Climate change talk at the botanical gardens

On August 31st I gave a small public talk at the Tofino Botanical Gardens. The announcement was circulated on a local newsgroup and looked something like this:

"Climate change has not been proven therefore it should not be believed." 
How public misconceptions about science harm the debate about climate change.

Wednesday, August 31st, 201     7:30 – 9:00 pm

Darwin’s Café, Tofino Botanical Gardens

Presentation & discussion, “café style.”
No charge; refreshments available.
Scientists (scientific “producers”) and the public (scientific “consumers”) each face a distinctive problem. Producers face the problem of how to know when their theories and experiments are tracking the truth. Consumers face the problem of deciding which scientific “expert” to trust on matters impacting public policy.  The standard solution to the producer problem is the (so called) scientific method. The standard solution to the consumer problem is to base policy decisions on scientific consensus (as much as possible). Dr. Stefan Linquist argues that both the scientific method and the consensus-rule are flawed, and that these misconceptions about science have negative implications for public debates over climate change. (e.g. that it has not been proven and therefore should not be believed). Join us for a short presentation followed by a discussion of these ideas.

Thanks to the Clayoquot Biosphere Trust for co-hosting this event, and also for providing support for our group. Here is the CBT blog link to their site. 


Approximately 35 people attended the discussion. The audience members consisted of several locals and some visiting university students. For me, the discussion was very fun and rewarding. My aim was to identify some standard misconceptions about the nature of science that can have (in my opinion) a damaging influence on public discussions about climate change. One of these misconceptions is the emphasis on scientific consensus as the deciding factor when debating anthropogenic climate change. It is not the business of science to generate consensus, I argue, and one ought to expect continued scientific disagreement over climate change issues.The history of science tells us that opposition to the status quo occasionally moves science forward. Scientific progress requires questioning of even our most cherished beliefs..Climate scientists should therefore be cautious not to accept without challenge received wisdom about climate change. My concern is that some scientists are motivated into passive acceptance, for fear that their opposition will be publicly misinterpreted. Ironically, that would be damaging to climate science itself. So hopefully the scientific debate will continue. However, (and this is the second part of the message) do not therefore remain complacent about the importance of this issue. 

The second part of my talk emphasized a risk management approach to climate change policy. I like to break this topic down into three different levels or sub-problems. Level 1 concerns the rate and magnitude at which average global temperature is likely to be increasing. I use the word "likely" here for a reason. It is doubtful that science will ever know for sure the rate and magnitude of temperature increase to be expected over the next century. But it is possible to agree on certain probabilities. For example, it is probable (according to what I have read) that a two degree C increase over pre industrial levels is likely over the next fifty years, assuming current rates of emission. 

Once these probabilities have been identified, one can then begin to ask Level 2 questions. These are questions about the secondary effects of a given rate and magnitude of temperature increase. For example, how will a two degree increase over 50 years impact the food and water supply, species diversity, and desertification? Such issues are more difficult to predict, since they must take into account a wider range of factors than Level 1 questions. Nonetheless, it remains possible to assign probabilities (if not certainty) to certain projections. 

It is these Level 2 probabilities that should be carried forward  to the Level 3 discussion. At this level one explores the political and social strategies for managing and mitigating the rate of climate change and/or its social, biological and economic impacts. It is simply not clear that a drastic reduction of CO2 emission is the best, let alone the only course of action. Other options include capture and storage, or perhaps compensation to regions most drastically effected. 

That about sums up the message of my talk, which was geared towards finding a more rational approach to public discussions on this topic. Interestingly, one of the main topics of discussion concerned a challenge to the very importance of rationality, at least as far as this issue is concerned. Several participants argued that people are generally not listening to reason over this issue, suggesting that my attempt to clarify the debate is perhaps quixotic.

Although I did my best to defend the use of reason in the arena of environmental decision making, I do see this as a very important challenge to my view. It is important to know how easily reason is trumped by other psychological factors like fear and greed. I simply do not know. However, I do not think that this issue is well served if participants in the public debate pander to these emotional elements. That, to me, is not a model for public decision making. So, perhaps the role of reason in influencing behaviour is limited, but I see it as the only available option, at least in a democratic society like ours.  

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Stefan, for a very stimulating evening!