In threerecentposts, I offered some thoughts about the parallels among environmentalism, religion, and authoritarianism. I want to continue that line of discussion for a moment with a weather report. It's been a very snowy winter here in Canton, over 100 inches actually, which is 50% above our average of about 66. Ottawa to our north has had over 400cm, or 157 inches. We are both nearing our snowiest winters ever. It has been cold, though none of those -30F nights that we usually have a couple of each winter. Still, it's been a "real" winter like we haven't seen for years up here. Thus it's tempting to make all kinds of snarky remarks about global warming. But I'm not going to do that because I'm always quick to criticize people who use every heat wave or warm summer to make claims about a phenomenon whose reality is a matter of decades or centuries, not weeks or years. However, this winter does raise another point that I will get to below.
First, I'll admit that I'm a global warming agnostic. I'm pretty convinced that the planet has become warmer in the last couple of decades (although recent controversies about measuring equipment and whether the warming is more localized keep me skeptical). I'm less convinced that the cause of the warming is human activity. I can't dismiss the possibility, but I'm not as convinced as fellow libertarian Ron Bailey. Here too, recent arguments about solar activity keep me skeptical. Finally, even if global warming is real and human-caused, that says nothing about whether it's: a) something we can do anything about; b) if so, what we should do about it; and c) whether any proposed solutions create more costs to humanity than benefits. It's a long way from a warming world to getting rid of the internal combustion engine. Whatever the reality of the science, the policy solutions will also require some social scientific thinking.
What is troubling me today though, and here's the connection with religion, is the change in the rhetoric by those who believe global warming is real, human-caused, and that it requires a major change in the way we live. For fun, start a discussion with such a person about the current snowy, cold winter and do make the joke about how it is evidence against global warming. My bet is that their reaction will be something like this: "Oh no, it's evidence in favor. You see it's not about 'warming' per se; it's about 'global climate change.' Thus the fact that some areas are having cold, snowy winters is something that 'global warming' would predict, just as it predicts more and stronger hurricanes and all other kind of things. We should expect a more varied climate."
One smaller observation about this line of argument is that it seems to fit the more general "fear of change" that we see among many on the left and right about all other kinds of issues, mostly economic. The earth's climate has "changed" for billions of years, long before humans walked it. Why would we expect it to stop changing because we're here (and as if "we" as human animals aren't part of the earth's ecology anyway)? And how much hubris does it take for us to think we can stop such change? George Carlin got this right years ago.
We've also seen the human costs of a similar hubris in 20th century "socialism." Why would we expect this to be any different?
But that's not the big problem here. The big problem with the "climate change" hypothesis is a very simple issue of the philosophy of science: is the hypothesis of global climate change/warming falsifiable? A much better question to ask your environmentalist friends is this one:
"What climatological or meteorological evidence would convince you that your belief in global warming is wrong?" (Of course they have the same right to ask this of skeptics - what evidence would convince you that the world is, in fact, warming?)
I've tried this and the reaction varies from indignation at having to answer it, to lots of hemming and hawing about possible answers, to serious and thoughtful replies. The point, however, is that those who assert the truth of the hypothesis of global warming have a scientific obligation to have a legitimate answer to that question. If they do not, or if they reject the idea that they must, they are ruling themselves out of the science business and into the religion business. Global warming becomes the equivalent of "it was God's will." The hypothesis that event X was "God's will" is unfalsifiable and is thus purely a matter of faith. Of course, in our best Seinfeldian voice, we might say "not that there's anything wrong with that." Indeed, faith and religious belief are fine, but they aren't science. (Note to my philosophically-inclined readers: I'm not advocating a full-bore Popperian philosophy of science here. I do, however, believe that falsifiability is a necessary condition for a statement to be considered a scientific hypothesis.)
If those who believe that the earth is warming and that humans are the cause want the claim to Science rather than Faith, they had best be prepared to show that their hypothesis (and, like everything else in science, it remains a hypothesis subject to being rejected) is falsifiable and what the evidence would be that would falsify it. When an increased frequency of cold and snowy winters is claimed to be evidence in favor of the hypothesis of global warming, the set of observations that could falsify it seems to shrink dramatically. And my agnosticism and skepticism expand accordingly.