Global Warming and the Posture of Skepticism

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I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it. There was my latest issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine – the “Magazine for Science and Reason” – and on the cover were the words:

“Let’s Cool It on Global Warming–Bjorn Lomborg.”

I was stunned.

I started my professional career working for Skeptical Inquirer. My last book was excerpted there, and I’m currently a contributing editor.

Typically, the magazine debunks real nonsense–pseudoscience, claims about the paranormal, quack UFO visions, that kind of thing. And I’m totally with them: Crop circles are a prank, there’s no Bigfoot or Nessie, and that untested herbal remedy you’re taking might well be dangerous.

And yes: The face on Mars is just an interesting rock formation.

So what on earth was Skeptical Inquirer doing publishing someone like Lomborg–who, as I have shown here at DeSmogBlog, and as others have shown elsewhere, remains scientifically inaccurate when it comes to discussing the real risks posed by global warming?

Lomborg consistently–and irresponsibly–downplays the worst case scenarios that we have to worry about if we just continue to unrepentantly pollute the atmosphere with heat-trapping gases. And sure enough, here he is doing it in Skeptical Inquirer, right at the outset of his article:

Man-made climate change is certainly a problem, but it is categorically not the end of the world. Take the rise in sea levels as one example of how the volume of screaming is unmatched by the facts. In its 2007 report, the United Nations estimates that sea levels will rise about a foot over the remainder of the century. While this is not a trivial amount, it is also important to realize that it is not unknown to mankind: since 1860 we have experienced a sea level rise of about a foot without major disruptions…We dealt with rising sea levels in the past century, and we will continue to do so in this century. It will be problematic, but it is incorrect to posit the rise as the end of civilization.”

This is claimed by Lomborg and Skeptical Inquirer to be the approach supported by “facts and reason.

But in fact, it’s nothing of the sort.

First of all, it’s not like we can suddenly stop worrying about sea level rise after the year 2100. Furthermore, the United Nations estimate cited by Lomborg is being outrageously misused. That UN report (PDF) fully admitted that its sea level rise projections for the year 2100 do not include “rapid dynamical changes in ice flow.”

Which, of course, is what everyone is really afraid of.

Here’s the glaringly obvious and completely terrifying fact: If we don’t do anything about global warming, if we just let it rip, we run the risk of eventually (no one knows exactly when) destabilizing the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. And if these fall in the ocean we’re talking about a sea level rise of many feet, not inches, and the resultant loss of major coastal cities, like New York.

How do we know this? Well, in a part that Lomborg doesn’t cite, the self-same United Nations report explains: “The last time the polar regions were significantly warmer than present for an extended period (about 125,000 years ago), reductions in polar ice volume led to 4 to 6 m of sea level rise.”

That’s the world we’re heading back to if we don’t alter course quickly. In ignoring this fact, in simply pretending that all we have to do is worry about an inch of sea level rise, Lomborg is disqualifying himself from being taken seriously.

So what on earth is Skeptical Inquirer doing publishing him?

I think several things are going on here. One is simply that Lomborg employs the rhetoric of “science and reason” even as he actually abandons both. But alas, for someone who doesn’t really know anything about global warming yet prides him or herself for supporting critical thinking, Lomborg might sound convincing.

Still, Skeptical Inquirer certainly ought to know that not everyone who claims to have science on his or her side actually does. Anti-evolutionists claim the support of science. So did tobacco companies. Indeed, they helped spin off an entire “sound science/junk science” movement that is basically dedicated to calling good science bad and bad science good.

But I think something else is going on here as well, far beyond naievete. A few issues back, Skeptical Inquirer published a very respectable two-part series of articles by Stuart Jordan laying out the mainstream scientific position on global warming (see here).

This was all to the good.

But perhaps in part because the organized “skeptic” movement in the US has so many overlaps with global warming denying free-market libertarianism–for complex reasons that I can’t really address here–Jordan’s articles caused a Skeptical Inquirer reader uproar, leading to several further responses from the author (see for example here).

And now, suddenly, we find Skeptical Inquirer publishing Lomborg.

I really support Skeptical Inquirer. I want it to do well. But to preserve credibility, it needs to cast aside the skeptic-libertarian readers who simply refuse to accept the overwhelming reality of global warming.

In this sense, publishing Bjorn Lomborg–whose claim to the mantle of science and reason cannot possibly be sustained–was a huge step backward.

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