Jeff Jacoby’s recent Boston Globe op-ed misses the mark on the climate consensus. His argument boils down to the claim that there’s no consensus among scientists on the causes and effects of global warming – plus, the very idea of consensus is “authoritarian and anti-scientific” anyway. Both parts of this assertion completely mischaracterize the way that science works, using previously debunked factoids that don’t belong in a news outlet of this prominence. Climate scientists agree that human activity is warming our planet, and that this is causing harmful impacts that will get worse if we do nothing.
A few examples show the thinness of Jacoby’s justification:
Meteorologists actually support the facts of human-caused climate change. Jacoby cites a recent survey of the American Meteorological Society, even though the study authors themselves have already spoken up to directly refute his interpretation of their work. In fact, 73% of AMS members surveyed agree that human activities have contributed to warming, and that number rises among those with greater scientific expertise. Among meteorologists actively publishing on climate topics, 93% agreed.
Furthermore, meteorologists are just a subset of the scientific community. The 93% consensus among meteorologists does not refute the 97% consensus (established via multiple different survey methods) among the broader climate science community that humans are warming our climate.
Reputable scientists that deny climate change are few and far between. In the absence of meaningful survey evidence, Jacoby turns to anecdote. His statement that “some of the world’s most distinguished scientists” are unconcerned about climate change links to another column, containing the names of just five people. The list includes S. Fred Singer and Richard Lindzen, two scientists who have had their work repeatedly debunked, received considerable compensation from fossil fuel companies, and are connected to the discredited, far-right Heartland Institute. Their presence on the list indicates that Jacoby is scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Climate models are accurate enough to clearly show that we’re headed for trouble. Short-term deviations due to natural variability are an expected part of any attempt to model a system as complex as our climate. But over the long term, climate models have been remarkably close to observed temperatures, as shown by the very paper Jacoby cites. Experts agree that short-term predictive ability can be improved, but confirm that this variation does not affect the validity of long-term projections. Even when we account for uncertainty and natural variation, the modeled outcomes are serious enough to convince experts that emissions reduction is necessary.
Science seeks to continually ask new questions, and then answer them. The questions never run out, but as the answers accumulate, they provide enough information to take action. Jacoby is not original in his use of a Richard Feynman quote to portray climate contrarians as protectors of the values of science – it’s a common sight in denier blogs and speeches. But the quote misses important context.
We don’t know everything about space, but at some point experts decided that they agreed on the basic facts, enough to go there. Likewise we don’t know everything about our upper atmosphere, but we knew enough to agree that the growing hole in our ozone was harmful, and to ban the chemicals causing it. This is what scientists mean when they say “the science is settled:” not that all further inquiry and debate should be cancelled, but that it’s time for inquiry to be paired with action.
In gathering 7 years’ worth of one-sided “evidence” against climate science, Jacoby displays none of the openness that he expects of scientists. He uses a recycled quote and recycled factoids to make claims contrary to the agreement of nearly all climate experts.