This past week, Richard Muller, a physicist and researcher at the University of California Berkeley, and one of the more credible climate skeptics, did an about face. Muller had expressed doubts about the historical temperature records, suggesting that multiple decades worth of studies analyzing temperature records had it wrong. After doing his own study, Muller concluded that global warming is real.
Not surprisingly, climate scientists worldwide greeted the news of Muller’s about face with a frustrated lack of surprise. Muller’s study, after all, confirmed what the vast majority of mainstream climate scientists have been saying for decades. Since 1900, global average temperatures have increased by a full degree Fahrenheit, enough to trigger the significant climate changes already evident in the global environment.
Even though Muller’s study reaches unsurprising scientific results, Muller and his study deserve our attention for other reasons. Muller’s study and the reaction to it say a lot about why we are getting this climate change thing wrong in the United States.
Climate change advocates are taking some satisfaction from knowing that Muller’s study confirming global warming was financed in part by the Koch brothers—the Oklahoma oil barons who have poured money into candidates and organizations that will fight to maintain our addiction to the oil they sell.
The Koch brothers are behind the right-wing Americans for Progress, a group that has actively tried to undermine the Northeast Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative—a program of 10 Northeastern states to reduce global warming pollution from power plants.
The fact that oil interests would seek to further politicize the science isn’t surprising. Last year the same interests jumped on some hacked emails involving a few scientific researchers at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. The emails were supposedly evidence that thousands of scientists across the globe have cooked up the whole global warming thing.
All sides of the political discussion about what action to take on energy and climate change bear some responsibility for politicizing the science. We keep looking to science to provide the absolute certainty that science will never provide. Scientists are not and should not be in the business of making the political case for action.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–a joint body of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization–has issued 4 comprehensive assessment reports on the state of climate change science since 1990. Its most recent assessment, issued in 2007, concluded that the warming of the climate is “unequivocal”—in other words, absolutely certain. In the same 2007 report, the intergovernmental body concluded it is “very likely” that humans are causing the warming. In IPCC parlance, “very likely” means that there is a greater than 90% chance that humans are causing the warming.
These are dramatic confidence levels on the two key issues in climate change. To the question of whether global warming is happening, the answer is “Yes, we are absolutely certain.” To the question, are humans causing global warming, the answer is “Yes, we are 90% sure they are.”
We’ve pushed the science far enough. We will never be absolutely certain about climate change. Waiting for certainty to act is irresponsible. The risks of inaction are too great.
Instead of waiting for more certainty on the science, we need our leaders at every level of government—local, state and national—to drive bold changes in the way we fuel our economy.
It shouldn’t matter that another climate skeptic has joined the vast majority of other scientists in acknowledging global warming. We already know enough to act now.
Franz Litz is the Executive Director of the Pace Energy and Climate Center and Professor of Law at Pace Law School.
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