A chat about ice cores and oil business
This post was originally written for the Early Career Climate Forum and posted in March 2013.
A couple of evenings ago I had an interesting discussion with a friend of my roommate. Let’s call him Pete. Pete and I had never met before, so we started with the usual introduction, and continued with the usual “Oh, where are you from?” after he noticed my accent. This was succeeded by “And what do you do here?,” which is usually followed by “How did you end up in Oklahoma?” This time though, we didn’t make it to the last question.
“So you do climate research?" he asked. "Do you believe in global warming?” I noticed a slightly provocative touch. I nodded my head and said “Sure. You don’t?” He shook his head: “Not in global warming, but in climate variability.” I was surprised. You don’t hear ‘climate variability’ all too often from people outside the field. I wasn’t sure yet what he was aiming at and asked for more. “Well, I don’t think it’s getting warmer overall. The climate’s always been changing, there were always warm and cold periods like now. How do you know it’s never been as warm as now?”
Good point actually. Offhand I did my best to break down how tree ring analysis, pollen analysis and ice core sampling worked, but Pete remained unconvinced. “Do you really believe in these ice core things? I mean how do you know what those concentrations really mean?”
This was going to be tough. The last time someone tested me about age dating was a professor three and a half years ago in an oral exam. “Scientists know about the effects of certain gases from today’s measurements. They might only be a hundred years long, but that’s enough to learn how ice core samples respond to changes in the atmosphere.” I wasn’t entirely sure about any of this. But it made sense to me, so I was hoping for the best. Thankfully he acknowledged my overwhelming, all-encompassing knowledge and shifted topics.
Some scientists, Pete said, were saying global warming isn’t real and the fuzz about greenhouse gases is just for scientists to get more funding and for the government to stress the oil companies. I had read these “findings”, too, but I didn’t expect people to believe this to a degree that they are actively defending it. But here I was, first time for everything. “So, assumed 10,000 scientists agree that the earth is warming and we’re the ones to blame, and 60 scientists (which is actually a realistic ratio) argue they’re wrong. Why do you trust the 60 and not the 10,000?” – “I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be a perfect argument for working against the oil and gas industry?” I didn’t have any more facts to that, so I countered with a question of my own. “Why would a government, whose wealth is so much based on oil, want to get rid of a major profit supplier? That’s like cutting off the branch on which you sit.” Maybe he had just noticed the gap in his argumentation, or maybe my wisdom was still irritating him.
He shifted topics again…
Our discussion went on, with me mostly responding and him mostly changing directions every time his lines of argument reached a dead end. We touched on renewable energy and fuel-efficient cars, fracking and American oil independence, the great American military (that was his view), the great American economy (that, too), Greece, the sequester, football, red wine, chili, heartburn and smoking-caused cancer. And I noticed his arguments were getting weaker and less logical.
After about an hour Pete had to leave, and I hoped I raised some suspicion within him that would eventually lead to a little more critical thinking. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be smarty-pants. I’ve been in Pete’s position a few times before, but instead of learning something I felt miserable and angry after being torn to pieces by some wisenheimer. Scientists shouldn’t be wisenheimers. If someone gives you a glimpse into his or her mindset we should greatly appreciate that, no matter how distorted it appears to us. Because it shows (1) that person wants to learn from you, and (2) sees in you a trustworthy person. And if you’re in climate research, isn’t that something to be thankful for?
 Schulte, Klaus-Martin (2009): Scientific Consensus on Climate Change? In: Energy and Environment 19, p. 281-286. Abstract available at: http://multi-science.metapress.com/content/d588k23724201502/