Letter to the editor: Science, Politics and Honesty

Posted:  Sunday, October 8, 2017 - 3:30pm
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It is a shame when someone apparently trained in science abandons the principles of scientific inquiry and resorts to political arguments in addressing a scientific question. This was the case in a recent column in the Camden Herald about Sea level rise.

Skepticism about climate science is a good thing. All good science depends on skepticism and intense questioning. To be useful, this skepticism must be directed at the substance of the issue –that is, its assumptions, its methodology and its evidence. Focusing on the possible motives of a person presenting an argument instead of the argument itself, is politics, not science. Granted, the latter is much harder, but that does not mean that politics is an adequate substitute.

Recommendations such as "follow the money" can be useful for NON-scientific questions, but even then, only if they are applied equally to all sides of an issue, not just one. Otherwise, it is not a search for truth but simple hypocrisy. If you do choose to follow the money and the subsidies of the Federal Government for all energy technologies (both renewable and fossil based), you get a very different picture that the one suggested by a selective scrutiny driven by ideology.

What true science can do for us is to reveal what we know for certain, and to identify the likely implications of what we know for certain.

Applying this to climate science, one finds that the CO2 increases due to human activities are the predominant cause of the global temperature increase that we are experiencing and measuring. How do we know this? By examining all of the alternative possible causes scientifically and quantitatively (earth's orbit variations, solar output variations, El Ninos, & La Ninas, volcanic eruptions, other atmospheric gases, etc.) we find that they cannot explain what we actually observe- either individually or all together. Only when you add the scientifically demonstrated effects of CO2 emissions can you match what has actually occurred. So, we can be very sure human activities are a very significant contributor to the observed climate warming. We know from physics that this will result in sea level rising over time. We also know from geology and geophysics that the current atmospheric CO2 levels are unprecedented in all the time humans have been on earth.

Now, as to how much warming, and how much sea level rise and by what date, there is considerable uncertainty. This is because there are so many factors and feedbacks at play that will control the timing and magnitude, not the least of which is what we choose to do about our contribution. We are certain that sea levels are rising and the rate of rising is increasing. The longer we wait to begin addressing this problem, the more disruptive the transition from our current path will need to be in order to be effective. It is NOT time to panic, but it IS time to be responsible and take intelligent action.

What specific actions we should has both scientific and political/economic dimensions. Thus, it is important that we identify both and address them each honestly. This will not be easy or quick, but it is important. Simply attacking the integrity of people on either side of an issue contributes nothing of value.

Finally, the students of the Watershed School and their teachers are to be commended for their proactive and impressive contribution to the discussion we all need to have. Impressive!

D McGuirk lives in Camden