Mankind always believes he has reached the point where He knows everything”, my friend argues huffily, “scientists in the seventeenth century were pretty confident they knew nearly everything there was to know. Modern scientists are the same.
Who knows how much of our scientific knowledge will be proved wrong in a hundred years? Why should climate change science be exempt from this rule?”
My friend may have stumbled on a sliver of a valid point, but he still has not presented a convincing case for climate change denial.
While it is true that a lot of scientific theories developed in the past have been discredited, the accumulation of knowledge has reached a stage where science has consolidated the best of its traits and jettisoned the worst.
This is not just a ‘we live in the best of times’ argument. All you have to do is look around you and see the sea of changes that has made our society sophisticated beyond the dreams of our ancestors.
“But climate change is a theory!” My friend protested “What is a theory, if not merely an idea being proposed?”
On the surface that is a good argument, but my friend was allowing himself to be tripped up by words. The word ‘theory’ has a different meaning in the science contest than it does in everyday life.
In science, the word theory is used when empirical evidence points strongly enough to a certain idea that it is, to all intents and purposes, a fact. Evolution is a theory for example, but this is because there is a huge wealth of evidence which suggests it accounts for the way human life has evolved.
Granted climate change science is not as certain and straightforward as many other science disciplines and that’s an obvious problem. However it is in the same ballpark and within the same framework.
My friend then notes that even if climate change science is correct, then the developed world is to blame. After all, the emissions of developing nations were-and are- so small as to be insignificant. If we didn’t cause the problem, he wondered, “what we are doing in Copenhagen”?
Furthermore, the developed nations have already achieved a high degree of economic and technical progress by persistently creating the pollution that is driving climate change.
Trying to incorporate the developing world into any Copenhagen consensus would be a transparent attempt to keep the emerging nations down.
Of course it would be tremendously unfair that the developed world might start demanding sacrifices from their poorer counterparts despite the fact that they’ve caused all the trouble in the first place.
However whatever agreement or treaty comes out of Copenhagen (or any other future summit), it is the developed world that will have to make significant emission cuts (China and India aside).
However it seems to me that even if you are unconvinced by climate change, surely getting together to discuss this critical issue is a vital thing? It is unlikely that any concrete and binding targets will come out of the summit, but I feel that many of its’ benefits are not obvious short-term ones.
Because of Copenhagen, the issue has become fixed in the public consciousness, become a pressing matter on the global agenda and sparked debate. As phycisists know very well, momentum is a very important thing.
Minega Isibo is a lawyer at Trust Law Chambers