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Fortune/My Turn: Practice what we preach

Scientifically, we are now as certain that global warming is a real, human-induced threat as we are that cigarettes cause cancer. Our nearly two-century improvement in our understanding of the physics of climate change is a tremendous scientific accomplishment. But as teachers of climate science, we have failed. Instead of teaching, we have settled for telling and when it comes to climate change, the difference could not be more dangerous.

One of the strengths of science is that we do not need to unquestionably believe everything we are told about the physical world. Through scientific practice, we learn that not all opinions are equally valid and not all theories are supported by evidence. Scientific claims can be tested, the strength of a theory can be assessed and that testing strengthens the conclusions scientists ultimately draw. Beautiful. And ignored.

In the case of climate change, each new international scientific review of the science reports with increasing certainty that:

(1) our world is warming,

(2) rising atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are the primary cause and

(3) we are the primary cause of this increase, due to our burning of carbon-based fuels.

Why then do we find that in the halls of government, our elected leaders continue to argue whether global warming even exists, let alone is a problem? Why are so many of our representatives unwilling to accept the science, much less the responsibility?

One reason, of course, is that the climate change debate in Congress is not actually a debate over the science. The number of Ph.D. physicists in Congress can be counted on two fingers. The number of Ph.D. chemists can be counted on one. Congress is not a body of scientists, and a true scientific debate is not taking place.

The putative debate in Congress over global warming is in reality a proxy battle between those industries that fear economic losses and those that anticipate economic gains if the government were to mandate a reduction in carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in an attempt to address the issue. It sometimes sounds as if there is serious debate over the existence of global warming, because, as with the earlier debate between the tobacco industry and the insurance industry over the risk of smoking, those industries were either unable or unwilling to adapt or employ “merchants of doubt” to prevent or delay needed change.

And herein lies the challenge for science. The more that science is told rather than practiced, and the more that testing reinforces this emphasis of recall over reasoning, the easier it becomes to suggest that even the broadest scientific consensus is not to be trusted. Maybe its all a conspiracy. Maybe its all political. Maybe they’re all idiots. These people say this, but this person says that. If all you have to go on is what you are told, how are you to decide? In at least this one way, Congress’ failure reflects our own.

After decades of manufactured doubt and debate over the link between smoking and lung cancer, change finally occurred, but only by unwittingly turning a generation of smokers into experimental subjects. Data revealed correlations, advances in cell biology provided an explanation, and the eventual decline in lung cancer following the decline in smoking confirmed our predictions.

Now, in the case of the prolonged, manufactured debate over CO2 emissions and global warming, we again have data, explanations and predictions. Our prediction is that because we are already adding CO2 to the atmosphere at a rate twice as great as the Earth’s ability to remove it, surface temperatures will continue to rise, further disrupting our climate. But this time, the entire population of Earth has been enrolled in the experiment.

Are we ready for that test, or is it time we learn some science?

Nathanael Fortune is a professor of physics at Smith College.

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