Decades ago, marketers hired by tobacco companies rolled out these ideas to confuse the public about the emerging science that linked smoking to lung cancer. Cold War ideologues used them to promote doubts about the scientific consensus on climate change, which they viewed as a threat to unfettered capitalism. Putin and his cronies deploy them today to deny their hand in everything from the bloodbath in Ukraine to our recent, surprising election.
The genius of both ideas is that they intuitively feel right. They tell us that we’re safe, that we can keep living as we have, and that we’re every bit as smart or as knowledgeable as anyone else. But think a little harder, and everything falls to pieces.
In practice, all of us consult experts all the time about the things that really matter to us, from our health to our cars. Why shouldn’t we check in with experts about the state of Earth’s climate, which is so much more complex? Maybe an expert could have told Stephens that Earth’s average temperature is now more than 1 °C warmer than the twentieth-century average, not 0.85 °C, and that this “modest” rise has in fact sharply increased the frequency of heat waves and droughts around the world.
And none of us really make decisions on the basis of absolute certainty, which really doesn’t exist anyway. If I take a stroll on the freeway I’m quite sure that I’ll be hit by a car, and that’s enough to keep me from doing it. When the future of our entire planet is at stake, we should probably play it extra safe. Even slim odds of dramatic climate change should prompt us to change the way we use energy.
Of course, the odds aren’t slim. Environmentalists do indeed claim with certainty that climate change will get much worse. That’s because basic science tells us that the probability of it getting worse is so overwhelming that suggesting otherwise would serve no purpose. Except, of course, the purpose of fossil fuel energy companies that would cynically place present-day profit over the future habitability of our planet.
But how can we be so sure? Well, there are those supercomputer models, honed after decades of study and proven to accurately forecast and hindcast climate change on the grandest scales. But thousands of scientists also use a staggering array of sources – from tree rings to ice cores to rodent feces – to measure what Earth’s climate looked like in the past. It turns out that when it was hot – really, really hot – volcanic eruptions had raised the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. It’s not rocket science: even small changes in the concentration of that gas in our atmosphere can keep heat from escaping into space.
Someone like Stephens might still claim that our species will ride out whatever changes Earth’s climate will endure. Yet social scientists have found that even minor wobbles in Earth’s average temperature – whether caused by volcanoes or dips in solar activity – have historically destabilized all manner of societies. That should give us cause to fear the much bigger climate changes of the coming century.
Our common good demands that we put aside the intellectual games that have, for too long, confused our public and political discourse on climate change. We are in dire need of honest debates not about the existence of human-caused climate change, but about possible solutions to it. Now more than ever, newspapers should amplify voices that truthfully communicate the challenges we face, and the chance we have to do something about them.