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On global warming, the most important thing to know is what we don't know

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jul 23, 2013

Global warming has stopped. After a long upward trend, world temperatures have stopped rising. But the doomsayers—the people who have been warning for years that a steady rise in temperatures will bring disaster—are not comforted. The dangerous rise in temperatures hasn’t really stopped, they say; we’re now seeing a mere “pause” in the global-warming trend. These experts continue to predict the future, despite the failures of their past predictions.

I’m no scientist. But I know this much about the scientific method: If you make predictions based on a hypothesis, and your predictions prove wrong, then your hypothesis is wrong—or at the least, needs to be refined. If you cling to the same hypothesis, even after the evidence comes in against it, you’re not doing science.

Although I have no background whatsoever in scientific work, I did once have the opportunity to work with a team of world-class scientists, and the experience taught me a valuable lesson in humility.

Back in the 1980s my friend, the late Julian Simon, in partnership with the brilliant Herman Kahn, had organized a series of essays by leading scientists to dispute the gloomy conclusions of the Global 2000 Report, which predicted a series of ecological disasters. Simon and Kahn needed someone to copy-edit the essays, and I jumped at the opportunity. It was a delightful assignment, enabling me to rub shoulders with some of the world’s foremost researchers on topics such as food production, population, pollution, and, yes, global warming.

The result of the Simon-Kahn effort was a book entitled The Resourceful Earth. The Global 2000 Report is now generally forgotten; the disasters that it predicted did not occur. But the sober analysis of The Resourceful Earth remains relevant.

During one meeting of the scientists contributing to that book, the topic of global warming arose, and one author remarked that the Global 2000 Report failed to take into consideration the role played by the deep oceans. (I’m sorry I do not recall which scientist raised that topic; I remember only that he was both erudite and friendly.) When I had a moment to speak with him, I asked: “What role do the deep oceans play?” He replied simply: “Phil, we don’t know.”

Thirty years later, that’s apparently still true. We don’t know what the deep oceans are doing to affect climate change. The doomsayers suggest that the deep oceans are responsible for the “pause” in global warming. Maybe they are. They say that eventually the deep oceans will stop doing whatever they’re now doing, and the trend toward higher temperatures will resume. Maybe it will. But here’s the lesson that I learned from a great scientist years ago:

Sometimes we just don’t know.

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