TCS Daily


Philosophy 101: Global Warming Myths vs. Empiricism

By Philip Stott - December 13, 2001 12:00 AM

I think it`s time to re-examine the concept of global warming more philosophically.

Weather and climate change every second, of every minute, of every day, of every week, of every year, of every decade, of every century, of every millennium, of every eon. There is no such thing as a stable, or sustainable, climate. Temperature is accordingly never static; it is always either rising or falling.

Thus, to say that we are now experiencing global warming is little more than a half-truism, assuming that rising and falling temperatures approximately equal out through time. Around 50% of the time we must be warming. Therefore, as long as our scientific instruments are sufficiently capable of measuring the rising or the falling, global warming and global cooling are, in a certain sense, matters of fact.

This is global warming seen as an empirical entity. Yet at this level, we still don`t know whether we are currently warming or cooling on a longer, meaningful time scale. Some temperature curves continue to hint at a slight recent cooling overall from the 1930s and 1940s, as do certain corrected satellite and balloon measurements, while there are even climate models that indicate future cooling. In addition, there remain grave doubts about the reliability of our temperature measurements over the oceans as well as on the land because of the so-called urban heat-island effect.

Despite all this, since the late-1980s, global warming has been turned into much more than the subject of empirical scientific inquiry. It has been re-constructed as a semi-empirical entity, an incomplete symbol, which cannot be easily verified or falsified. In this sense, it has become what Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) called in his Critique of Judgment a matter of opinion. It has become an "object of empirical knowledge which is at least in principle possible, but is impossible for us because the degree to which we are capable of empirical cognition is not sufficiently high."

It is thus in the same category as the example recalled by Stephan Krner, namely, the assumption that other planets are inhabited by rational beings. While such semi-empirical entities are possible, they are ultimately neither verifiable nor falsifiable because of the continuing technical limitations involved.

The technical limitations of our current climate models and knowledge are, to put it bluntly, horrendous. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admits openly that we know next-to-nothing about 75% of the main factors implicated. We therefore cannot allow the global warming alarmists key antinomy to pass unchallenged: namely, that while climate is an exceedingly complex non-linear chaotic system, we can control climate by adjusting just one set of factors.

While the phenomenon of global warming is an empty worry, fundamentally unverifiable and unfalsifiable in a strict scientific sense, it is one that has been empowered with a greater meaning by those who have the motive to do so. Accordingly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, since the early 1990s its intrinsic linguistic emptiness has been filled by a mighty myth, especially in Europe. This myth asserts that current global warming is both faster and worse than at any previous time, that it is not natural, but must be caused by human hubris, and that the main culprit has to be the United States.

The concept has been translated into a matter of faith, transcending "the theoretical use of reason." For the good folk involved, following Kant, global warming has become neither a matter of knowledge nor of opinion, but wholly a matter of morality.

The threat of global warming has, as a result, morphed into the worlds public enemy #1, al-Qaeda notwithstanding. It is the ultimate product of the Mordor of the present age, George W. Bush starring as Sauron, Lord of the Rings, with his genetically modified orcs and spouting smokestack industries. It is the inevitable outcome of a Faustian pact with the devils of capitalism, industrial growth, and profit. It is Christ tempted down from the High Places to the ruin of the modern world. It is the Shire of Europe against all the metal, mills and putrid production of an Erin Brockovich America. It is Harry Potter versus the Quirrells of greed and gas guzzling.

Dangerously, we have allowed all of this myth-making to lead to the Kyoto Protocol, to the foolish assumption that we can actually create a sustainable, unchanging climate (an oxymoron if ever there was one). The Kyoto Protocol is a scientific and economic nonsense that will cost the world dear in economic terms while doing absolutely nothing the stop our ever-changing climate. And the idea that climate change is bad for all is thoroughly challenged in a new book, Global Warming and the American Economy (Edward Elgar Publishing), edited by the economist, Robert O. Mendelsohn, of Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

So, please, let`s get more philosophical about global warming. And instead of throwing yet more good money after bad by trying to halt the inexorable and the inevitable, let`s use that money more wisely to help lesser developed countries (LDCs) to grow stronger economies that will enable them to cope better with change -- whether hot, wet, cold, or dry.

Philip Stott is Emeritus Professor of Biogeography in the University of London. His latest book, with Dr. Sian Sullivan, is Political Ecology: Science, Myth and Power (Arnold and OUP, 2000). Philip also hosts the `AntiEcohype` web site.
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