Unfrozen Caveman Pundit Debates Climate Change

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If you want to argue about science, it's helps to know how the scientific method itself works

Climate change has a strange way of making people say ridiculous things. There’s the crowd that hoots “Where’s your global warming now?” every time there’s a cold snap or a blizzard in their home town—as if local weather were the same as global climate. There’s the faction that continues to insist that climate change is an elaborate hoax, one that’s enabled by a “bought-off media,” without ever specifying a) who’s doing the buying off and, b) exactly where I should have been going all these years to pick up my check.

And then there are the people who have way too much intellectual octane to be ridiculous, but they don’t mind getting the facts tactically wrong. Which brings us to Charles Krauthammer—specifically to the column he wrote in the Feb. 20 Washington Post. The headline—“The Myth of ‘Settled Science’”—portended bad things. But the opening sentences gave me hope.

“I repeat: I’m not a global warming believer. I’m not a global warming denier. I’ve long believed that it can’t be good for humanity to be spewing tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

Regrettably these sentences were followed by this sentence: “I also believe that those scientists who pretend to know exactly what this will cause in 20, 30 or 50 years are white-coated propagandists.” And everything fell apart from there.

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The biggest problem with this point is that those white-coated propagandists are white-coated strawmen—people who, for all practical purposes, don’t exist. Krauthammer either has not been following the science in the 30 years the climate change debate has been raging, or he has been following it and is pretending not to understand it. (The third possibility—that he has been following it and actually doesn’t understand it—I reject out of hand. That thing about the intellectual octane again.)

The fact that has become inescapable for those who have indeed followed the research, who may have even read at least a few of the scientific papers (and not just the abstracts of those papers—that’s cheating—the whole thing, beginning to end, intro to data-crunching to conclusion) is that virtually no legitimate climate scientists ever claim to know exactly what will happen in 20 or 30 or 50 years. For a long time, in fact, climate science has been built on two core truths: that the climate is changing, driven in meaningful ways by human greenhouse emissions; and that the climate system as a whole is far, far too complex to be modeled or understood with anything like absolute certainty.

Indeed, the researchers typically take pains to point out what their models don’t prove, what they can’t establish with certainty. And subsequent models—often by the same investigators—offer revisions and refinements accordingly. (Again, reading the scientific papers—particularly the final sections in which researchers own up to the limitations of their conclusions and the work that needs to be done in the future—makes that plain.)

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I don’t believe Krauthammer needs any schooling in how the scientific method works; I believe he knows. But when it comes to climate change, he affects a disingenuous, Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer naiveté. I’m just a caveman. These computer models confuse and frighten me. Except that, like the caveman of the legendary Saturday Night Live sketch, he’s not a bit confused. It’s simply ideologically convenient to act that way. He surely knows how the arc of scientific progress plays out—typically beginning with a big brainstorm followed by a billion different squalls and cross-currents over the years that challenge and elevate and improve the original insight but don’t overturn it.

In the 1980s, science determined that HIV causes AIDS. In the three decades since, studies conducted in vitro, in vivo, in the cold brains of computer models, have sought to unravel the impossibly complicated puzzle of how that happens and how medical researchers can best fight back. There have been reverses and revisions and even occasional retractions, but the fundamental truth hasn’t changed. The same is true of plate tectonics and their role in earthquakes. Does Krauthammer pretend that any geologist in the world claims to know what the San Andreas fault is going to do 20 or 30 or 50 years from now? Do we take botched predictions as a sign that there is something fundamentally wrong with the basic principles, that the scientists are somehow venal or dishonest?

Krauthammer’s column was pegged to nine words in last month’s State of the Union Address. “The debate is settled,” President Obama declared. “Climate change is a fact.” To which Krauthammer responded, “‘Climate change is a fact?’ Really? There is nothing more anti-scientific than the very idea that science is settled, static, impervious to challenge.”

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Only Krauthammer knows what he meant when he wrote that. Does he genuinely believe that Obama—who, whatever else you might say about him, is no ninny—was really claiming that climate science, for all its complexity, is fixed and complete and a closed book? Or might the President more plausibly have meant that in a political atmosphere in which members of the opposing party continue to call climate change “phony science,” “the biggest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” it might be time to say out loud that no it isn’t, that global warming is confoundingly, worrisomely, dangerously real, even if there are uncountable unanswered questions about it.

The rest of Krauthammer’s piece was the usual dreary exercise in scientific hole-poking: What about the much-discussed 15-year ‘pause’ in warming? What about the backing and forthing on whether climate change is contributing to the frequency and severity of hurricanes? Answer that!

To which, yet again, I say, read the studies. The answers are there, the complexity is there and the frustrating ambiguities are there too—all spelled out, all acknowledged. But none of that changes this simple truth: the debate is settled, human-influenced climate change is a fact, and so—for those willing to entertain complexity, to crack a sweat to understand something worth understanding—is the scientific method.

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