We should treat climate change like a personal illness
Scientific consensus is a funny thing. Some writers, especially on the American/British right, seem to regard scientific peer review as essentially a refined version of schoolyard peer pressure. For a practical example, see this short but caustic Breitbart opinion piece named “When You Hear a Scientist Talk About ‘Peer Review’ You Should Reach For Your Browning”.
Even if you don’t quite agree that experts are “very likely a bunch of charlatans and chancers”, and you’re not inclined to point a Browning at researchers, you may feel that there’s something suspicious about this kind of science. Why the necessity to reach a consensus over time? Why isn’t the field capable of establishing hard facts based on incontestable evidence? Even if the consensus includes 97.2% of scientists, doesn’t that mean it’s essentially a “constructed truth” and could change if those 2.8% make some kind of breakthrough? Are the rest just timid conformists who didn’t want to stand up to the authorities that manufactured the consensus?
That’s an appealing narrative in many ways. People want to root for the underdog, the non-conformist, the independent thinker. The existence of a consensus seems to point to a core flaw in the science itself.
At this point, it’s worth reminding that most human sciences are actually like this, including the one that you personally have been relying on to prevent you from dying decades too early — medicine. Did you know that there still isn’t 100% consensus that HIV is the cause of AIDS? There is even a Nobel Prize winner who remains in this camp.
Yet the statistical evidence is overwhelming. If you contracted HIV 30 years ago, your life expectancy immediately collapsed. Today, thanks to drugs that prevent the onslaught of the virus, you can live the rest of your life without developing AIDS. Since the drugs work and all data indicates that preventing and treating HIV infections does prevent AIDS, most medical scientists consider the correlation a matter of fact. Yet that still leaves room for scientific disagreement on the exact process of how the illness develops, so 100% consensus has not been achieved.
For us non-scientists, the implications are clear. If you contracted HIV today, would you even consider not taking the medications and risking your life to prove the point of a non-conformist scientific minority? There’s a 99.9+% chance that you’d simply die very much earlier than you should. Would you give up your life like that, just to give the middle finger to scientific peer review?
We must apply the same thinking to climate change. Think of it as a rapidly progressing illness on the planetary body. The vast majority of scientists agree that carbon dioxide emissions are the “HIV” that is causing this. If it were your body, would you just wait for even more evidence and hope that the disease goes away on its own? Or would you look at the statistics that point to a high possibility of you dying, and conclude that it’s best to start treatments now?
This is not just a hypothetical question. The Earth is not separate from your body. It’s the omnipresent medium that allows your body to exist and function. Climate science is really a lot like medicine: both sciences operate on a system so enormously complex that it can’t be reduced to simplistic physical explanations which could offer 100% guarantees about causes and treatments. (Unfortunately climate science has a sample size of one, not 7 billion, which limits the data that can be collected through experimentation.) If you wouldn’t inject yourself with HIV and leave it untreated, then you probably shouldn’t run such an irrevocable experiment on the planet’s atmosphere either.