By David K. Johnson, Ph.D., King’s College
Out of all the different deniers of global warming, lukewarmers may be the least wrong. Lukewarmers acknowledge anthropogenic climate change—like the melting of the poles—but say that concerns about the effects of global warming are exaggerated. Apart from the fact that almost none of them are climate scientists, their arguments include many fallacies.
What Lukewarmers Claim
Lukewarmers endorse the fact that global warming is the result of greenhouse gas emissions, like CO2, and that it’s causing climate change. So they agree that global warming is causing climate change, that humans are to blame, and that there is scientific consensus on this. What lukewarmers deny is that climate change is anything to worry about and that there is scientific consensus on that specific issue.
They consequently think people are overreacting. The suggested solutions would have consequences much worse than what they’d prevent. The warming won’t be that much, and the effects of climate change won’t be that bad. But taxing fossil fuels and environmental regulations could cost companies billions, make energy unaffordable, especially for the poor, and could generate a global recession.
Lukewarmers are usually libertarians, who celebrate Adam Smith, but ignore his warnings about the shortcomings of free markets. They think that government regulations almost always make things worse and freedom and free markets almost always make things better.
Smith talked of concepts like laissez-faire and ‘the invisible hand’ that will supposedly guide the economy to universal opulence if it is just freed from interference. Lukewarmers apply this same logic to society and the environment; attempts at interference—social engineering or environmental engineering—can only make things worse. Just leave the system alone, and it will work itself out for the best.
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Are All Scientists the Same?
Where disagreement among scientists starts to be seen is regarding whether humans releasing greenhouse gasses is responsible. For example, 31,000 scientists signed a petition saying there was “no convincing scientific evidence” that climate change is anthropogenic. But what counts as a relevant expert? Just because someone is an expert in one thing doesn’t mean that they’re an expert in any other.
Biology and medicine are related, but I’m not going to a biologist if I break my leg. I shouldn’t cross a bridge designed by a climate scientist, and I shouldn’t trust the climate predictions of an engineer. They don’t have the skills necessary to properly understand the climate data, weigh the evidence, and make accurate predictions. Citing a non-expert as a reason to doubt climate change commits a fallacy called appeal to unqualified authority.
As might be guessed, most of the 31,000 scientists who signed the petition were engineers—10,000 to be exact. Six thousand were in medicine or biology, 5,000 were chemists—but none were climate scientists.
Some deniers of anthropogenic climate change are meteorologists, like co-founder of the Weather Channel John Coleman. But meteorologists study the weather, not the climate. Weatherpersons are qualified to make predictions about the weather 10 days out, but not the climate for decades and centuries to come. Like medicine and biology, the two fields are related, but the expertise of one does not translate to the other.
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Their Arguments Include Many Fallacies
Evidence of this can be seen in their arguments. Some deniers have suggested that global warming is caused by the Sun. But, a) the Sun’s not getting hotter, and b) that would warm the entire atmosphere; but only the lower parts of the atmosphere—beneath where greenhouse gases reside—are getting warmer.
Others claim it’s not anthropogenic because 95 percent of the CO2 released each year comes from natural forces like volcanoes, ocean-atmosphere exchange, and plant and animal respiration.
But this takes a true factoid out of context and ignores others to support an erroneous conclusion. It’s true that certain natural processes account for 95 percent of the CO2 released every year, but other natural processes take out just as much, making the net impact of natural forces zero.
But people put it in without taking it out, so humans account for 100 percent of the increase in atmospheric CO2. This is why people defer to relevant experts. When someone isn’t aware of all the evidence and doesn’t have the relevant knowledge and expertise to interpret it, they make these kinds of mistakes.
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Effects of Global Warming on the Economy
Another mistake of lukewarmers is a kind of category mistake, where one wrongly applies a property to something in one category that can only be applied to things in another. In this case, it’s thinking that Smith’s laissez-faire approach to economics also works for the environment. It doesn’t.
When it comes to physical resources, without oversight, individual actors will exploit them for their own short-term benefit, ultimately ruining the resource for everyone in the long term. This phenomenon has a name—the tragedy of the commons—and is especially acute regarding the environment, given that the negative effects are so far in the future.
Also, actions to combat global warming won’t cause a global recession. In reality, switching to clean energy sources would spawn a whole new industry, create billions in revenue, and, according to economist Robert Pollin, generate a net gain of 1.7 million jobs in almost every sector of the economy. It won’t hurt the poor and cause a recession; it would actually help the poor and produce an economic boom.
Common Questions about Why Lukewarmers Are Wrong about the Effects of Global Warming
The effects of global warming, they believe, are nothing compared to the effects of trying to stop global warming. They opine that it could be destructive, especially economically, leading to a global recession.
The Sun is not getting larger and hotter. If it was, then the temperature on Earth would be rising in the upper layers of the atmosphere, but the rise can be seen only in the layer below the greenhouse gases. Therefore, the Sun is not responsible for the effects of global warming.
The reason is that nature has ways to deal with that 95 percent. But the CO2 that humans create stays there. The fact is people are responsible for the effects of global warming and not nature.