[lbo-talk] opposition to climate science in historical context

Andy andy274 at gmail.com
Wed Dec 21 11:05:05 PST 2011

Via RealClimate, an article in Physics Today discussing opposition to climate science in historical context.

Science controversies past and present Steven Sherwood



Many who are unwilling to accept the full brunt of greenhouse warming have embraced a more comforting compromise reminiscent of the Tychonic system: that CO2 has some role in climate but its importance is being exaggerated. But accepting a nonzero warming effect puts one on a slippery slope: Once acknowledged, the effect must be quantified, and every legitimate method for doing so yields a significant magnitude. As the evidence sinks in, we can expect a continued, if slow, drift to full acceptance. It took both Copernicanism and greenhouse warming roughly a century to go from initial proposal to broad acceptance by the relevant scientific communities. It remains to be seen how long it will take greenhouse warming to achieve a clear public consensus; one hopes it will not take another century.


The historical backlashes shed some light on a paradox of the current climate debate: As evidence continues to accumulate confirming longstanding warming predictions and showing how sensitive climate has been throughout Earth’s history, why does climate skepticism seem to be growing rather than shrinking? All three provocative ideas—heliocentricity, relativity, and greenhouse warming—have been, in Kuhn’s words, “destructive of an entire fabric of thought,” and have shattered notions that make us feel safe.2 That kind of change can turn people away from reason and toward emotion, especially when the ideas are pressed on them with great force.8


The current theory of global climate change is hardly elegant or scientifically revolutionary, and in that respect it seems like no bedfellow to [heliocentrism and relativity]. Its prominence comes from its implications for the sustainability of current Western consumption patterns, not from reshaping physics; its many contributors would not claim to be Einsteins. What it shares with the others, however, is its origin in the worked-out consequences of evident physical principles rather than direct observation. That sort of bottom-up deduction is valued by physics perhaps more than by any other science.

Indeed, the leaders of climate science in recent decades have largely been trained as physicists.3 Global warming is the first environmental forecast based on physical reasoning—the greenhouse effect and its intensification as IR atmospheric opacity increases—rather than on extrapolating observed patterns of past behavior. Anthropogenic warming was not unambiguously detected until nearly the end of the 20th century, well after most experts knew it was coming.


It is jarring to ponder the scene of a colleague from the 17th century refusing to look into a telescope—a level of aversion to inconvenient facts, admittedly not common, that seems incredible. Yet modern counterparts can perhaps be found in those who vilify the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change without apparently ever having examined its reports, or who repeat claims—such as global warming having stopped in 1998—that can be trivially falsified by looking at the data. A lesser form of denial can be found in the eager adoption of Copernicus’s calculations by those rejecting his premises; a modern parallel is the use of global atmosphere model simulations by weather forecasters who reject the climatic implications of the physical relationships on which the models are based. (The UK Met Office, whose model development effort is probably the largest in the world, now uses essentially identical atmosphere models for weather and climate prediction.)


-- Andy

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