The ClimateSafety blog recently published a post on public surveys about climate change. The title of the post (“Do you believe in climate change?”) got me thinking about the meaning of the question, in particular, the use of the word “believe”.
In my case, I work in weather and climate science so I have a good understanding of how the atmosphere works, how it has changed and where the current gaps in our knowledge are. I would not say that I “believe” in climate change because that implies an element of faith that I do not need – I am fully aware that the overwhelming majority of the evidence we have tells us that our planet’s climate is changing and that it is our actions that are causing it. I am convinced by the evidence behind our climate change theory. Similarly, I would not say that I “believe” in our theories of gravity or evolution as the weight of the evidence negates the need for faith.
The use of “belief” is particularly unhelpful when communicating climate science to the wider population because it implies this need for faith. For example, a recent Employment Tribunal in the UK gave climate change “belief” a similar standing to religious belief. However, religion, as far as I can tell, is based on faith in the face of little or no evidence whereas the climate change question has been investigated by thousands of scientists who have collected much evidence and written many papers that all point in the same direction: that the Earth’s climate is changing and that most of this recent change can be attributed to human activity.
So, where does this leave us? I suppose the problem here is that we can only do one experiment (knowingly or otherwise) with our climate at any one time. We are currently blindly performing the experiment where we ramp up greenhouse gas concentrations over long periods of time. All our evidence from the real world (and from computer models) tells us that this is a bad idea and, consequently, I suspect we would all like to believe that it isn’t happening. Under these circumstances, perhaps the prevalence of the term “belief”, even within the climate science community, comes from the hope – however unlikely – that we are wrong about climate change.