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Why climate change agnosticism might be the better bet

By Mark Manolopoulos - posted Friday, 5 May 2017

There are times when we're forced to choose between two options. But there are also other times when we don't have to choose between them but are nevertheless coerced into thinking that we do. This demand to take sides often conceals another, perhaps wiser position, as well as obscuring more fundamental problems and their solution.

Consider the question of anthropogenic climate change. Today, we're all forced to choose between either climate-change acceptance or denial. It's as if we've completely suppressed a third option: agnosticism, the often-noble but under-employed position of not-knowing. In the tradition of Socrates ("All I know is that I do not know"), some of us epistemically humbler humans don't want to box ourselves in when it comes to dauntingly complex questions like human-induced climate change. Furthermore, within the agnostic camp, there's further wiggle room: some of us (e.g., me) lean towards the scientific consensus, while others may be more sceptical.

Of course, we climate-change agnostics run the risk of being labelled "deniers" by more militantly dogmatic acceptors. But there's a big difference between agnosticism and denial – a difference prone to being missed by those who are heavily/overly invested in Causes. (Like religious fanatics who can't differentiate agnostics from hardline atheists.)


The opposition we climate-change agnostics are likely to face from both acceptors and deniers shouldn't intimidate us into assuming one or the other position. We must remain steadfast in considering agnosticism the presently most reasonable option. Why do we consider agnosticism so?

To begin with, the very notion that human-generated pollution is affecting the Earth's climate is a huge claim that prompts certain questions and doubts. For example, given that the world has continually been experiencing climatic variation, how can we be certain that any present warming is at least partly attributable to human action? When so many non-human elements and variables are thrown into the climatic mix (solar radiation, volcanic activity, etc.), how can we know that human pollution is so significant that it's contributing to the present warming?

And how confidently can we assert that any anthropogenic change will have a net negative effect both now and into the future across the whole Earth?

But one may object that such doubts can be assuaged by pointing to the scientific consensus: surely the vast majority of experts can't be wrong? Sometimes they are. History clearly attests that the scientific consensus hasn't always entailed scientific truth. There are many examples (e.g., Steady State Theory, superseded by Big Bang cosmology; immovable continents, succeeded by plate tectonics; miasmatic theory of disease, replaced by germ theory; etc.).The scientific consensus might be a compelling argument but it's not always conclusive.

(I'm reminded here of that other great consensus that was recently proven wrong: "Trump losing the election." I wasn't surprised.)

Obviously it's crucial that scientists keep researching climate change, hopefully discovering more evidence that sways us consensus-leaning agnostics ever-closer to the acceptance camp. But scientists should also remain open-minded enough to the possibility – as distant or ridiculous as it may now appear to them – that the consensus may turn out to be wrong. Maintaining a healthy dose of Socratic humility also ensures that any legitimate counter-arguments are heard rather than summarily dismissed.


So far, I've questioned the parameters of the climate-change debate by introducing/recalling the suppressed option of agnosticism. But the debate isn't just too narrow. It's also a distraction, concealing deeper issues, its root causes, blocking any possible solutions. How so?

First of all, when we participate in the debate, we rarely notice that what is truly shocking is that such a debate exists in the first place. Humanity's pollution has now reached such levels that we're debating whether we're interfering with the climate. In other words, we' shouldn't be so transfixed by the nature of the debate – we should be appalled that a debate even exists. The fact that we are having a debate at all is startling.

Let's go even deeper. There's no doubt that we humans are spewing forth excessive amounts of pollution – so much so that we are possibly/probably affecting the climate – but who focuses on the fact that this excessive polluting is unethical in and of itself? (I say "excessive pollution" because, being the corporeal creatures that we are, we cannot avoid producing a certain level of waste that would be otherwise absorbed.) In other words, it's wrong that our societies expel so much toxic pollution into the world. Whether excessive pollution affects the Earth's climate may thus be figured as a "secondary" consideration – the ethical dimension of the argument is largely lacking in the public debate, and should instead be a/the primary focus.

Therein lies the double-danger of the debate as it's presently framed: it neutralizes the shock that we are having the argument in the first place, and it ignores/downplays the bad behaviour that is excessive pollution.

So one has to ask: why is the debate framed this way? – why is there so much focus on the "debate"? Whether/to what extent this enframing has been deliberate or accidental, its effect is that the root problem, hyper-pollution, is hardly mentioned (note how "pollution" is often replaced with the more sanguine "emissions"), while the key culprit, industrial capitalism, is mentioned even less – or not at all.

For this is what we know for sure: the present system is the principle driver of exponentially rising pollution levels. So if we're really serious about curbing/overcoming anthropogenic climate change, we should move beyond the distracting, obfuscating "debate" and start transforming the hyper-polluting system that gave rise to the debate in the first place.

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About the Author

Dr Mark Manolopoulos is a philosopher. Mark is the author of Following Reason (2019), Radical Neo-Enlightenment (2018), If Creation is a Gift (2009), and many scholarly journal articles and op-ed pieces.

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