Though it is already fading from the front pages, the Stern report, in the UK at least, has gained general public acceptance. Most people believe that there are genuinely disastrous possibilities ahead within the life of their grandchildren – even if they still believe that changing their way of life would have no impact.

The skeptics and the hedgers now look desperate, but that seems to have redoubled their energy. So let’s debunk the key fallacies of their latest arguments:

1) Climate change hasn’t been unquestionably proven.

As per Karl Popper, science doesn’t prove hypotheses true; it provides the most powerfully and accurately predictive unfalsified ones. For example Einsteinian physics replaces Newtonian physics, but if you had spent three hundred years not applying Newton and waiting around for the unexplained bits of it to be falsified, you’d be a pretty silly bunny.

Working from the falsification principle, probability and the magnitude of risk becomes the crucial driver of action. People know this in managing their own medical conditions. It’s possible that anti-cholesterol drugs will be worse for your liver than cholesterol is for your heart, and there’s a small chance they do no good at all, and that correlated results are an enormous fluke – but most people rightly take them.

2) Mass science has been wrong before.

Most examples given of this are false. For example, Galileo wasn’t correcting a previous scientific hypothesis, he was challenging Aristotelean dogma with theories based on observation.

Usually new hypotheses simply limit the range of old ones. Any better explanation of the correlation between emissions and CO2 rise will most likely incorporate our existing understanding of their relationship.

3) There’s “quasi hysteria about global warming and Doomsday prophecy’ (Paul Kelly, The Australian)

There’s no reason in principle why a catastrophic outcome is less likely than a non-catastrophic one. By its very nature a catastrophe destroys a system, so has no precedent within the system. You can only burst a balloon once.

4) Previous doomsday predictions, ie the Millennium bug haven’t come true (Christian Kerr, Crikey).

False argument from precedent, among others. If I am playing Russian roulette, I might deduce from five empty chambers that the gun never fires. I would be wrong.

5) Alarmism is never a sound basis for formulating public policy (UK Daily Telegraph)

 “Alarmism,” ie radical change, is more appropriate, and gradualism disastrous, if well-founded hypotheses predict catastrophe. For example, Churchill arguing for re-armament in the 1930s because the Nazis were something beyond normal politics. Gradualism can be more unsound than alarmism, depending upon the possible outcomes.

All of which will be like talking to cats for the steady-as-she-goes brigade – because their ultimate purpose in the climate debate is the defense of market mechanisms as self-regulating. Having spoken of Churchill, they should probably study Neville Chamberlain to see how the future will regard them.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey