- - Monday, June 30, 2014

In his presentation to the League of Conservation Voters on Wednesday in Washington, President Obama said, “We know that carbon dioxide traps heat. We know that the levels of carbon dioxide are higher than they’ve been in 800,000 years. We know that the 20 warmest years on record for our planet all happened since 1990 — and last month was the warmest May ever recorded. We know that communities across the country are struggling with longer wildfire seasons, more severe droughts, heavier rainfall, more frequent flooding . Those are the facts. You can ignore the facts, [but] you can’t deny the facts.”

This sort of certainty about things we could not possibly know in the Platonic sense of being “universal, necessary and certain” has infected the climate-change movement for years. Strangely, the most outspoken advocates of such absolutism on climate comes from the political left, while the skeptics and questioners are generally right-wingers.

This seems counterintuitive. Historically, left-leaning opinion leaders have ridiculed the right for supposedly being absolute about such things as morals, politics and religion. Indeed, the claims that science discovers truths about nature instead of simply opinions and beliefs based on observations — empirical evidence that is always subject to interpretation — eventually led to the “science wars” of the late 20th century, a conflict in which the intellectual left were the skeptics of science. It was the German left who supported Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity and the right who opposed it, believing it threatened their cultural worldview.


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This traditional approach — skepticism and relativism from the left and absolutism from the right — has been turned on its head in the climate debate. While conservatives call for open debate about the causes of climate change, left-wingers consider such discussion intolerable and act as if we know the future of climate, a position that is scientifically indefensible and philosophically fallacious.

Initially, it was mainly scientifically illiterate activists who made claims to certainty about climate change. But gradually, many scientists have also come to use such absolute language, or at least remain mute about the vast uncertainties in the science. They fear alienating their intellectual fellow travelers, peers who, even if they are unfamiliar with the science, support the climate movement for political reasons. One of the greatest successes of the environmental movement has been to persuade society to identify environmentalism in general, and “stopping global warming” in particular, with liberalism, since most opinion leaders in society, including scientists and university professors, are liberals. However, this too makes no sense. Some of the most famous conservationists were conservative.

Other left-wing academics who understand the illogic of confident assertion, such as Mr. Obama’s, say nothing rather than undermine positions that they personally support, ideals such as environmental protection and social justice. So they sell out philosophically, backing off from the skepticism they would normally practice.

This is a slippery slope.

Blind acceptance of truth in science has slowed human progress throughout history. For example, when the Greco-Egyptian writer Claudius Ptolemy proposed his Earth-centered system, he did not say it was physical astronomy, a true description of how the universe actually worked. He promoted it as mathematical astronomy, a model that worked well for astronomical observations, astrology and creating calendars.

The universally assumed “truth” of Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and law of universal gravitation impeded the advancement of science for 200 years until Einstein showed them to be wrong. When authorities preach truth about science, progress stops.

When speaking to University of California at Irvine students at their commencement ceremony on June 14, Mr. Obama made many of the same absolute remarks about climate that he did in Wednesday’s error-riddled League of Conservation Voters talk, even mocking those who disagreed. At the same time, he tried to inspire students “to do great things,” dream big dreams and oppose cynicism while imploring them to “push back against the misinformation, and speak out for facts.”

The greatest misinformation of the UC-Irvine ceremony, though, as well as at last week’s League of Conservation Voters meeting, was that provided by the president himself — the propaganda that we know, or even can know, the future of a natural phenomenon as complex as climate change. Chris Essex, professor of applied mathematics at the University of Western Ontario, lays it out clearly: “Climate is one of the most challenging open problems in modern science. Some knowledgeable scientists believe that the climate problem can never be solved.”

Most young people who choose to become scientists do so because they want to contribute to the world by discovering new things about nature, something we urgently need if we are to ever understand climate well enough to prepare for the future. Such discovery requires that scholars question the status quo, not merely go along with it for fear of ridicule or retribution. The Obama administration’s aggressive close-mindedness about global warming has created a climate of fear in the science community that will frighten many of America’s top students away from the field.

All scientifically minded people, whatever their political stance or their beliefs about climate change, must condemn the president for his dogmatic, destructive approach.

Tom Harris is executive director of the International Climate Science Coalition, based in Ottawa, Canada.