What to think about climate change? It's an everyday topic for conversation these days, having once been a bit of a scientific side alley.
Like most debates most people seem to want to line up behind one of two (opposite) extreme positions. There either is climate change and we're causing it (and we're all doomed), or there's no human-caused climate change and the whole thing is a vast conspiracy. People seem to love extremes, especially when there's another opposing extreme to go up against.
Anyway as always the truth is at neither extreme.
What do the scientists say? It's come as a bit of a surprise to some that they say a whole lot of different things. They don't all agree. Funny thing is, scientists never all agree, that's what science is all about. If they all did nobody would ever discover anything. Now the vast majority of scientists think that climate change is real, and that humans are contributing. That doesn't necessarily make it true, the vast majority of scientists always believe something that ends up being wrong when one or more of them suddenly discovers something new. Think of science before and after Copernicus, or any other great scientific thinker. Again that's how science works.
Climate change sceptics have latched onto the fact that scientists don't all agree as some sort of proof that the whole thing is a fraud. But again this is how science has always worked, it's always a messy, argumentative process. Scientists today still daily try to disprove Einstein, for example (and some succeed). Unfortunately the extremists then cherry-pick just the science that agrees with their own particular view. But you can nearly always find science that backs every single point of view in a debate, on any topic. So sceptics find scientists such as Ian Plimer who disagree that humans contribute to climate change, and use it as proof that the whole thing is bunkum.
On the other side those who use the majority scientific view that humans do cause climate change as proof it is happening are not necessarily more right. Having the numbers behind you has never meant much in science.
Most of the heat in the climate change debate isn't really about the climate at all. It's about people lining up behind fairly old, standard political positions dressed up as climate change arguments. It's about who gets to call the shots. There are a lot of people who take the science very seriously, and work through it in a lot of detail, but they're usually not the people with extreme positions. In simple terms the extreme people who think humans cause climate change tend to be anti-development, pro-government, and generally pro-causes in general. So they're generally people of the 'Left', or are 'progressive' politically. The extreme climate sceptics tend to come from the 'Right' of politics, are conservative politically, anti-government and see big things like climate change as an attempt by government to exercise more control over people and taxes.
Both extremes try to use the science to prove their points. And there's science that will say both sides are right, so it doesn't prove anything. So best to ignore the extremes, they'll keep yelling at each other until the cows come home. They always have.
The more pragmatic political thinkers have used a risk management approach. They don't say humans cause climate change, or that they don't. They say look at it like insurance on your home. Is it likely your house will ever burn down? No. Would you insure it in case it does? You bet. So for these people if human-induced climate change is real and we don't act, it's a disaster. So why not do something i.e. take out a little insurance, in case it's real? If humans haven't caused climate change we'll at least have developed new industries and knowledge to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, that are running out anyway and cause a lot of wars. So you can't lose either way.
Those who think the climate change issue is all a plot by governments to get more control over us and tax us more obviously didn't keep an eye on the recent Copenhagen meeting, where all world governments got together to try and work out what to do. They agreed on pretty much nothing, which is a bummer for conspiracy theorists - if governments are behind all this, you'd think they'd all agree to stick it to the man. But they didn't. The result of their meeting at this stage will be virtually no change to anything at all. And on tax, the scheme suggested in Australia for example, and in many other countries, isn't really a tax, it's a trading scheme. The big money to be made in emissions trading will be made by people who do the trading. Large businesses, in other words, not governments. The people who already make a fortune out of trading things like stocks and shares. It would actually be a lot more efficient to use a carbon tax instead of an emissions trading scheme, because you wouldn't get speculative investment trying to make a squillion bucks out of the whole thing, and the public would get the proceeds rather than a very small group of corporate cowboys.
Personally from the science side of things I suspect humans do contribute to climate change. All the arguments that are put up against that are pretty shallow, for example saying that 'climate always changes'. Of course it always changes, nobody ever argued against that. It's the scale and speed of the change that is more the issue, and the data on that looks pretty scary. It's unprecedented in recorded history, going back more than 100,000 years from ice core samples. Also the argument that the world has actually cooled in the past 10 years is just trickiness, because it uses 1998 as the baseline, which was actually the hottest year ever found in the climate record. So to say the years since 1998 have been cooler ignores the fact they've still been hotter than all the other years before 1998.
But the answer won't be in the science, it'll be in the politics. And there I'm with the pragmatists. Let's take out a bit of insurance and assume it might be real. The worst that can happen is we'll develop new ways of doing things we already needed anyway.