The catastrophe of climate change skepticism

In the face of another diplomatic disappointment in Cancun's climate change talks, we have just left the hottest year on record. While experts again try to ring alarm bells, our media still gives voice to the pseudo-intellectual pursuit of climate skepticism. Perhaps while Rome burned, some bravely questioned the finer qualities of fire. Perhaps on Easter Island, as the last trees fell, some elders courageously debated the necessity of wood. These days, Margaret Wente and Rex Murphy sing in tune with the likes of Glenn Beck, sincerely believing their skepticism to be a form of intellectual virtue. It is not.

German chancellor Angela Merkel calls the low-carbon economy the "third industrial revolution." A new energy internet supplied by clean energy sources like biomass, wind solar, hydro, and geothermal has spread across the continent. There are new storage technologies like compressed air and low-friction flywheels. Large-scale efficiencies make economies more competitive. If Canada gets it right, we'll sell this stuff to the rest of the world.

The transition to a low-carbon economy brings huge economic opportunity, but it is not optional.

While Wente asks whether humans can control the climate, global average ocean temperatures hit record highs. More ominously, as the oceans have warmed since the 1950s, plankton levels have dropped 40 per cent. As goes plankton, so goes the rest of oceanic life.

Skepticism becomes a vice when applied to a broad consensus of expert opinion warning of existential danger. The policy commitments demanded by climate science need broad public support. Skeptics erode that support without intellectual justification.

Let's be clear. We have known since the early 19th century that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, insulating the earth like a blanket. In 1965, the U.S. president's Scientific Advisory Committee warned the build-up of carbon dioxide would cause changes in the climate. By 1989, then U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher declared to the UN General Assembly that climate change was the single greatest threat to our very existence.

Thatcher, no shill for the environmental movement, was scientifically literate. The same cannot be said for those who scoff at the accumulated wisdom of our scientific elite. All national academies of science in the developed world have endorsed the basic premises of human-caused climate change. The only scientific argument remaining is not about whether climate change is real or imagined, but whether the results will be catastrophic or merely disastrous.

Yet untrained skeptics assure us that the dangers of which the scientists speak may not be real.

For Murphy, public acceptance of expert opinion on climate change amounts to religious indoctrination. Wente asserts that climate cannot be controlled by human behaviour. Beck argues that it's a Communist conspiracy. The purported dangers are at best hypothetical constructions of a few scientists, at worst mere monsters under our bed, easily dismissed with a dose of adult skepticism. The skeptics explicitly cast themselves against the orthodoxy of our time, as noble knights standing up to society's pressure to conform.

This is nonsense. Climate change is not like politics or a painting. The opinions of laypersons are not relevant. It's hard science, and the truth of the matter has been settled by those qualified to make the judgment.

But we're far past the complex theoretical models now. Ask an Australian farmer what climate change means. The same climate instability that brought Australia the longest drought in human memory, now unleashes catastrophic flooding. To B.C. foresters, it's the pine beetle destroying their timber. Lloyd's of London, like most insurance companies, faces escalating costs due to extreme weather events. Russia's scorching summer, which temporarily ended grain exports, and the floods in Pakistan are but appetizers before the main event.

The pseudo-intellectual pursuit of climate skepticism delays Canada's participation in a new economy, and it makes it harder to have that public and adult conversation we so desperately need: the one about how volatile nature has become, and how angry it will get.

Tom Rand is the cleantech advisor with MaRS Discovery District in Toronto. This article first appeared in The Mark

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