In the Two Minute Drill, we explain complex issues in politics in 500 words or less (roughly the amount of words it takes the average adult two minutes to read on a monitor). Politics just isn’t always that complicated. Without the fluff and partisan bias, even the most complex of our political differences can be explained succinctly. This week: it’s Earth Day, and we’re examining the difference between climate skepticism and climate denialism. This is The Two Minute Drill for April 22, 2016.
The “debate” over climate change has been cropping up on the presidential campaign trail. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have released their own proposals to cut carbon emissions and address the threat of climate change. In contrast, both major Republican candidates deny the basic existence of climate change. Ted Cruz has dismissed climate change as a “pseudoscientific theory.” Donald Trump has called climate change a “hoax.” If you pin Republicans down on this issue – by, for example, pointing out that over 90 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring – the frequent retort is that the “science isn’t settled” or that they are simply exercising skepticism and good judgment on the issue. But what is the difference between climate skepticism and climate denialism?
The Explanation (500 or Bust)
Skepticism is healthy, and science by its very nature is skeptical. But it’s important to be accurate in the use of the term.
A popular misconception is that skeptics are people who merely disbelieve things. In a recent article in The Guardian, for example, author Chris Arnade stated that he was “skeptical” that Hillary Clinton would reform Wall Street if she became president, meaning that he doubted the validity of her campaign promises. Arnade was employing the word “skeptical” to reflect a degree of negativity about Ms. Clinton’s promises, and his propensity to doubt or disbelieve them.
The true meaning of the word skepticism, however, has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Rather, genuine skepticism means considering the full body of evidence before coming to a conclusion – in other words, skepticism involves continually and vigorously applying the scientific method to all claims. A climate skeptic, for example, examines each claim on an individual basis, carefully considers the evidence for each, and is willing to follow the facts wherever they lead.
When you take a close look at the arguments expressing climate “skepticism,” what you often observe is the cherry picking of pieces of evidence while rejecting any data that don’t fit the desired picture. A good example of this is the argument that human carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are tiny compared to “natural” emissions.
The argument often goes something like this. Each year, we send over 20 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. But natural emissions, which come from plants breathing out CO2, and outgassing from the ocean, add up to 776 billion tonnes per year. Any emissions caused by humans that are added to the total equation, thus, are insignificant when considering the larger environmental picture.
This argument appears compelling, particularly without a full understanding of the carbon cycle. But the missing part of the picture is that nature doesn’t just emit CO2 – it also absorbs CO2. Plants breathe in CO2 and huge amounts of CO2 dissolve into the ocean. In fact, nature absorbs 788 billion tonnes every year, a careful balance with the amount of natural emissions. What humans do is upset that balance. While some of CO2 the that we are emitting is being absorbed by plants and the ocean, around half of our CO2 emissions remain in the air. This is the reason why CO2 is at its highest level in at least 20 million years.
The “human CO2 is tiny” argument, thus, is misleading as it only gives you half the picture.
This isn’t skepticism. It is ignoring facts and the science. In other words, it is denialism.
And denialism is something quite different from skepticism.
In the words of Michael Shermer:
It is the automatic gainsaying of a claim regardless of the evidence for it – sometimes even in the teeth of evidence. Denialism is typically driven by ideology or religious belief, where the commitment to the belief takes precedence over the evidence. Belief comes first, reasons for belief follow, and those reasons are winnowed to ensure that the belief stays intact.
It is very important to be a skeptic. But it’s equally important not to be a denialist.
Word Count: 530 (bust)
In case you missed it, check out The Weekly Column. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. But even today, there is still segregation in America’s restaurant industry. Read the Column for April 19, 2016.