Last week the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report. The main theme to emerge from it was uncertainty. The world’s leading climate scientists are more sure than ever that mankind is responsible for the global warming of the last fifty years, but not completely sure. Furthermore, they admit that their computer models did not predict the current lull in warming and that they still have a long way to go in understanding the complex interactions that determine our climate – in particular the crucial role of the oceans in absorbing heat from the atmosphere (and releasing it back again).
Do these admissions of self-doubt undermine the credibility of mainstream climate science? Quite the opposite, argues Mark Buch in an op-ed for Bloomberg:
“A well-educated friend of mine, a climate-change skeptic, once told me that he didn’t believe anything coming out of the big computer models that scientists use to reason about the complex nonlinear feedbacks driving the Earth’s climate system. He has a point: Researchers are doing the best they can in the midst of great complication and uncertainty.
“… the [IPPC report] concludes that it’s now 95 percent certain that human activity lies behind at least half the warming seen in the past half-century. Skeptics savaged the report for revising slightly downward earlier estimates of the warming likely to be seen in the next two decades – as if trying to be accurate was an offense.”
The reason why so many conservatives have a problem with what the climate scientists tell us is that, by temperament, we prefer to act on direct experience, personal conviction and gut feeling. But as Mark Buch explains, intuition is a poor guide to the workings of the climate system:
“If sea levels are rising, how can it be that scientists have observed water levels in some parts of Alaska falling by more than an inch a year? More evidence of a climate hoax? Nope: On further study, it turns out that the land in the area, which had been weighed down by immense glacial sheets, is now rebounding upward, making the sea appear to fall.”
And another example:
“Aside from weird land movements, you would at least expect sea levels to rise equally around the world, right? After all, water spreads out. No again. The local rate of sea-level rise actually fluctuates by a factor of about 10 around the planet. Winds and ocean currents can make water pile up in some places more than others.”
Nothing in our personal experience leads us to expect land that moves up and down without an earthquake or seas that have contours. So, when a climate sceptic pulls out a fact that appears to accord with common sense, but contradicts the boffins, we naturally trust our instincts.
And yet when faced with something as vast and complex as the global climate, our instinct should be not to trust our instincts – and trust the experts instead. We should also have more respect for the scientists who admit what they don’t know – and what they’ve got wrong – than for the swaggering sceptics who think they’ve got it all sussed.
However, that does beg a rather important question: If the science of climate change is riddled with uncertainties, then how can we make far-reaching policy decisions on such a shaky foundation? The answer is that staking large amounts of money on the basis of mere probability is what people do all the time – and not just in the betting shop. For example, it is in response to risk, not certainty, that billions of pounds of insurance is bought and sold every day. Indeed, the more uncertainty there is about a risk (and the greater its significance), the greater the case for insuring against it.
Tellingly, it is the insurance industry that is one of the important private sector sources of pressure for action on climate change. According to the New York Times, insurance companies in America are now funding a new think-tank called the R Street Institute, which is conservative, but supports the introduction of a carbon tax.
This is a welcome development, because if climate change is real and we leave it to the left to come up with the answers, then the only certainty is that we’re done for.