A Note on Climate Epistemology

The general populace’s belief in anthropogenic climate change definitely falls into one of those “they say” or “everyone knows” categories. If you ask people why they believe in anthropogenic climate change — and if they are honest — they will admit that they heard about it from the mainstream media, from popular culture, or from both. Honest journalists themselves would have to admit the same thing, even though they would couch it in terms of “scientists say” or the false narrative of “a consensus of scientists say.” A smaller subset of journalists believe whatever the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells them.

Very few go any deeper than that. Those who venture into the science library to see for themselves are a very small minority indeed. I’m still waiting to discover a single journalist who has taken this adventure.

If you keep an open mind and take this adventure yourself, very quickly you will discover many things: that climatology is a young and inexact science dealing with a great deal of incomplete data, that climate science is much more complex than the media presents, that long term climate and seasonal weather are not the same phenomenon, and that there is an entire world of climate scientists out there who are not interacting with the media at all.

Try browsing through some back issues of Journal of Climate and International Journal of Climatology and you will see exactly what I mean. The core of these publications’ articles are meant for specialists, and with that central data we have to trust scientists in their peer-review process. The scholarly peer-review process generally works quite well, though occasionally people will play elaborate hoaxes to reveal editorial sloppiness, neglect, or political correctness (the Sokal Hoax and the Sokal Squared Hoax come to mind).

In any case, the generally educated person can, with enough patience, read portions of these scientific articles and at least get the gist of what the specialists are saying. After all, scholarship is supposed to communicate what the scholar is discovering, and generally they succeed very well. An educated lay person can often read the Introduction, Discussion, and Conclusion sections of specialized science articles and suddenly go much deeper into the field than the average journalist ever ventures.

Not to pick on journalists. They have short deadlines, and it is far easier to spend less than an hour interviewing a professor than to spend months reading her scholarship. Investigative journalism has never made money for news outlets, though quick and dirty sensationalism certainly does. Another problem here is, those scientists volunteering (or even seeking) such media interviews sometimes have agendas, often of the grant-seeking or grant-renewal variety. Some just enjoy the attention, and the celebrity lite status that hovers around certain circles in academia.

So it is up to us to make those research journeys into the science library ourselves if we wish to get a little closer to the empirical material. In fact, that’s the best we can do, short of becoming climatologists ourselves and conducting firsthand research and observation, backed with much institutional support for providing sophisticated and expensive equipment.

By the way, the scientific method has never advanced according to “consensus.” Groupthink shows up all the time in politics, but less so (we hope) in science. There are exceptions regarding politicized science. Good science, instead, should advance through phenomena like open questions, gathering of empirical data, testing and re-testing of hypotheses, and replicable results. A major problem with climate science involves substituting computer modeling for testing hypotheses with empirical data, since we cannot add and subtract climatic influences in the actual climate and measure them accordingly. Computer modeling is only as good as its data, and climate data is not only incomplete, but does not lend itself to obvious or unambiguous cause-and-effect conclusions.

As for how we’re gathering our knowledge, let’s briefly turn to epistemology. “Epistemology” is one of those foundational words and concepts of philosophy. It refers to a theory of knowledge or — as the wags have it — epistemology is “how we know what we think we know we know.” If you enjoyed a movie like The Matrix, it was probably partly because of its epistemological aspect (a subset of its metaphysical aspect).

We can and should take an epistemological approach to things like our supposed knowledge of the earth’s climate.

Epistemology is a fascinating philosophical field, but we can also employ it at the level of common sense. The latter approach is precisely what a basic college education is supposed to instill. It is an attitude or a disposition as much as it is an active practice. And yet it does not seem to be all that common, especially when it comes to emotionally-charged topics, like climate change. In fact, a great many people seem to prefer answers rather than questions — and sometimes, the simpler the answer, the better. Part of this arises from the “tribalism” inherent in the human species; the old, “you’re either with us or against us” type of false dichotomy. Regarding climate change, it is the false dichotomy of “climate alarmists” versus “climate deniers.” Alarmists even tend to lump “climate skeptics” into the other side. But there seems to be no category (no matter how contrived) to accommodate those who appreciate how little we actually know about the climate and the impossibility of predicting future climate.

Questions can make people very uncomfortable, even to the point of making them feel threatened. But if you read your share of philosophy, you probably appreciated that this field is a magnet for those who enjoy endless questions and certainly questions that defy definitive answers. For one of our oldest famous examples, every time someone offered Socrates an answer to a philosophical question, Socrates responded with yet more questioning.

(Or, at least that’s what Plato told us Socrates did!)

As for climate change, consider the following thought experiment. Would you believe there was a climate crisis if the media and popular culture were not constantly feeding you stories of impending doom? Certainly a great many of us could testify to various extreme weather events. But climate? We cannot even agree when long term weather patterns become climate. And by the way, just to address one obvious media bias: journalists usually mention climate change when reporting on summer heat waves or wildfires, but almost never when they report record-breaking arctic cold fronts or winter storms. Maybe this is left over from the idea of “global warming” that various alarmists and crusaders partially replaced with “climate change.” The latter term possibly represents a bet-hedging change in rhetoric, since the climate is always changing — even if the alleged links between extreme weather events and climate remain dubious in many cases. Cause and effect is often mysterious. Furthermore, correlation is not causation.

Consider an example illustrating the interrelated (yet incommensurable) categories of weather and climate. The American Southwest regularly has droughts that last in the 20–25 year range. We’re in one now, but there was also a serious one back in the 1970s. Many anthropologists think it was just such a weather/climate feature that periodically (during the 9th-17th centuries) drove indigenous people out of places like Wupatki, Arizona and Mesa Verde, Colorado, leaving behind those haunting if spectacular ruins. And remember, all of those precolonial displacements occurred many centuries before the Industrial Revolution and the onset of massive fossil fuel consumption.

In describing our current megadrought in the Southwest for Nature Climate Change, A.P. Williams, et al, wrote that “anthropogenic climate trends” were responsible for approximately 19% of the phenomenon. If only climate science could really give us such figures! Actually, I am always surprised to find climate scientists not in the alarmist camp, which would have rendered a guesstimate of a much higher anthropogenic percentage (say, 50% or more). But a guesstimate is all it is, and regardless of percentage variations, any such claim is actually pseudo-science or quasi-science based upon computer modeling far more than empirical observation. As mentioned, computer modeling depends upon the data humans enter into those models.

To illustrate just one factor in this data problem: no one has any idea how much methane or carbon dioxide is naturally bubbling up from the earth’s ocean floors. No one even knows how much methane or carbon dioxide is currently being released from continental volcanic activity, including open vents that spew gases every day and night. CO₂ and CH₄ are standard climate modeling data entries, but obviously those creating computer climate models are guessing at this data. Certainly we have no clue about what the future holds regarding geological sources of these so-called greenhouse gases. And believe it or not, the “greenhouse effect” hypothesis itself has detractors in the scientific community. In fact, back in the 1970s, some scientists even thought atmospheric carbon dioxide was having a cooling effect on the climate, and was contributing to an imminent ice age.

Back to our climate epistemology: the best empirical observation in determining anthropogenic climate change would only be derived from the classic “study case versus control case” arrangement, such as the one medical researchers employ when giving one group of volunteers an actual drug and the other group a placebo . . . in which event you also have the famous “placebo effect” to account for — life and earth sciences are not always as exact as we wish they could be!

To use the “study case v. control case” for measuring anthropogenic climate change, we would need a second planet earth exactly like our earth — same size, in the same orbit, with the same ratio of continents to oceans, et cetera — except devoid of humanity. Even then we would need to be able to compare the two climates without our very observation of the non-human earth altering the results! (The observer corrupting observed results is a much-noted phenomenon particularly appreciated by those working in the field of theoretical physics). But at least then we would actually have an idea of the magnitude of anthropogenic forces regarding today’s climate. Without the “study case v. control case,” we are guessing about the anthropogenic influence far more than we are observing testable data.

That’s how far away we really are from knowing, through strictly scientific means, how much humanity is influencing our current climate. But to repeat my two-cents’ worth of personal philosophy, I do believe in erring on the side of caution. I think climate alarmists are harming their own crusade through their standard Chicken Little and Boy Who Cried Wolf approach. You could make an argument that the contemporary “environmental crisis” in general goes back to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring. I myself have been hearing about the coming doom (any day now) since I was a boy during the mid and late 1960s. At one point in my early life, I found this quite depressing. Little did I know at the time that the source of my depression were doomsdayists, who have been preaching “end of days” literally since written records began thousands of years ago, and probably even before that.

Today I have a very different view, and that is generally one of guarded optimism. To state a complex partial “solution” briefly, if we could capture and sequester as much carbon dioxide as we are releasing (and eventually stop releasing so much), at least that would be erring on the side of caution regarding that single factor, a major one if you believe the “greenhouse effect” hypothesis, and most especially if someday that hypothesis moves up to the status of scientific theory. Moreover, if we could figure out how to capture methane on a massive scale, then theoretically we could even counteract some future volcanic mega-release of this gas.

But if you believe the greenhouse effect hypothesis, then also remember that the most influential greenhouse gas of them all is water vapor. The future percentage of atmospheric water vapor is just as impossible to predict as the future percentage of atmospheric methane and atmospheric carbon dioxide.

When it comes to climate change (or any other emotionally-charged, controversial topic) the first thing we might do is stop and ask ourselves, “How do we know what we think we know we know?”

Copyright 2022 © Will Sarvis. All rights reserved.

FURTHER READING

For a much broader scenario than the “climate epistemology” above, I have an entire chapter about how journalists report environmental science in my 2019 book, Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism. In the meantime, here are the sources referred to above as well as some other related materials:

Larry Benson and Michael S. Berry, “Climate Change and Cultural Response In The Prehistoric American Southwest,” KIVA: The Journal of Southwestern Anthropology and History, 75:1 (Fall 2009): 89–119.

Barbara J. Finlayson-Pitts and James N. Pitts, Chemistry of the Lower and Upper Atmosphere: Theory, Experiments, and Applications (San Diego: Academic Pr., 2000).

Lowell Ponte, The Cooling (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1976).

S. I. Rasool and S. H. Schneider, “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide and Aerosols: Effects of Large Increases on Global Climate,” Science, new series vol. 173, no. 3992 (Jul. 9, 1971): 138–141.

Carol L. Rogers, “The Importance of Understanding Audiences,” in Communicating Uncertainty: Media Coverage of New and Controversial Science, edited by Sharon M. Friedman, et al (Mahwah, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates, 1999), 179–200.

A.P. Williams, et al, “Rapid Intensification of the Emerging Southwestern North American Megadrought in 2020–2021,” Nature Climate Change 12 (Feb. 14, 2022): 232–234.

A great place to begin studying epistemology (or any other topic of philosophy) is through the peer-reviewed Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. All entries are written and updated by established scholars in their respective fields, and every article I’ve ever consulted featured a lengthy bibliography for further study. Tremendously great resource!

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Will Sarvis

Will Sarvis

Freelance writer, former teacher, author of Embracing Philanthropic Environmentalism and other books.