Climate Skeptics Are Half-Right, and 100 Percent Full of Shit

There are climate debates worth having, but arguments for skepticism are often willfully ignorant.
Lia Kantrowitz
illustrated by Lia Kantrowitz
May 1, 2017, 9:23pm
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

If you view the op-ed pages of the New York Times as someplace to float test balloons for crazy thoughts—kinda like the president's Twitter account—then the debut column from Bret Stephens, the paper's newest conservative writer, is a home run. His attempt to shake up the notion of scientific certainty about climate change caused some scientists to call for a boycott of the paper, and many readers canceled their subscriptions over it. The right-wing internet, meanwhile, insisted the libs are just being dumb and triggered once again, which gave more fuel to ongoing fights about echo chambers and freedom of opinion.


If it's really the "newspaper of record," it is the Times's job to print conservative voices, and Stephens isn't wrong about everything (which I'll get to in a second). But his column isn't just a bad piece but a lousy cover version of a very old argument against science that needs to die: The Plea for Humility to Prevail Over the Arrogance of Scientism.

Stephens acknowledges that there's been a "modest (0.85 degrees Celsius)" increase in global temperature. He never tries to assert that climate change isn't real, or even that it's not caused by humans. But he stubbornly refuses to take the next step, which is to note the effects climate change is already having—effects documented by the paper he works for. Instead, he insists that it's arrogant to predict the future, and here we should unpack why he's wrong about that.

See, Stephens is technically right that we don't know how severe the other effects of climate change are going to be. By the same token, if your car veered into the wrong lane, you don't know for sure that something bad is going to happen. Why steer back into your lane? Maybe you should be a radical empiricist, ignore the fact that you just hit a bicycle, and wait for absolute proof in the form of a head-on collision with another car. Or maybe that car is a one-time anomaly. There's no reason to take action until you're sure an oncoming semi just hit you.

Sarcasm aside, there is uncertainty when it comes to climate change—especially if you go out of your way to look for it. Stephens quotes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which compiles multiple models and comes up with diplomatic and often conservative estimates of change and projections for the future. For instance, everyone knows that sea levels have risen about 0.19 meters, or about 7.5 inches, since 1901.


But some stuff is a little shakier. We should be hesitant to trust one trend line on one graph and say, "This is exactly where sea levels will be in X number of years," or, "This is what the temperature will be in April in New York, in 2037." There's a lot we can't say for certain about how, for instance, ocean currents will change, and those currents have a huge effect on weather patterns. And scientists are still catching up when it comes to glacier mass and melting patterns because they just started gathering important data as recently as 2010. Also, very long-range predictions like that one from last year claiming that in the year 2500, there'll be 50 feet of sea level rise—which would wipe out entire low-lying countries—might be off base.

Watch this VICE News Tonight segment on a group that prepares scientists to run for office:

As someone who writes about the near-term effects of climate change, I know that it's important not to speculate too wildly, or at least to make it clear when you're speculating. But as abstract as it can sound on the Times op-ed page, climate change is an existential issue, and we can't afford to wait around to be certain.

Take an issue like biodiversity. Will climate change directly result in extinctions? Absolutely, and it probably already has. But of course we don't know how many extinctions climate change is going to cause. More important, we don't know how many extinctions humanity could survive. If we only lose 5 percent of all species on Earth, maybe we'll all starve. Then again, maybe humans will wipe out 99 percent of all biodiversity on Earth and be completely fine, comfortably reading the New York Times in our domes while waiting for nightfall so we can scavenge for nutritious swamp lichens. There are lots of climate change outcomes between "the literal apocalypse" and "actually it's nice you can wear shorts whenever"; most of the likelier ones are extremely shitty, so we should work to prevent them. And even if an unlikely outcome occurs, it might be unlikely in the wrong direction—i.e., worse than even pessimists expect.

Sure, it's useful to have debates about weather patterns and ocean currents, or look ever more closely at the speed at which glaciers melt. I look at the blog of climate change denier Anthony Watts all the time, because in looking for errors he sometimes spots faulty assumptions. But going back to my car analogy, this is all kinda like trying to figure out whether you'll be decapitated instantly by a stray piece of door frame when the head-on collision happens or if your ribcage and internal organs will get crushed. Interesting details, but instead of focusing on them, why don't you just get out of this lane?

Stephens is correct when he quotes Times climate change writer Andrew Revkin about how alarmist hyperbole about the end of humanity "could even be counterproductive if the hope was to engage a distracted public." It actually annoys me that people who know about climate change are focused on the apocalypse: "I guess I'm causing the apocalypse, LOL!" they say as they fire up their SUVs. The apocalypse is not the point. Certainty is not the point. Cigarettes might not give you cancer, and if you do get cancer, it might not kill you. Does that mean that we should smoke all the cigarettes we want?

There's no debating that a hotter future is coming, and no debate that it sounds shitty, and there's no debating that it's insane to rush headlong into that hotter future because maybe it'll be fine. It's OK for us to collectively fight for a better future—not because we'll all die otherwise, but because that's just the future we want.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.