What to Say to a Climate Change Skeptic

What should you say to a climate change skeptic?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD,
November 22, 2016
Episode #216

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In the US, we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, which for many of us means dining with family and friends we have not seen in a while. Given the current tumultuous political climate, some people are likely to be passing more than just the potatoes. A source of major concern with the incoming administration is their lack of commitment toward addressing the very real threat to the future of our planet posed by climate change.

So how do you talk to someone who is skeptical about the impact climate change will have? Or maybe that skeptic is you—there is so much information and rumor out there. How do we know what to trust? Well, I’ve got you covered! Let’s break down some of the biggest sources of conflicting information and common misconceptions surrounding climate science.

Misconception #1: Scientists do not agree that climate change is real.

There are many unanswered questions that serve as the source of heated debates among scientists—what is dark matter? Are we alone in the universe? How can we overcome bacterial resistance? Can we cure cancer? What is at the bottom of the ocean? just to name a few —but the reality of global warming is not one of them. A whopping 97% of actively publishing climate scientists agree that the planet is warming and that human activity is likely the cause. Over 200 scientific organizations worldwide have issued statements supporting this position, including the American Physical Society, the US National Academy of Sciences, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Even the U.S. Navy agrees.

Consensus is so high, in fact, that in late 2015 representatives from 195 countries negotiated the Paris Agreement at the 21st Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Signatories offer their commitment to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions, with an emphasis on financial incentives that promote activities and development that do not increase these emissions, as well as a commitment to investing in our ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change so as to not threaten food production. To date, the agreement has been ratified by 109 countries.

In a meeting of over 200 nations last week in Marrakech, Morocco, countries including the US and China confirmed their participation in the effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, members of the incoming administration in the US have voiced plans to abandon the agreement. Such a move would not only hinder the global effort to reduce the impact of global warming—the US produces ~16% of the world’s greenhouse gases—but would also very likely strain diplomatic ties with the large number of participating countries.

Among the general US population, concern about global warming is currently the highest it has been in 8 years. In a recent Gallup poll, 64% of respondents were concerned a “great deal or a fair amount” about global warming with 59% believing that the effects of global warming had already begun. Only 10% of those polled believed we will never see any adverse effects from rising temperatures. Thus, the only people who appear to dispute the claim that the Earth is warming in any significant numbers are politicians.

So 97% of climate scientists have determined global warming to be a real concern. Of course, not all of us are climate scientists and thus able to analyze the data ourselves. Let’s say 97% of all of the actively practicing doctors in the US told me that I needed surgery. But what if the prospect of that surgery made me nervous and would require a big adjustment of how I was used to living? Would I keep looking until I found one doctor, or even a group of politicians, who disagreed? No. You’d better believe I’d get that surgery.

Misconception #2: Climate scientists are exaggerating the issue.  

Climate scientists have very little to gain from lying about or exaggerating their results. A major evaluator of success in a scientific career is the quantity and quality of publications the scientist has produced. Publishing scientific results requires in most cases critical reviews from your peers and competitors making it very difficult to fake results.

Monetary gains for climate scientists are also not evident. The biggest winners—if anyone can be called a winner—from increased attention to anthropogenic rises in global temperatures will be companies focused on renewable energy sources. However, there is still relatively little investment in such companies—half of the top 10 global companies are in fossil fuels according to Fortune – and renewable energy companies don’t typically employ climate scientists.

Perhaps some of this doubt arises because the study of climate science involves complicated models of sources and sinks of greenhouse gases and multiple other competing factors. Any reasonable model will require a number of tunable parameters meaning that the resulting conclusions cannot be 100% certain. But 100% certainty is rare in science. For example, in medicine, we don’t consider it unusual to ask, “what are the chances of this treatment curing my illness?”

Rarely does anything in life require 100% certainty for us to take action. If it did, we’d be in real trouble because no one would ever choose to become parents. We are comfortable assessing risk and deciding on actions to take without demanding 100% certainty and our reaction to climate models should not be any different.

There are thousands rigorous scientific studies that indicate global temperatures have steeply increased due to human activity. 2015 was the hottest year on record and 2016 will likely beat it. Globally, sea ice is melting. Levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have spiked. Even given the uncertainties inherent in any complicated climate model, the odds are not in our favor.


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