Climate change as a test of empiricism and secular democracy

The cover of the May 27 New Scientist bluntly asks, of climate change, “What Does It Take?” What will it take, that is, to convince our political leaders to start braking the accelerating runaway train we’ve created in global warming? I won’t review the (overwhelming) evidence here; for that, see some of the good writing on climate change lately, such as Mark Bowen’s Thin Ice or Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe. My concern here is not the evidence but our failure to act on it. Global warming is serving, in a way that, say, evolution doesn’t, as a test of science and of its place in today’s society. The results aren’t encouraging.

We like to think we live in the age of science — that is, that science, our most rigorous attempt at thought, is an important arbiter of fact and a foundation of secular society. And empiricism has indeed made much headway over the centuries. We now demand far better evidence in matters of both science and society. We demand replicable observations or experiments in science and (mostly) insist on that matters of law and policy be decided by weight of evidence.

The spread of empiricism, in fact, has been essential not only to the rise not just of science but of pluralistic democracy. In order to accommodate many perspectives and beliefs, we agree to abide by the rule of law rather than religiion. Deciding policy and law based mainly on facts — on testable questions — frees us from quibbling endlessly about what beliefs are correct. We use rules based on a small handful of secular values, such as the integrity of the individual and the rights to property and privacy. And we agree to adjudicate those rules according to testable fact. Empiricism underlies not just science but all of pluralistic, rights-based society.

If that’s so, our leaders fail these ideals horribly when they don’t act on the massive evidence showing we’re changing the planet’s climate. The refusal to acknowledge global warming resembles on its face the wide rejection, at least in the United States, of the theory of evolution. In fact it is far more sinister. Much of the resistance to evolution rises from its conflict (for some) with deeply held religious beliefs. Not so with climate change. Our leaders’ refusal to acknowledge the reality of global warming and its causes guards not a religious ideal but the self-interest of those whose profits may fall if we quit spewing carbon. This failure rises not from religious reservations but as a bald assertion of commercial and self-interest over the stability of the environment and future society and economies. This assertion is an affront as well to the respect empiricism that underlies secular society — as well as the foundations of science.

Fortunately, scientists are starting to see this and speak up. Recent objections by leaders like David Baltimore and Eric Kandel suggest that (at least among Nobelists) scientists are beginning to see that a resistance to evidence threatens the values that have advanced both science and western society for centuries. Hopefully it’s not coming too late.

Wild birds do .., no wait, they don’t … well. maybe they DO spread H5N1

from New Scientist, 30 May 2006:

Wild birds have helped transmit the deadly H5N1 bird flu across Eurasia, a meeting of 300 scientists at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) concluded on Wednesday. But killing them to prevent further spread of the disease is not the answer, they warn.

I wrote an article about this in Audubon this spring, concluding from the divided and tenuous opinions and facts then that wild birds almost certainly did help spread avian flu. Since then, opinion among scientists has swung a couple of times, with the appearance of infected birds in Africa in spring encouraging many to think Yea, and the subsequent failure of significant spread to Europe in summer to make many think Nay. The evidence keeps bouncing about. When bird flu killed hundreds of gulls at an isolated lake on the Tibetan plateau last winter, for instance, that was considered firm evidence that wild birds were spreading the flu, since no poultry farms were known to be nearby. Then a few weeks ago it came out that there were poultry farms nearby.

The UN FAO conference last week, however, tried to weigh all such variables and ambiguities and concluded that wild birds were playing a role. It concluded, reports New Scientist, that

while poultry has dominated the spread of the disease, wild birds have also played a role, particularly in transmitting the H5N1 virus long distances across Eurasia during migration.
The FAO's chief vet, Juan Lubroth, says “we don’t need prime ministers to come out and say, 'we’ll cut off the tops of trees or drain the wetlands' [to kill the carriers]". Instead, scientists at the meeting called for increased research to see which species carry the virus, whether it can persist in wild bird populations, and to where the birds migrate.

Given how uncertain we remain about how this is spreading, this seems a good idea.