Critical Thinking Note 20: Climate Change


Written in response to some discussion board activity in my online Intro to Philosophy:

Some of you have referred to climate change a few times in our discussions, most recently in connection with trying to get clear on the difference between something being true and something being believed (or something “being true for someone” as the confusing popular expression goes). It won’t do, however, to simply offer climate change as an example of something that is true but which many people don’t accept as true. Those who doubt human caused climate change obviously won’t find this a convincing example of the difference between truth and belief or opinion. Additionally, this issue affords good opportunity to exercise our skill at evaluating arguments which was our central focus last week.

In the flood of information, spin and fallacious manipulation surrounding climate change, it is not surprising that the average citizen has a hard time focusing on the key arguments, the central reasons for addressing the threat of human caused climate change. So here are the premises that lead inexorably to the conclusion that we have a problem that requires serious attention:

  • CO2 and assorted other gasses trap heat.More specifically, these gasses are transparent to full spectrum light from the sun but opaque to the infra-red spectrum light (radiant heat energy) that gets reflected back from the planet. To sunlight, these gasses are like a clear sky. To heat from the warmed surface of the planet, these gasses are like a blanket of fog.
  • We emit CO2 and other greenhouse gasses when we burn fossil fuels and we do so on a massive scale.Global emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels are approaching 10,000 million metric tons per year. We should also note emissions from the production of meat and deforestation. Emissions of greenhouse gases on this scale is enough to change the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and we’ve been tracking this for several decades.
  • The basic laws of physics tell us that matter/energy never gets created or destroyed; energy has to go somewhere and do some work.That would be the first law of thermodynamics.

None of these premises are open to reasonable doubt. We know this stuff. As a recovering gear-head myself, I’d love it if I could find some way to accept these well-established truths and avoid the conclusion that burning fossil fuels is disrupting the natural systems we depend on for survival. But the argument is valid and sound. The science is informing us in great detail about just how and how fast we are disrupting our natural systems. But there is no way to reasonably avoid the conclusion that human caused climate change is real. Anyone who thinks clearly about the three premises given above should be able to see this for themselves.

And yet enough of us in the US refuse to see what is plain to see with only a basic understanding of the science and a bit of logic that we’ve elected a leader who refers to climate change as a hoax. This is surely a testament to basic scientific illiteracy. But it is even more so a testament to our abysmal critical thinking skills.

Too many of us can’t or won’t follow the central argument and recognize its force. A decent grasp on the truth of the premises given above and how they support the inference to human caused climate change leaves no entering wedge for a Chinese hoax or a liberal conspiracy. It’s really not hard to recognize these excuses for ignorance as the absurdities that they are.

This morning’s news reports that the Earth set a new global heat record for the third year in a row in 2016.

Russ Payne

January 19, 2017

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