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(Summer Liu / The McGill Tribune)

Skepticism in climate science: Reasonable or regressive?

Science & Technology by

Ninety-seven per cent of scientists agree that humans contribute to climate change. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, falls into the other three per cent.

“Even if we are causing [environmental change], it’s hardly anything,” Moore said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. He describes himself as a “sensible environmentalist” and left Greenpeace in 1986 over policy differences.

The study that released the 97 per cent scientific consensus on climate change in 2013 has since been popularized and widely disputed, most studies since agree that the number is above 80 per cent, and more often above 90 per cent. Moore, however, quoted a different study by Legates et al. that stated that the number of scientists who agree recent warming is anthropogenic—or due to humans—was 3 per cent.

According to American climatologist Judith Curry, former chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, few scientists deny that humans are contributing to climate change.

However, Moore claims that fossil fuels are 100 per cent organic—after all, they are made from decomposed organic matter in ancient forests and seas. He has focused on the effects of carbon dioxide and believes that the increase of atmospheric carbon dioxide is beneficial to life on Earth.

Moore also pointed out that there has been a greening of the Earth in recent decades because of the increase in carbon dioxide levels—this greening represents an increase in leaves on plants and trees.

Curry also referred to this recent greening. Curry doesn’t label herself a “skeptic” or “denier”—labels which she says mean nothing in the context of science.

“The term I use to describe myself is ‘scientist,’” Curry said. “It is the job of every scientist to continue to re-evaluate the evidence and question conclusions.”

Curry said that through land use changes and greenhouse gas emissions, humans are warming the planet. But it’s important to separate the natural from the anthropogenic. Wayne Pollard, professor in the McGill Department of Geography and a researcher in the Arctic also recognizes that humans are involved in changing the environment, but that the role humans play is only partly understood and may be exaggerated.

“We’re screwing up the environment—there’s no doubt about it,” Pollard said. “And we’re also, in the process, changing our climate. But [the] climate [also] changes naturally.”

“There are natural mechanisms which have changed every aspect of the Earth’s system,” Pollard said. “Whether it’s the composition of the atmosphere, the geometry of the continents, [or] the erosion of carbonate rocks.”

However, he acknowledged the changes we’re seeing now and the rapidity with which they occur, and how human activity augments some of them.

“The Earth as a system is made up of an infinite number of smaller systems that are connected,” Pollard said. “That’s the fundamental concept of a complex adaptive system.”

Changing one subsystem will cause it to seek a new equilibrium, thus affecting all surrounding systems and causing a cascading effect.

For Pollard, deforestation is one of the worst anthropogenic changes to the environment because forest ecosystems serve as vital air filters on Earth.

In terms of deforestation, there is a larger area of forest in Canada and the United States today than there was in 1900. Moore said that higher agricultural productivity and the need for less land have caused land that was used for agriculture to be repurposed into forest.

However, the Earth’s surface is also drastically changed due to agriculture, land use, and mining. Landscape changes are important not only due to their scope, but also their effect on how heat is stored and released within the Earth’s climate system.

On the other hand, Moore believes that devastation isn’t caused by landscape changes like fracking, drilling for oil, and even open-pit coal mining.

“At least in all the industrialized countries, and in mining operations conducted by companies based in industrialized countries, reclamation of the land is a requirement after mining,” said Moore.

Furthermore, he believes that there is no proof of a causal relationship between carbon dioxide and rising temperatures.

“About a third of the carbon dioxide humans have ever emitted [has] been emitted in the past 20 years or so, and there just isn’t the kind of exponential increase in temperature to go along with the exponential increase in carbon dioxide,” Moore said. He also claimed that carbon dioxide levels are more often out of sync than in sync with temperature.

Curry, on the other hand, disagreed with Moore’s claim.

“There is a well-known physical mechanism whereby carbon dioxide emits and absorbs infrared radiation, which warms the Earth’s surface,” Curry said.

Pollard is sure that there is a causal relationship between carbon dioxide levels and temperature. He added that methane and nitrous oxide are worse than carbon dioxide—two other greenhouse gases (GHG) which many scientists argue contribute to climate change. But, by volume, carbon dioxide is still probably the most damaging GHG to temperature increases.

However, focusing on greenhouse gases is examining only a small piece of the system.

“Part of the problem is that we’re focusing on the obvious parts of it,” Pollard said. “We’re not looking at the whole system,”

Another issue Moore, Curry, and Pollard all seemed to be skeptical about was the validity of climate models.

“There’s a recent compilation of about 10 sea-level studies which are basically questioning [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA)] numbers and saying they’re manipulating [them],” Moore said.

While people who are basing their estimates of sea level rise on actual observations of the tides are observing rises of about 1 mm a year, NOAA’s estimates, which are based on satellite measurements, are 3.9-4 mm a year.

Moore explained that temperatures appear to be increasing more than they actually are because many of the weather stations which were once in the countryside have been surrounded by cities and airports.

In the same vein, Pollard pointed out that the resolution of instruments being used a hundred years ago were unable to record tenths of a degree change in temperature, which is the change to which we’re comparing recent measurements. Claiming a hundred-year record of observation in some places thus presents data manipulation that’s based a lot on satellite imagery.

According to Pollard, even credible, high-impact journals like Science and Nature are publishing hyperbolized studies.

“I would argue that scientists are overreaching some of their scientific credibility by trying to be sensational,” Pollard said. “I’m not a cynic on models, I just believe that models can be manipulated to a biased outcome.”

Pollard stressed that this manipulation is often not deliberate, but arises indirectly due to a desire to get published. Pollard said the rise of science journalism has also contributed to a growing amount of ‘sensationalized science.’

“I believe that there’s a need to publicize it,” Pollard said. “I’m just critical of my colleagues who want to draw attention to their work, and see the media as […] validation as opposed to peer review. Science should be about knowledge. We should rely on the bureaucrats and politicians to take our knowledge and work with it but instead the bureaucrats and politicians are taking the newspaper version of it. And I think that’s leading to an improper interpretation.”

For Moore, it’s difficult to know which graphs to trust. Pollard, on the other hand, said that it shouldn’t be a question of trusting or not trusting anyone. And that hyperbolizing the issue isn’t necessarily bad.

“I think overreaction, when it comes to this, is probably not a bad thing because we do have to scare our society [to spark a certain level of change],” Pollard said.

Moore still sticks by his research and reasoning and does not believe that we should move away from fossil fuels.

“[Fossil fuels] provide 85 per cent of our energy […],” Moore said. “Fossil fuels will be the mainstay of global energy for centuries to come now that we have discovered the shale oil and gas of which there are nearly limitless supplies.”

Despite this statement, Moore paradoxically admitted that fossil fuels pollute the environment.

“The pollution from burning fossil fuels without any proper pollution control is the big problem,” Moore said.

Curry regards air, water, and soil pollution from energy exploration and generation as the biggest problems.

“We need an ‘all of the above’ energy policy,” Curry said. “At the same time, we should work to minimize the environmental impact of our energy production [….] All other things being equal, everyone would prefer clean over dirty energy.”

Climate change is an issue complicated by economics and politics. Although most scientists agree that there is anthropogenic climate change, climate change deniers like Moore bring up critiques that may strengthen climate research and proposed solutions in both the scientific and political communities.

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