APR 12, 2013 TONI KLEMM
A chat about ice cores and oil business
A couple of evenings ago I had an interesting discussion with a friend of my roommate. Let’s call him Pete. Pete, the climate sceptic.
Pete and I had never met before, so we started with the usual introduction, and continued with the usual “Oh, where are you from?” after people notice my foreign accent. This is usually followed by “How did you end up in Oklahoma?” and that is sometimes preceded by “And what do you do here?” This time though, we didn’t make it to the How-I-got-here part.
“So you do climate research? Do you believe in global warming?”, Pete asked me, and I noted a slightly provocative touch, but still okay. I nodded my head and said “Sure. – You don’t?” He shook his head: “Not in global warming, but in climate variability.” Now, you don’t hear ‘climate variability’ all too often from people outside the field. But I wasn’t sure what he was aiming at and asked for more. “Well, I don’t think it’s getting warmer overall. The climate’s always been changing, there were always warm and cold periods like now. How do you know it’s never been as warm as now?”
“Do you really believe in these ice core things?”
Good point actually. Offhand I did my best to break down how tree ring analysis, pollen analysis and ice core sampling worked, but Pete remained unconvinced. “Do you really believe in these ice core things? I mean how do you know what those concentrations really mean?”
This was going to be tough. The last time someone tested me about age dating was a professor three and a half years ago in an oral exam. “Scientists know about the effects of certain gases from today’s measurements. They might only be a hundred years long, but that’s enough to learn how ice core samples respond to changes in the atmosphere.” I wasn’t entirely sure about any of this. But it made sense to me, so I was hoping for the best. Thankfully he acknowledged my overwhelming, all-encompassing knowledge and shifted topics. Slightly.
“Why do you trust the 60 and not the 10,000?”
Some scientists, Pete said, were saying global warming isn’t real and the fuzz about greenhouse gases is just for scientists to get more funding and for the government to stress the oil companies. I had read these “findings”, too, but I didn’t expect people to believe this so much that they are actively defending it. But here I was, first time for everything. “So, assumed 10,000 scientists agree that the earth is warming and we’re the ones to blame, and 60 scientists (which is actually a realistic ratio¹) argue they’re wrong. Why do you trust the 60 and not the 10,000?” – “I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be a perfect argument for working against the oil and gas industry?” I didn’t have any more facts to that, so I countered with a question of my own. “Why would a government, whose wealth is so much based on oil, want to get rid of a major profit supplier? That’s like cutting off the branch on which you sit.” Maybe he had just noticed the gap in his argumentation, or maybe my dazzling wisdom was still irritating him. Anyways, he shifted topics again…
Our discussion went on, with me mostly responding and him mostly changing directions every time his lines of argument reached a dead end. We touched on renewable energy and fuel-efficient cars, fracking and American oil independence, the great American military (that was his view), the great American economy (that, too), Greece, the sequester, football, red wine, chili, heartburn and smoking-caused cancer. Interestingly, most of this was somehow connected to our original discussion on climate variability.
Scientists shouldn’t be wisenheimers.
After about an hour Pete had to leave, and I hoped I raised some suspicion within him that would eventually lead to a little more critical thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be smarty-pants. I’ve been in Pete’s position a few times before, but instead of learning something I felt miserable and angry after being torn to pieces by some wisenheimer. Scientists shouldn’t be wisenheimers. If someone gives you a glimpse into his or her mindset you should greatly appreciate that, no matter how distorted it appears to you. The reason for that is it shows (1) this person is eager to learn something, and (2) sees in you a trustworthy person. And for someone in climate research, wouldn’t that be something to cheer for?
¹ Schulte, Klaus-Martin (2009): Scientific Consensus on Climate Change? In: Energy and Environment 19, p. 281-286. Abstract available at: http://multi-science.metapress.com/content/d588k23724201502/