Climate Change, Conspiracy Theory, Science, and Policy

As a marine scientist, trying to convince our society to reverse today’s dangerous global warming, I often discuss such things on social media.

The other day, I had an online conversation that began with a “conspiracy theorist,” so afraid of the specter of global warming and its consequences that he concluded that the whole thing was just all a big fake driven by a sinister cabal of people, cloistered in the UN, who want to take over the world themselves, in a socialist/communist plot to enslave everyone using environmental threats of doom and disaster. Furthermore, the agents of this conspiracy are supposedly the scientists themselves who spout the party line of anthropogenic climate change just to get more money.

This was far from the first time that scientists (including myself) have been characterized as money-grubbing, greedy nerds who will stop at nothing to make an extra buck.

Of the thousands of scientists I have worked with directly, there might have been one or two fitting that description, but very few — just as in normal society. But for such a conspiracy theory to work, the proportion would have to be close to 100% of the world’s many thousands of accredited scientists in on the take, not the other way around.

Years ago I began trying to trace a mechanism of just how such a fake theory would actually be made operational. First, who would subvert thousands of scientists into faking their data in order to make a (presumably) cooling world look like a warming world?

Finally, I was left with merely an incoherent hodge-podge of short, if individually quite logical-sounding concepts, such as, “All scientists must get research money, so they adhere to the ‘global-warming line’ or their research funding gets cancelled.” But then, who would sponsor any such research? “Governments all around the world,” they claim. But to imagine all the world’s governments in on a conspiracy, using scientists as their pawns to take over the world, is totally illogical. If governments were all agreed to unify the governance of the world, they would just do it! Why bother with a stupid, easily falsified notion that “the world is warming” if it is really cooling? They would just go ahead and unify all nations into one vast world government, and be done with it.

One vital attribute of science is to be able to distinguish real from coincidental correlations. For a cause and effect to be real, there must be an underlying mechanism that directly accounts for the correlation. There is no underlying mechanism connecting the so-called fakery of scientists with a UN conspiracy led by all the world’s national governments. The disconnect that I perceived, however, was not apparent to the conspiracy theorist, who was really angry that I didn’t get it. He was angry at the rest of the scientists who, in his mind, were still all at the base of the conspiracy; angry at the idea that his money would be taken from him; angry at the UN; angry at the advocates for action against climate change; angry at adults who let their kids demonstrate in the streets — just lots and lots of anger. In fact, he was so angry that it was impossible for him to think straight and to work logically through the science. So he focused on “the science of climate change” as being perverted — even though he was not, himself, a scientist and, in conversation, made it clear that he really did not understand the basics of climate science. To him that didn’t matter because he was sure he could see where the science had been corrupted. He pointed to the climate models that are predicting dire consequences if society does not move away from fossil fuel use claiming they could not be correct.

By the way, from a scientific perspective the world really honestly is warming and that warming is directly related to human activities. The warming will continue unless we change our policies on fossil fuels, unsustainable agriculture, and removing forests.

If our leaders choose to run “business as usual,” it will result in about 40 billion tons of extra CO2 being added per year into the atmosphere, and many areas of the world reaching environmental conditions that will not support human health, agriculture, or economies. So far, world leaders have given little indication that they are making the decision to move away from these practices.

Back to the conversation with my friend, the conspiracy theorist:

It was actually the basic conclusions of climate science that scared and angered him. So instead of focusing on the “bad guys” responsible for global warming, he concocted a conspiracy theory. He was desperately using the conspiracy theory to change the conclusions of the science. He was incorrectly viewing the “scenarios” that climate modellers have used, as being actual predictions, whereas the scenarios should instead be seen as imagined, possible sets of decisions that world leaders might make in the future, and the consequences that those decisions could have on our climate.

As scientists, we know very well that we cannot accurately predict the future when the major controlling variable is not nature, but instead, is a scrambled mix of variables, including politics, economics, vested interests, ideological belief systems, and many more. We also know that, when a potential danger is likely to occur at some time in the future, we are poor at planning for it. We are usually excellent at responding to immediate danger if we know what we are supposed to do, and especially if there is a trusted leader.

“Well, if science is so uncertain of what the future may be, — how can anyone be sure?”

We can’t be sure which future; because there are many possible futures, ranging from not-so-bad to really terrible. Those possibilities are not uncertainties about nature; they are uncertainties about political and corporate decisions, both of which are outside the realm of science. Our future climate, and potentially the survival of civil society, is entirely dependent on the decisions that world leaders of governments and industry happen to make during the next few years.

The world is already seeing some of the very early changes in the environment from global warming. These changes are going to continue for a long time. For example, with just 1 degree Celsius of average global warming (which is where we are now), the eventual sea-level rise will be about 6m (about 20ft). There is absolutely no way we can avoid this in the future; that is already locked in.

The correct target, therefore, for people’s anger and demands for change is not the science; science is merely a tool we use to help us better understand our world. The purpose of science is to understand and inform. The real target is policy. Neither science nor scientists can create policy. The purpose of policy is to establish or to change behavior. Policy makers are not scientists; they are not involved in research, and neither are scientists policy makers. They do not have the power to make policy decisions, even if they wished to.

The first discovery of CO2 linked to changing temperature was well over a century ago. The research we have conducted since then has informed the world that the increasing use of materials that add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere will raise the temperature, raise the sea level, and affect climate, much of it adversely to human health and well-being. We have published the information in the literature of science.

To date, that scientific information has been accepted by some, and ignored or campaigned against by vested interests, not because the science is wrong, but because policy makers might use the scientific information to change behavior. Many vested interests do not wish to change their behavior — despite the warning information that scientists have provided.

We should all take heart, however, in knowing that there are many technical mechanisms to solve global warming. Engineers and research technologists have defined those mechanisms. So the angry conspiracy theorists would do better to seek the real source of their fear; change. Change is coming whether we like it or not unless global policy is enacted to combat global warming. The question then becomes how do we avoid global warming. We know how: a gradual shift from fossil fuels to a wide mix of carbon-free or carbon-neutral energy can be made profitable, and can also be made in time, assuming that it is followed by the reduction of atmospheric CO2 levels back down to a reasonable level. The fearful and the angry need to refocus their attention and instead, to search for solutions that do not induce harm either to them or anyone else, now or in the future. If the conspiracy theorists were to focus their efforts on policy, not science, that seems to me to be the best way forward. To attempt to undermine the science itself is a negative approach, and doomed to failure.

I, as a scientist, have no power to implement any of these things. I have no influence of any significance in politics or industry, other than to inform them of the cause and effect of our current or future policies that govern our collective behavior globally, such as, for example, to advocate initiating a gradual, profitable transition to alternative energy sources and to reach zero emissions by about 2050 to 2060.

There is no real reason to inflict harm. However, harm, severe harm, will occur if current policies are maintained.

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If the policies of today do not change, the environmental consequences will in any case drive change in our behavior because we humans are animals with specific physiology that has limits of tolerance: wet-bulb 35C is lethal. In many areas of the hot world, wet bulb 35C has almost arrived; close enough that it has already resulted in thousands of unnecessary and tragic deaths. The very biological process of photosynthesis has heat limits as well. When combined with dry periods, extreme hot weather causes agriculture to fail.

Looking ahead to a 10-billion-person world is frankly scary. It is possible for our ecosystem to support a 10-billion-person world for a short while, until natural trends might bring the population down again. But any such correction would not be possible — not even close to possible — in a world that continues to warm.

The basic science behind weather and climate is solid. To predict the future of completely natural climate is not an impossible task. It is complex and has a range of variability that will always be there in the form of weather. The BIG deal with predicting climate today is that science cannot predict the decisions that our world leaders in industry and politics may make. Those decisions are so potent right now because they can override nature. Science can provide “what if” statements. Policy makers can decide to use the information that science provides. Or they can choose to ignore it. They can even choose to distort it.

Who are the big influences on policy? The decision makers — the leaders — within industry are the most potent because they have the most money. Individuals can exert influence by talking about the problem of climate change. Individuals can draw people together to advocate for a common belief about ideology and social values. “The people” also have influence through communication of their combined voices to alter policy. In times of perceived danger to the general public, advocacy groups spring up to protect themselves. The best of those have the collective good in mind but they also need to be sure they create no harm. Science can help inform, but cannot direct actions. That is where everyone can step in and exert individual, combined, and even direct influence on key players among the leaders of industry and politics.

OK, I have given you my opinion from a scientist’s point of view. Chasing conspiratorial boogey men, will solve nothing. In policy terms, simply shutting down the fossil fuel industry as soon as possible without building alternative energy sources would be incredibly harmful. The sensible way is to start right now to build needed alternative energy sources while reducing fossil fuel use in synchrony.

Scientist (PhD marine sciences). Looking for solutions. Focus: ecology, evolution, global warming, energy transition, biodiversity, Indigenous Knowledge.

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