Guest Blogger Dr Tim Senior
Dr Tim Senior is a doctor who works in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health. He writes on climate change and health, among other things, and won the Gavin Mooney Memorial Essay competition for an article on climate change and equity.
If you’ve spent any time on the internet looking into climate change, then you may well have come across people who don’t believe in climate change. I have become increasingly concerned about the effects of climate change over the last few years, especially the effects on health – my day job is as a family doctor, and climate change will make us all sick in ways I cannot fix. Spending a bit of my time on Twitter, I do come across arguments between climate realists and climate denialists. Much of this argument is a futile waste of time.
What you want to do
It looks like arguments between climate denialists and other people are arguments about the science, and that is what sceptics want everyone to think. It is really tempting to keep on debunking the nonsense by telling them what the science shows.
You will also get really frustrated, and will want to start SHOUTING WITH YOUR CAPS LOCK ON and insulting the sceptic.
These two things are what climate sceptics want you to do. They want you to make it look as if the science is in doubt and that you need to fall back on insults to make your case. Therefore, however, much you want to, don’t do it.
Why this is not a science debate
Anyone who is really actually doing science or wanting to debate the science will be prepared to change their mind according to what the evidence shows. Given that 97% of the world’s scientists have no doubt about climate change or that humans are causing it, it’s a really really big call to change your mind in the opposite direction.
In any debate about science, it’s worth setting out at the start what evidence would cause you to change your mind.
For me, I’d need a demonstration of the following:
1. That the world isn’t getting warmer. (And this would need to be shown across a range of time series,
not just a single cherry picked one) and use a variety of sources (not just a single one that might cast
2. That carbon dioxide isn’t increasing.
3. That the carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere is being removed somehow (as it doesn’t
matter what proportion of CO2 is produced by humans, if we are continually adding it, it will go up –
like having a dripping tap into a full sink).
4. That we’ve got the physics of carbon dioxide all wrong and it doesn’t act as a greenhouse gas.
So ask your friendly climate sceptic that if they believe they are debating the science, they will be prepared to change their mind if the evidence backs it up. What would the science need to show if they were to change their mind on climate change?
If they ever give an answer to this (a long shot – climate change denial cannot be based on evidence or they would already be convinced) then you can show them the science in that area and see how they decide to dismiss it!
Explaining the consensus
Anyone who does not believe in climate change needs to explain why 97% of scientists working across a whole range of fields know it is happening. They need to explain why every major scientific society, body or organisation say climate change is real. They need to explain why scientists say there is now no doubt. So ask them how they explain this.
I don’t know how 97% of the world’s climate scientists could be wrong about what they’ve devoted their life to studying, but these may be some of the answers people come up with. (I’m sure there will be heaps more that make even less sense).
I just don’t trust science
Which would make me wonder what else they don't trust scientists on. The shape of the Earth? The way our eyes work? The fact that the shape of aeroplane wings can generate enough upward force to overcome gravity? Electrical conduction? We don’t really get to pick and choose our reality. The computer being used for the discussion is not powered by faeries and unicorns.
Scientists need to toe the line to get grants
If you have the evidence to show that a major part of the climate science is flawed, then all you need to do is publish it in a scientific journal. If you really do have the evidence, then you’ll get it into a major high impact journal, because overturning previous wisdom using evidence is what science does and how it works. Scientists love coming to new understandings, find it really really exciting to discover something new. (For example, read about the discovery of the structure of DNA to get a feel for how exciting that was. But they did use imagination and an understanding of the current science, backed up by proper real evidence.)
Strangely, organisations like the Institute of Public Affairs, the Heartland Institute do seem to have a lot of money given to them by companies dependent on fossil fuel, but they don’t use this to fund actual science, just to fund opinion pieces by friendly bloggers. Strange that, if they really thought that the evidence would show there was no climate change.
Science doesn’t work by consensus
No, it doesn’t. But that doesn’t explain why there is a consensus. The presence of a consensus doesn’t show that the consensus is wrong.
Look at Galileo. A lone voice who showed all that group-think was wrong
He did. And he did it using evidence. He was opposed by the Catholic Church who believed in the literal truth of the creation story as described by Genesis. And perhaps even 97% of bishops believed in that account. But Galileo managed to point out through careful observation of the actual world, using new technology that the actual real world didn’t fit with the Genesis account.
Climate Change may have had its Galileo moment. That was when the evidence showed that CO2 did act as a greenhouse gas, and that our production of lots and lots of it did warm the planet, with consequent destabilising effects on our climate. That’s where the evidence points, in the same way the evidence pointed in the direction that Galileo observed.
Also, just because Galileo was right, doesn’t mean that every theory challenging the mainstream is right. You can tell the difference between those that are right and those that aren’t. And that is from the actual evidence.
It’s all a great big conspiracy
If it is a conspiracy we’ll need some evidence for that, won’t we. Just saying it doesn’t make it true. And it would have to be a pretty amazing conspiracy. It would have to include 97% of the world’s scientists. Maybe I’m in the wrong field, but I certainly missed the e-mail on that one. It would have to include 97% of the world’s scientists without any major leaks of what was being discussed, or whistle-blowers. It wasn’t even mentioned in the Edward Snowdon or WikiLeaks revelations, which would be a real achievement. Given that governments haven’t managed to do that, if 97% of the world’s scientists have managed a conspiracy that huge without leaving a trail of paper or a trail of disgruntled followers, perhaps we should invite them to form a world government, because they would clearly be better at it than current governments.
On the other hand, if it were a conspiracy, they’ve done a pretty awful job of actually convincing governments to change. A conspiracy so powerful it can recruit scientists from every field in every country, and not have any significant evidence showing what it’s done, and yet so stupid it hasn’t managed to recruit anyone with significant political power? That’s a really really strange argument to run, and would need some explaining!
How do I deal with climate sceptics?
I ask questions. Don’t tell them facts, don’t insult, just ask questions and hand them some rope. Be genuinely curious about their answers – the more you ask, the harder it is to maintain their position. At some point they have to bump up against reality and it looks pretty stupid.
Here are some questions to start:
· As you’ve looked into this in some depth, what would the evidence have to show for you to change
· How do you explain the fact that 97% of scientists working across all areas of the field think climate
change is happening and we are causing it?
Don’t shout facts. And instead of letting your exasperation show, handwrite a letter and send it to Is this how you feel? And share any answers you get in your discussions. Some of them are bound to be funny!