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It’s Time to Rescue Science from “The Science”

Since we launched this organization three years ago, I’ve had a few elected officials, their spouses and senior aides ask me, sometimes in a whisper, what I really think about the science. I always welcome these conversations, but I’m saddened by how perilous it is for people in positions of power to be curious. If you express insufficient belief, you’re branded with the Scarlett Letter of climate denial. If you express too much confidence, you’re a climate alarmist and an enabler of the pagan left.

>>>READ: Economic Cooling Won’t Stop Global Warming

America – and the world – desperately needs a truth and reality-based conversation about climate change. An important step, but not the only step, in that process is to look at climate risk honestly without cherry-picking arguments that exaggerate or minimize risk. That’s what the primer we’re releasing today hopes to accomplish. 

As Nick Loris, our VP or Public Policy, writes in our primer:

“Even with the clearer picture of our climate future and the well-established scientific fact that human-induced warming affects the planet, there is a great deal of uncertainty communicated in the mainstream body of climate literature. The way in which climate experts communicate the science, the risks, and the uncertainties is critical to earning the trust of the public and best informing policymakers.”

That process – and my real-world conversations – begins with an attempt to extract science from “the science.” Usually, the prefix “the” is reserved for sacred texts that contain inviolable and immutable truths – The Torah, The Holy Bible, The Scriptures, The Koran, The Bhagavad Gita, and so on. These texts may well be at the end of science and reveal a reality beyond science, but they are different from science. These texts change us; we don’t change them. 

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To be clear, I’m not implying faith and science are in conflict. In fact, I’m suggesting the opposite. In my tradition, the charge to love God with your mind – to reason – is part of what’s called the Greatest Commandment, not the greatest suggestion. Faith and science are in conflict only if you disobey Jesus’ command to be scientific, to think. 

The true enemy of genuine science isn’t faith or metaphysics but “the science.” Science is about curiosity and data. The Science is about certitude and dogma. Science is advanced through humility, a desire to have cherished theories proven wrong so new data and evidence can fill gaps and bring us closer to a better understanding of reality. The Science is advanced through hubris. Science is about training yourself to learn. The Science is about telling someone else to listen. Science is amendable to reason and always open to modification and improvement. The Science is settled. Period. 

The word “settled” isn’t the language of science; it’s the language of ideologues, activists, and politicians. Now, this doesn’t mean there aren’t things we can know to be true in a practical sense. The explanation behind how gravity works is very much unsettled and is one of the deepest mysteries of science but it’s a safe bet that if you jump out of an airplane, you had better have a parachute. 

In the climate debate there are some important things we can know with practical certainty (i.e. the parachute analogy). First, as a farmer and landowner (I own a 62-acre pre-Civil War era farm in Maryland’s Pleasant Valley) I know that apart from the CO2 question human beings unquestionably have a major local and global impact on their natural environment. Like many landowners, I’ve invested considerable time and treasure battling invasive species that are the direct result of human-induced climate change (i.e. transportation technology). Ships, planes, and trains have transported biologics (bugs, animals, bacteria, fungus, etc.) to places they don’t naturally belong. 

On my land, dozens if not hundreds of ash trees have been knocked out by the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle from Asia. The gaps in the canopy create opportunities for fast growing invasive species like the Tree of Heaven, which attracts the spotted lanternfly that could decimate the magnificent black walnut trees that grow close to my 1820 home. At least one of my walnuts was probably a sapling when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were alive. Protecting my family’s property requires me to think deeply about ecosystems. 

>>>READ: Invasive Species: An Environmental Threat Multiplier

I think about ecosystems inside as well. Our somewhat battered dining room floor (we prefer to see it as “weathered”) could perhaps be refinished but never restored because the wood it’s made of – American Chestnut – no longer exists. Between 1900-1940 an invasive fungus wiped out 4 billion American Chestnut trees. These stories aren’t hoaxes but historical facts. 

The invasive species example is worth studying because it illustrates the essence of climate risk. As I’ve seen on my own land, asking ecosystems to adapt faster than they’re capable of adapting creates consequences we can’t predict. 

The second thing I know about the parachute analogy certainty comes from the unsettled field of quantum mechanics. Photons from the sun behave with wave-particle duality (they behave as both particles and waves simultaneously). Infrared spectrum photon waves pass by smaller molecules like nitrogen and oxygen but hit, excite, and heat larger molecules like CO2. About half of this heat is dispersed into space while the other half stays in the atmosphere. This is the “greenhouse effect” and we know it’s real and not a hoax because we exist. Without the greenhouse effect the earth would be a frozen landscape likely devoid of large, complex organisms. If you disregard “climate science” with its computer modeling entirely and only think about quantum physics, your understanding will take a quantum leap. 

As a practical matter, the correlation between human induced CO2 emissions since 1850 and global temperatures isn’t as certain as the parachute analogy, but it certainly suggests causation. When it comes to implementing durable solutions, our Free Economies are Clean Economies paper shows a strong correlation between economic freedom and environmental performance which suggests that if you want CO2 emissions to decrease, promoting economic freedom might cause that desired effect. 

Our primer, again, isn’t meant to be comprehensive or a final take but a tool that helps policymakers and the public think critically and thoughtfully about risk. Another excellent primer comes from MIT’s Kerry Emanuel who helpfully notes that true science is a “deeply conservative enterprise” and that scientists rarely speak about anything being “settled.”

As a student of ecosystems, I would argue the next step should be to study complexity theory and consider how interrelated systems create the innovations, adaptations, and resilience the planet and its people need to survive. I’ll have more on that in another post, but Neil Theise’s “Notes on Complexity” is a good place to start.

When you let go of “the science” it’s amazing where science will take you.  

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

Copyright © 2020 Conservative Coalition for Climate Solutions

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