Part of the confusion over Revkin’s article is that there isn’t one "climate debate." There are several. I’m going to taxonomize them in another post, but first I want to say something about the scientific one.
This debate, as many folks have pointed out, is pretty much over. The denialists are wrong and they’ve been completely discredited. Every serious person involved in the climate change discussion accepts the broad conclusions of the IPCC.
However, I worry a little bit about what you might call the Tyranny of the IPCC. Our own Andrew Dessler writes:
Not only are there not three sides to this debate, there are not even two. There is only one: the IPCC’s.
That gives me some slight willies.
Sure, IPCC is confident about the existence and cause of recent warming, and I’m happy we can all stop rehashing that crap.
But there are other areas — mainly around the effects of climate change — where the IPCC says, in effect, "we don’t know for sure yet." Does that mean all respectable people must stay silent about those effects until the IPCC ratifies a consensus conclusion?
According to John Fleck, what makes Al Gore one "side" of the debate, as opposed to squarely in line with the scientific consensus, is the fact that he makes assertions about hurricanes and sea-level that go beyond the IPCC. He uses "outlier science." But my understanding is that with regard to the hurricane issue, the IPCC just abstains from judgment. So there’s some science showing amplifying effects and some science that casts doubt on such an effect — pending an official consensus, isn’t it all "outlier science"?
Because the IPCC, held to punishingly conservative standards of peer-review and consensus, is silent on the hurricane question … does that mean everyone has to be silent? Al Gore chooses to pick a side, in effect predicting which way the chips are going to fall. In that he goes beyond the IPCC — and beyond what the relevant scientific community is willing to label consensus — but he doesn’t contradict the IPCC. He uses his judgment to supplement the IPCC. And he’s been right on this issue for decades, and understands it about as well as any layman on the planet, so I’m not inclined to brush his judgments aside.
It seems perfectly reasonable to me for him to say the following: "Based on some new and emerging research, and based on my sense of the direction of the science over the last 20 years, and based on my holistic understanding of the phenomenon, I believe global warming will increasingly make hurricanes measurably stronger and more destructive."
Yes, we have to leave science to the scientists. But science is not a priesthood that can or should impose quietude on the rest of us. Our informed gut feelings about how things will turn out are legitimate. People make statements beyond what’s strictly supported by the peer-reviewed evidence all the time. For some reason, internet wonks seem to hold public advocacy on global warming to a strangely prudish set of standards. We don’t impose these kinds of strictures in other areas.
Within the majority of people who accept the basic IPCC conclusions (that’s a crucial qualification), I don’t want to see "extremism" used as a club to shut people up — or worse, used as a convenient slur against which to define oneself as the center.