There has been so much heated public discussion about climate change that it is hard for a person without scientific training to make heads or tails of the issue. Sure, some of the science is not subject to dispute. It is certain that burning fossil fuels, like coal, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. A simple lab test will show that increasing the amount of a greenhouse gas in an air sample will increase the heat-holding capacity of the sample. And, we know that 2016 was the Earth’s hottest year on record, eclipsing the 2015 record, which beat the 2014 record. So, our planet is getting warmer, but is human activity contributing to the warm-up? That is the real question.
Those who believe that human activity is warming the atmosphere point out that 97 percent of climate scientists say human-caused climate change is happening. However, the skeptics point out that the other 3 percent disagree. The believers say that virtually all of the world leaders support their position. The skeptics counter that two important world leaders, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, agree with them. It makes it hard for a person to decide which side is right.
The skeptics argue that global warming is the result of natural causes like volcanoes and forest fires. The scientific community says that natural causes do produce some greenhouse gasses but that the dramatic increase in carbon dioxide releases from human industry in recent decades has driven the warming trend. They say that billions of tons of carbon dioxide are released into Earth’s atmosphere each year from fossil fuels and industry, including about 35 billion tons in 2015.
The 97 percent of scientists say the oceans are warming, which results in more violent weather; that the oceans are becoming more acidic, which endangers fish habitat and seafood production; that polar ice and glaciers are melting at an alarming rate, which will result in rising ocean levels, which will endanger coastal cities; that changing weather patterns will cause widespread drought and consequent mass starvation and population migration in underdeveloped regions of the world; that military planners consider climate change as a serious threat to national security and global order because of conflict over scarcer water and foodstuffs; that forested areas will suffer more destructive fires; that these climate change effects are increasing and irreversible; and that immediate action is necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to keep things from getting even worse. The 3 percent of scientists say this would all happen anyway so just learn to adjust.
So, what does a reasonable person do? Like any other problem, it seems best to rely on the people who are knowledgeable about the issue. I would not ask a financial adviser to diagnose an illness or take my car to an ice cream shop for repairs.
And, I would put more faith in a consensus opinion of experts, rather than a minority position. If I had a serious illness and 97 percent of the specialists said I would surely die without undergoing a certain treatment, while 3 percent dissented, I think any reasonable person would go with the majority. Even if I discounted the opinions of half or two-thirds of the 97 percent I would not go with the 3 percent because the stakes are too high. While this is not a particularly scientific approach, it seems to make common sense. When knowledgeable experts tell us that the failure to take action to combat climate change will be catastrophic for life on this planet, does it make sense to ignore them and do nothing?
Jim Jones, who retired as chief justice of the Idaho Supreme Court in January, is a frequent contributor to the Statesman Opinion pages.