The latest report (5AR) published by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) created an uproar for all the wrong reasons. In the months leading to the report’s release, many climate observers began to speak of how the global mean temperatures have not been rising as drastically as predicted by climate change models that previous IPCC reports have written about.
This information was seized upon by skeptics of climate change, who then went on to proclaim that according to data, global temperatures have actually cooled and polar ice caps have increased in size. They once again accuse political agendas behind climate change, insisting that programs combating a ‘mythical’ global warming is spending millions for nothing and instead hurting jobs and the economy.
2013 Arctic Sea Ice Minimum. An increase in Arctic ice has led to proclamations of 'Arctic ice is growing' when it is, in fact, still on a long-term decline; this is the 6th lowest extent of Arctic ice on record. (NASA)
It does not help that both sides like to make snide remarks or personal jabs that distracts everyone concerned from the real debates. Nor that the IPCC allow ambiguities to slip into their reports or leaks about internal disagreements between members on their findings. These are the things that colour media reports to make attractive readings, distorting critical thinking on the issue at hand.
What should be made clear is that climate change is a difficult science – it is not a laboratory of tests and trials, it is about observations in the real world of unpredictable changes affecting hypotheses, and making proper scientific interpretations of the observations. Not only is it important that we take note of how skeptics of climate change like to interpret data based on their own theories, it would be prudent to move away from a basic error of conceiving science as some kind of ‘predictor’.
Science is not about making predictions. Observations contrary to predictions does not constitute evidence that the science is wrong - precisely because it is not fortune telling.
Good science seeks explanations of phenomena as close to the truth as possible, setting up controlled experiments to test for explanations, thinking about results and explanations within and beyond the current epistemic framework. A theory is not discarded just because observed data deviates from expected observations; rigorous thinking has to be done about its setup, unaccounted factors, even mistaken assumptions.
The science behind climate change has limited access to these conditions. It has to somehow extrapolate laboratory findings into the world and reap in non-laboratory data, making its theories difficult to test. This does not invalidate its theories, only that more work and time is needed for a more complete understanding to come into being.
Perhaps organizations like the IPCC is rightly criticized for not being rigorous enough with their work and findings. But skeptics of climate change would be foolish to point to data (especially data chopped to their liking) and claim that climate change is a hoax. Climate change is not meant to be a predictor; it is both understanding and warning of how our activities impact the environment.
Acquiring and burning fossil fuels, mining for minerals, deforestation, altering waterways, dumping waste – these activities, ferociously increased in activity in recent years, leave behind visible negative impacts; at the same time, the weather has been changing in such ways that lives, livelihoods and food production are seriously at stake. Current understanding, limited as it might be, could be utilized to make good sense of these significant events. One could also spectate this duel in the media arena between skeptics and scientists about who is politically motivated or who has gotten it right or wrong. But one should not see any reason in gambling against the likelihood that the climate could stabilize if we reduce our demands on the environment by limiting our activities.
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