I think I frequently annoy my girlfriend. Let’s be honest, that’s not really a surprising statement — I think I annoy pretty much everyone.
As a biologist working to address climate change (and with a quite a passion for doing so, I might add), I think I really get on her nerves whenever I try to put myself into the shoes of skeptics. To be clear, I 100% believe that the earth is warming, that it’s caused (or at least aided) by increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and that those increased levels are manmade. There is no doubt in my mind that humans are causing the climate to change in ways that may be difficult to predict, except for this: it will have catastrophic consequences for people and ecosystems.
However, I also think that some level of skepticism is essential — blindly accepting science just because it’s called “science” doesn’t make you any smarter than rejecting all science outright; after all, think about the supposedly causal link between vaccines and autism — that was “science” at one point (though quickly and thoroughly disproven — hooray, science!), and if we had looked at the outcome of that one study, collectively thrown our hands in the air and accepted what some “scientist” had to say…
Obviously, compared to climate change, the anti-vaccine “science” is a wildly different beast — that paper was directly contradicted by dozens of other research papers, and almost immediately a scientific consensus was built that there was no causal link between vaccinations and autism. That’s how we do science — we look into relationships, we find something compelling, and we generate a theory — a model representing the real world — that says “A is probably caused by B, but it could perhaps be influenced by X, Y or Z.” Subsequent studies explore the relationship between A and B to confirm what the first study found, and others explore X, Y, and Z to confirm that they are not major influences on the causal relationship between A and B. Every subsequent study increases the probability that, in real life, B causes A, and we increase the degree to which we believe our models are accurate predictors and explainers of real world outcomes. This is exactly how the major scientific theories and laws were developed, from gravity to evolution to climate change, with varying degrees of certainty. There happens to be a pretty high amount of certainty in both the climate change and vaccination-autism models currently employed.
However, I assert that the debate is still important. One of the really cool things about the way we build our scientific models is that we constantly get to revise them in the face of new evidence; we should always be pushing to find new evidence to revise our models. When people who don’t know what they’re talking about say things like “Well evolution is just a theory,” and people who do know what they’re talking about then say, “Well, so is gravity!” no one learns anything. However, directly engaging the uncertainties could potentially lead to a meaningful discussion (although a model based on past experience states that it probably won’t…). Educating people about the scientific process and drawing comparisons between something they believe in (e.g., gravity) and something they don’t (e.g., evolution) may be a more productive avenue forward: “It is true that evolution is just a theory; however, many of the scientific theories and models that we take as fact today exhibit the same weaknesses that the theory of evolution does. Consider the theory of gravity; the current model suggests that any mass exerts an attractive force on other mass. This mechanism has been empirically observed on Earth and can be used to explain the movements of planets in our solar system, stars in our galaxy, and galaxies in our universe; most recently it was instrumental in allowing us to land a probe on a comet traveling at tens of thousands of miles per hour after a journey of over 3 billion miles. However, one of the weaknesses of this theory is that some of the gravitational movement of the universe is unexplainable due to a lack of visible mass; empirically, it is much more likely that this mass exists and cannot be observed (so-called ‘dark matter’), than that the theory of gravity is non-universal or flat out wrong — but there are still other possible explanations. Similarly, evolution is widely agreed upon to be the most likely manner in which the ecological diversity we see today came into being; however, since we cannot physically go back in time to watch it unfold, we can only say that it is extremely likely — though not certain — that the processes and mechanisms that we see today, including radioactive decay used in carbon dating and random genetic mutation and speciation that we have empirically observed, behaved the same way in the past as they do now. In the absence of other evidence, this theory works as an excellent model going forward, and has been instrumental in HIV/AIDS research, ecology, and the selective breeding of animals and plants, enabling us to feed a population that is five times higher than it was when the theory was first proposed. I would encourage you to look for evidence that supports or disproves these assumptions, so that the scientific community can update its models, and we can do even more — after all, the theory has been constantly refined and changed over the last 150 years in light of new evidence, and it was those refinements that enabled those breakthroughs.”
However essential skepticism may be, there is no room for flat-out deniers. Anyone unwilling to engage with the theory at all should be left out of the conversation entirely, and that goes especially for people controlling policy. This makes it utterly terrifying that the presumptive head of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee has published a book called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future. Meanwhile, the governor of Florida — a state that will be hard hit by rising sea levels — is on the record as saying he’s “not a scientist” when asked about climate change. Congratulations Rick, neither am I. That’s why I listen to them when they tell me your state will be under water in fifty years. This is like a chef walking into his five-star restaurant and declaring “I’m not a food safetyist,” then serving raw chicken to the diners.
Except it’s so much worse than that. Because when a chef gives people salmonella, he’s held responsible. His restaurant is closed, and he can be charged with criminal negligence — or worse, if he did it on purpose. If people die, he can get charged with manslaughter or homicide. When Florida floods, Governor Rick Scott will be remembered for his presidential run or his time in the senate. He may be long dead by the time the true damage is done. In short, he won’t be held accountable for his actions.
So here’s my solution: let’s hold climate change deniers (and for that matter, anti-vaccinators) accountable for their deeds. Every parent whose child dies from a preventable, vaccinate-able disease should be tried and convicted of infanticide. Climate change deniers making policy should be held accountable for the future destruction of life and property that they will have caused. A White House paper estimates that seeing global temperature rise by just three degrees Celsius would incur a penalty of .9% of global GDP ($74 trillion in 2013, or over $650 billion per year). The cost in human lives might be large as well — one estimate suggests as many as 300,000 per year due to malnutrition and severe weather, and those will come disproportionately from developing nations that will have the hardest time adapting to the changing climates. World War II cost an estimated $1.3 trillion and killed an estimated 50 million people — while the cost in human lives might be smaller in the short term for climate change, we would hit that damage total in only two years at current GDP levels, making climate change three times more destructive than a constantly-waging World War II. If these predictions come to fruition, any policy maker who prevents climate action should have their names permanently smeared by history as the mass murderers and belligerents that they are, with their pictures next to Hitler’s on history’s Wall of Shame. Schoolchildren should be reading about them by name in their boiling hot schoolrooms for the next millennium; their families should have to live with the shame of what they did for generations. And they should have no trouble agreeing to this plan — after all, iIf what they believe is true and climate change is not manmade or isn’t even happening, there won’t be any deaths or destruction, and they’ll go down as lone visionaries bucking the conventional wisdom and saving us all the hassle of living in a cold world.