The science controversy

Observation is the basis of science, and while a philosopher may argue that objective perception is impossible, that is precisely the scientific philosophy: to collect and analyse empirical data, without bias, in order to develop an understanding of curious phenomena. In part, it is this pursuit of unprejudiced knowledge that earns scientists the respect of many – though certainly not all – members of society. However, this esteem quickly evaporates if science is seen to be in any way politicised.
The public image of climate change research has suffered in recent months. In November, hackers leaked emails that allegedly revealed a conspiracy among researchers at the University of East Anglia to manipulate data to fit the anthropogenic climate change theory, and to intentionally exclude contradictory data from publication. Last week, albeit less sensationally, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admitted publicly that a claim in its 2007 Assessment Report that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 was a mistake.
These events do not necessarily undermine the validity of climate research, but they are certainly useful for sceptics seeking to discredit the methodology of climatologists. The same sceptics might invoke the comically simplistic logic of dismissing global warming because Ireland and the UK suffered an unusually cold winter this year. The likelihood of a rise in average global temperature concerns scientists as this could shift weather patterns and alter local climates in different ways. For a country above 50° latitude, Ireland enjoys surprisingly mild temperatures, thanks primarily to the Gulf Stream. If the Gulf Stream were to shift, Irish winters might become more like those experienced at equivalent latitudes such as Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
The processes governing the Earth’s climate are incredibly complex, and modelling them requires the world’s most powerful supercomputers to run simulations. People cannot flawlessly forecast local weather more than a few days ahead of time, so it is maybe a bit unreasonable to expect reliable, specific predictions on future changes in the global climate from such simulations. However, the science behind the mechanisms of possible changes is well established, and the raw data collected by climatologists is unambiguous. In 1958, long before “global warming” was making headlines, David Keeling began measuring atmospheric  CO2 concentrations from the top of Mauna Loa on Hawaii. The Keeling Curve plots CO2 concentration versus time, and revealed the remarkable “breathing of the Earth”, the periodic, seasonal consumption of CO2 by plants for photosynthesis in the spring and summer and the subsequent release of CO2 in the autumn and winter as the same plant matter wilts and decays. Furthermore, and most significantly, the Keeling Curve shows a steady increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration since measurements began.
The effect of anthropogenic greenhouse gases on climate change could be overstated. Paleoclimatologists have shown that dramatic changes in the Earth’s climate have occurred naturally and over short time scales, and similarly the changes we currently observe may be part of a natural cycle. If so, fine. But if human activity is in fact changing our environment, it is vital that we augment our behaviour to minimise our impact.