New research out Monday seems at first glance to give climate doubters new ammunition in their war against climate science. In fact, it undercuts one of their essential criticisms.
The peer-reviewed journal Nature Geoscience released a surprising new paper finding that the world may have a little more room than previously thought to cut greenhouse gas emissions. A group of European scientists — foreigners, no less! — recalculated the Earth’s “carbon budget,” which is the amount of carbon dioxide humans can add to the atmosphere before risking dangerous temperature thresholds. They found that humanity’s remaining emissions allowance may be significantly larger than previous calculations. That means that the world may have a better chance of keeping warming to relatively benign levels if governments act with ambition now — or that they may have more time to dawdle before the problem gets bad.
The paper unsettled climate circles. Expert critics suggested to Post reporter Chris Mooney that the paper failed to account for atmospheric aerosols and other factors that can confound warming estimates. Scientists will not suddenly adopt the rosier assessment. That will take much more scrutiny, debate and research.
Moreover, even if the paper’s conclusions are correct, it is no excuse for inaction. Human activity would still clearly be warming the planet. People would still have to stop burning fossil fuels, and quickly, to avoid very bad climate outcomes. The real argument to act on climate change never assumed that experts’ most alarming predictions were guaranteed to happen. The experts were never definitive enough to justify that assumption. The real argument rests on the notion that humanity should minimize the risk, precisely because the future is uncertain.
Yet the fact that a major scientific journal, run by and for the very experts the denier crowd so often attacks, published this and other challenging papers shows that the scientific establishment is not corrupt. The scientific process is working. This is what rigorous disagreement looks like.
President Trump is only one of the powerful Americans who have called climate change a “hoax.” Depending on whom you hear, the notion that emitting massive amounts of heat-trapping gases has influenced the measured warming of the planet was cooked up by the Chinese to harm U.S. industry, liberal statists eager to eliminate air conditioning, credulous scientists seeking grant money or a mix of the above. More reasonable-sounding doubters are less outrageous but still argue that mainstream experts are failing to conduct their work with necessary modesty and care. That scientists’ research always seemed, year after year, to indicate that the problem is more dire than previously thought served only to confirm suspicions.
So much for that. The organs of the expert climate consensus do not suppress findings that buck previous conclusions. They merely ask that criticisms meet basic standards and survive the same review that all other serious papers must endure. That radical dissenting literature is not published in reputable journals says more about the intellectual rigor of extreme climate doubters than it does about the honesty of those who conduct and publish legitimate scientific research.