Who Should We Listen to about the Global Warming Crisis?


By David K. Johnson, Ph.D.King’s College

Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said that, “When the experts are agreed, the opposite opinion cannot be held to be certain.” Therefore, because climate scientists have the expertise to evaluate the evidence on the global warming crisis, they’re likely right, and other people should believe them.

Image of climate scientists investigating a hurricane.
If climate scientists have reached a consensus on the issue of climate change, it’s reasonable to believe them. (Image: FrameStockFootages/Shutterstock)

What Does Philosophy Have to Do with Science?

Now, this might be thought of as a scientific issue, but it’s mainly philosophical. What climate scientists are doing when they’re examining data, weighing evidence, constructing climate models, and drawing conclusions—that is science. But what non-scientists are doing when they decide whether they should believe them is philosophy. 

Philosophers have long recognized that most of what is known, isn’t known directly by most people—especially about how the world works. People gain such knowledge through testimony. They read textbooks, listen to teachers, search on the net; they rarely perform experiments or see the evidence directly themselves. But, of course, those telling them about it could get it wrong or even be lying. So how do people know what they should believe? 

On scientific matters, the answer’s simple: people should listen to the relevantly qualified experts. “I’m not a scientist” isn’t a valid excuse for not having an informed position on scientific matters. Someone may not be a medical doctor or meteorologist, but they know what medications they should take and when storms are near.

With what Russell said in mind, if the experts say that a) global warming is happening and causing climate change, b) human production of greenhouse gases is to blame; and c) people need to act now to avoid disastrous consequences, then people should believe them.

This is a transcript from the video series Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Philosophy Can Help with the Global Warming Crisis

Science is philosophy. Philosophy is the mother of all disciplines, and scientists were first called ‘natural philosophers’. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, and scientists simply seek wisdom about the natural world.

Even if people distinguish between what’s now called ‘science’ and ‘philosophy’, philosophy is still needed to answer certain environmental questions that science cannot. For example, science can determine whether the environment is in danger but not whether the environment itself is worth saving. Is the environment only valuable as a means to support human life? Or should it also be preserved for its own sake?

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Is the Environment Worth Saving for Future Generations?

A polar bear stranded on a small piece of ice.
Even if people didn’t need the environment, it would still be immoral not to take care of it. (Image: PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock)

Philosopher Richard Routley argues that by imagining a sci-fi-like scenario where the one person left on Earth sets out to destroy the ecosystem before he dies. Because he’s the last person, his efforts can’t cost a single human life—yet people still think his action is immoral. To think otherwise endorses a seemingly unjustified human-centered chauvinism. If so, environmental stewardship is intrinsically virtuous.

If not, people might wonder whether they are morally obligated to preserve the environment at all. Sure, damaging the ecosystem can render it unusable for future generations, but the members of those future generations aren’t yet born. Can one be morally obligated to look out for people who don’t yet exist? 

Philosopher Jessica Godofsky says yes. Although no particular future person can “consent to a social contract or engage in a reciprocal relationship with present people”, people can still violate the rights of future generations as a group. Indeed, even if it’s not yet determined which persons will exist, that a future generation will exist is determined. And people can violate that generation’s rights by robbing it of the resources it needs.

But all of this might be beside the point. The environment is undoubtedly valuable as a means to sustain human life, and if the predictions of climate scientists are accurate, the effects of climate change could rob current generations of the resources they need to survive. But how can people tell whether the scientists agree and what they agree on? And if they don’t, which ones should people believe? Again, these are philosophical questions.

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Is There Consensus among Climate Scientists?

No single study is conclusive evidence. Even an expert can make mistakes or be biased or be pressured by their funders. So before people trust any single study on climate change, people should wait for replication. Others need to do the same study and get the same results. Better yet, look for consensus; when a bulk of the relevant scientific community thinks that the burden of proof has been met and concludes that something is true, it’s most likely true.

Image of oil refineries polluting the air.
Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that anthropogenic climate change is happening. (Image: Roschetzky Photography/Shutterstock)

According to University of Queensland Fellow John Cook, 97 percent of climate scientists agree that anthropogenic climate change is happening. Of the nearly 4,000 published studies that took a position on the topic, 3896 of them drew that conclusion, which certainly counts as a consensus. 

Of course, that’s just one study. Maybe Cook was biased. Indeed, editorial writers at Forbes and National Review argued just that. But they’re not scientists and thus aren’t qualified to evaluate his work. The blind reviewers who decided to publish Cook’s article are. What’s more, Cook’s 97 percent number has been corroborated by six other studies. So there’s even a consensus about what the consensus is.

In fact, the more stringent a study is about the definition of ‘expert’, the higher the percentage gets. The consensus among climate experts who regularly published on the topic in peer-reviewed journals, like Penn State’s Michael Mann, Oxford’s Myles Allen, and Scripps’s Ralph Keeling, was nearly universal—approaching 100 percent.

Common Questions about Who We Should Listen to about the Global Warming Crisis

Q: Who should people believe regarding global warming?

According to what Bertrand Russell once said, when scientists all agree on the threat of the global warming crisis, and they are all qualified, then people should believe them.

Q: What are some of the philosophical questions surrounding global warming that science can’t answer?

The global warming crisis generates many questions. Is it immoral to do nothing about the environment? Do people have to think of future generations that don’t exist? These are questions that science can’t answer.

Q: Is there a consensus on the part of scientists on global warming?

Based on the conducted research, it can be concluded that almost all climate scientists, who are qualified on the subject of the global warming crisis, agree that it’s transpiring, and urgent action should be undertaken to stop it before it’s too late.

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