Healthy skepticism is an excellent scientific tool and virtue; uncovering errors and any other mistakes, omissions, misinterpretations, analytics, methodologies and outdated knowledge is most welcome by the scientific community.
I count myself as a strong skeptic. I wrote a column a few years ago asking whether advocates of taking action to mitigate climate change may have won the battle but ultimately lose the war, as groups try to claim that their solutions should be the first and best things to do regardless of cost, risk or relative effectiveness.
Hence, just as patriotism is the last refuge for scoundrels, so are climate solutions the last refuge of pork barrel scoundrels. We see government officials rolling out tens of billions of dollars for advancing fast breeder reactor technology, geoengineering of the oceans, skies and land, while ignoring the cheapest options like energy efficiency and REDD+.
Skepticism applies to both sides of the argument—to climate deniers, cynics, critics and opponents as well as proponents of costly and risky solutions. Web sites like www.realclimate.org and www.climateprogress.org are managed by a number of the world’s top climate scientists and do a great job at debunking the deniers’ misinformation, as well as owning up to mistakes that scientists have made, as with the Himalayan glacier melt date.
At the end of the day, there is overwhelming confirmation being derived from so many different independent scientific disciplines that even a few mistakes here and there do not make any real dent in the conclusion that climate change is real, serious, and only getting worse. After all, the fact that the Himalayan glaciers are going to take longer to melt than the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report indicated is hardly a game-changing insight; they will still melt, it will just take longer. One could hold up similar counter-examples, noting that the IPCC Report also mistakenly underestimated sea level rise and Arctic and Antarctic ice melt (both occurring faster than the IPCC thought would happen this century).
Whether one looks at paleoclimate data (derived from a myriad of disciplines encompassing the geosphere, atmosphere, biosphere, ocean chemistry, etc.), computer simulations, experimental research, mathematical models or real-time and long-term series observations of natural world dynamic changes (land and water ecosystems), the results reinforce previous findings to such a significant degree that no denier, cynic or climate opponent has been able to put forward an alternative interpretation of all this scientific data. Rather, their role has been to play sleuths in making sure the data is accurate, and as they turn up possible mistakes, it is readily embraced by the scientific community to be checked and either verified or shown to be a false misinterpretation of the data.
From this vantage point, climate change cynics are actually providing a service; unfortunately, they only glean the crumbs of potential errors, failing to see or acknowledge the immense edifice of confirmation evidence.
Michael Totten is Chief Advisor for Climate and Water in CI’s Center for Environmental Leadership in Business (CELB).