.  I would say that climate change has attracted political shrillness because there are powerful financial interests pushing the idea that human activities are not responsible.    The clash is between science and economics, and the “political tools” belong primarily to the corporate world, which has a very strong interest in maintaining the status quo.  When I hear of a Congressman being bought by a scientific organization I will reconsider. 

 The final paragraph of Barker’s note begins by saying that consensus is not relevant.  I have found this to be a near universal sentiment among people holding minority viewpoints.  I have even been tempted to make that claim at times, but couldn’t bring myself to say it aloud.  The majority of the experts may not always be right, but it is always relevant.   Ultimately, politicians have to make practical decisions about scientific issues, but when they take it on themselves to dictate scientific conclusions that defy a large majority of the scientific community it can lead to great misery.   A famous example occurred in Russia during the 1940s and 50s when Stalin chose Trofim Lysenko as Director of Soviet Biology.   Lysenko rejected mendelian genetics and adopted scientific policies based on the discredited ideas of Lamark, who believed that characteristics acquired during life can be transmitted to offspring.  Lysenko won approval from Stalin not with scientific arguments but with claims that his science would produce greater wheat yields and lift the country economically.  Soon, dissent from Lysenko’s theories was formally outlawed, his scientific opponents were purged, jailed, and some were executed.   Such is the force of politics that he remained in power for over 20 years, even though his policies were disastrous for agriculture.  A more recent example occurred in one African nation where the existence of AIDS was denied by political rulers, and offers of foreign aid to fight the disease were rejected. 

What is most surprising is to hear that the findings of science are somehow compromised because belief belongs to politics or religion but not science.  This is wrong on both counts.  In the first place, the fundamental issues at hand (whether climate is warming and if so what is causing it to do so) are answered by systematic, scientific study of the subject, which is what the scientists do and the politicians don’t.  I am assuming that we want politics to begin on a foundation of truth, although I might be wrong on that.  At any rate, I am sure that the function of politics is to make use of the findings of science, not create them.   

Beyond that, it is evident to me that developing a set of beliefs about the natural world is not just a part of science but the very reason for its existence.   We start out with ideas we call theories or principles or hypotheses.  They are discussed, tested, elaborated, and proposed to a critical audience of experts for review.   There is no formal process for acceptance, but successful theories are adopted by the scientific community as functional working tools to be used in further studies and integrated into a large existing body of knowledge and practice.  At that point, even though it is still called a theory it has become so well trusted that it is considered a part of the explanation of the universe, and such a reliable practice that it will contribute toward further advances in knowledge.  It has moved beyond the challenges that face new ideas and into complete, or nearly complete, acceptance by the scientific community.   At that point it has become a belief, and even though science will not call it that, my dictionary, and yours, will verify that assessment.   The difference between science, politics and religion is not in having beliefs, but in the subjects of those beliefs and the manner in which they are formed.   That is easy enough to see if you ask people, “Do you believe in evolution, and why”?