Let’s Take the Hot Air Out of Global Warming Debate

Media Appearances, Climate, Frontier Centre

Questions of science demand scientific answers.

Climate change policy, once again, has been prominent in the news as the major United Nations conference on climate change unfolded in Durban, South Africa.

In advance of the conference, the Canadian government signalled that it will formally withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol – something that was confirmed Monday. In addition, Environment Minister Peter Kent stated his opposition to an international $100-billion-a-year climate fund designed to subsidize poorer developing countries (which may or may not include the burgeoning economic giants of China and India) in lowering their greenhouse gas emissions with money from rich industrialized countries, calling it a "guilt payment."

Throw in the battle over the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines and it is obvious that the politics of anthropogenic global warming remains potent.

The question as to whether the world is warming, and if it is, whether it is due to man-made activity such as the release of greenhouse gases through the production and use of fossil fuels, has a considerable impact on public policy decisions. But while matters of policy should be decided by voters and their representatives, answers to scientific questions require detached scientists and their expertise.

Unfortunately, while there has been plenty of public debate on global warming in Canada and in other countries, much of that discussion has focused on political-economic dimensions instead of scientific basis. The debaters tended to be political scientists, economists, or industry and environmental spokespeople. It has been typically debated with presentations by one side or the other, with only like-minded people in attendance. Some TV and radio programs tried to have scientific debates, but they became time compressed, so that the scientists had to rely upon sound bites, not full arguments backed with data. None of the above situations constitute a scientific debate on anthropogenic global warming. Although real climate scientists debate global warming, it has usually been done at closed academic conferences and venues that excluded the public. Public debates by climate scientists were rare.

If it is true, as the old saw goes, that "science tells us what can happen, economics tells us what should happen, and politics tells us what will happen," we need first to understand and debate the science behind anthropogenic global warming before we debate the economics and politics.

In this light, it was refreshing to moderate a real scientific debate with real climate scientists. On Nov. 29, Mount Royal University hosted Shawn Marshall, Canada research chair in climate change and a professor in the department of geography at the University of Calgary, and Ian Clark, a professor in the department of earth science at the University of Ottawa.

The event was sponsored by the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. The presence of two prominent climate scientists on the stage brought focus to relaying scientific information, not on scoring cheap debating points. Instead of an official debate with restricting rules and short time limits, it became a conversation between two climate scientists surrounded by a standing-room only audience of students, faculty and members of the public.

Both scientists transmitted scientific data that was understandable to an educated lay person without dumbing it down. PowerPoint slides containing graphs, time sequence data and talking points helped the audience grasp the key ideas. Each of the scientists was clear on what we know about climate and what we don't know. They emphasized the strengths and weaknesses of historical climate modeling. In addition, they acknowledged common ground and were respectful of each other on the points of disagreement, largely related to the causality of global warming.

The exercise was a model of civility. The audience took its lead from the speakers and treated everybody with respect. They applauded both speakers and never tried to shout someone down.

Through the written questions acquired during the intermission, the audience asked about pertinent scientific and policy-related issues, and received concise and easy-to-understand answers. At the end of the night, it is likely that some minds were changed – in both directions – but more importantly, all in attendance had a greater grasp of anthropogenic global warming than they did before the event began.

While we need to debate the economic and political merits of global warming, we better debate the science first. We need more expert scientific debate conducted in civil ways, leading to informed policy decisions.

Sound economic and political outcomes depend on it.