Friday, 19 June 2015

The Pope's encyclical is forcing climate skeptics to argue for scientific authority

Spar with any climate change denier on any comment thread or social media platform, and you'll reach this inevitable impasse:

Person A: 97% of climate scientists say it's real and caused by humans
Person B: Science is about evidence, not authority and consensus. 
Person A: But-
Person B: EINSTEIN

You can see the relatively simple progression of this argument in this wonderful discussion I had with US CNBC talk show host Joe Kernen. The idea is basically that credentials are meaningless - knowledge is a democracy. You don't need to be credentialed, to partake in the creation and assessment of research. It's for everyone.

As neatly elucidated by Asimov:


Last night the Pope released the full version of his encyclical on the environment. John Schellnhuber is Angela Merkel's climate advisor, and a leading climate change scientist. He says, of the encyclical: 

"It is very unique in the sense that it brings together two strong powers in the world, namely faith and moral and on the other reason and ingenuity. It’s an environmental crisis but also a social crisis. These two things together pose an enormous challenge. Only if these two things work together, faith and reason, can we overcome it"

It's momentous, because though it isn't a scientific analysis, the Pope is a significant and influential figure. He's the head of the Catholic church - not exactly the most progressive institution in the world. So, it means a lot that he's come out and not only accepted climate science, but openly urged action. 

The climate change denial community is not happy.

First, some tweets from Alex Epstein, who runs the 'I love Fossil Fuels' campaign, and 'consults' for the fossil fuel industry: 









There's something razor sharp in Epstein's (usually careful, stage-managed) tweets. It hurts. It feels like betrayal. It forces him to demand we seek leadership from scientists, not from religious figures.

Jeb Bush, a Republican candidate in the 2016 presidential election, rejected the Pope's advice on climate change. The video below shows a meeting of the Heartland Institute - the arguments deployed below essentially disregard the pope, on the basis



"I think Catholics should examine the evidence for themselves, and understand that the Holy Father is an authority on spiritual matters, not scientific ones" - Heartland Institute Rep

Jim Inhofe, featured in the video above and famous for bringing a snowball into a government hearing as evidence that climate change is fake, urge the pope to avoid expressing views as he's not a scientist:


The Galileo Movement, a Queensland climate denial collective whose name is inspired by a fantastical assumption of kinship with the astronomer persecuted by the church, have re-kindled centuries old hostilities.


It's so beautiful. In rejecting the Pope's assertions, the climate denial community is forced to adopt a tortured logic - discarding the primary principle of climate change denial: you can come up with your own science, and you shouldn't listen to those pesky scientists telling you otherwise.

The Pope actually is a scientist, but not a climate scientist, and even if he were, it's safer simply to refer to scientific authorities and meta-studies rather than a single individual, to establish the correctness of a theory. But people aren't turning to the Pope for analytical prowess on climate data. We're looking for unifying leadership on an issue that demands collective action. He cites the scientific consensus in his encyclical - he doesn't pretend to be a scientist.

In the process, the denial community is forced in to an enjoyably awkward position. It's only going to get worse over the coming days. Enjoy. 

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