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Building Science

Climate Change Is Just a Theory

And it was started by a Frenchman in 1827

Image 1 of 3
If we're going to get out of the Paris Accord on climate change, we should start working to stop plate tectonics. It makes as much sense. (This is one of my favorite T-shirts.)
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
If we're going to get out of the Paris Accord on climate change, we should start working to stop plate tectonics. It makes as much sense. (This is one of my favorite T-shirts.)
Image Credit: Energy Vanguard
Three members of the Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientists
Image Credit: Annals of Improbable Research
The hockey stick graph of climate change shows an unprecedented rise in temperature since the Industrial Revolution began.
Image Credit: Klaus Bittermann, Wikimedia Commons

So the United States has announced it’s withdrawing from the Paris Accord, the international agreement with nonbinding measures to mitigate the effects of climate change. Now everyone’s up in arms, speaking in exasperated tones about the travesty of this decision.

“But… but… the science,” they say. Yeah, let’s talk about science.

Is science really all it’s cracked up to be?

One of the most important facts about science is that you can never absolutely prove anything with it. Let’s take gravity as an example. Isaac Newton is famous for that whole apple-falling-out-of-the-tree thing and his “law of universal gravitation.” The apple falls. He writes an equation. And introductory physics students are punished for centuries.

But he could be wrong. What if a skydiver jumps out of a plane and never hits the ground? That’s the end of gravity. All it takes is one case of something not following the scientific idea — whether hypothesis, theory, or law — and that idea is dead. That’s how science works.

In fact, I just saw an article on Twitter the other day about a surprisingly large number of skydivers who have been reported as missing because they jumped out of a plane and were never seen again. I think Earth now has, in addition to the ozone layer, a skydiver layer. That’s my “theory.” (Or is it an alternative fact? I get those confused sometimes.)

Who gave scientists such an exalted position in the world anyway? We’re talking about people who could have been arrested for indecent exposure (Archimedes), are self-confessed trespassers and safe crackers (Richard Feynman), and who were illegal immigrants (all those Jewish scientists who escaped Nazi Germany). These are people so vain they’ve got at least five different varieties of “Luxuriant Hair Clubs.”

Climate change is just a theory

This conspiracy is so deep it goes all the way back to 1827, when the French scientist and mathematician Joseph Fourier made up the idea of a so-called “greenhouse effect.” Well, I don’t think he called it that, but that’s what he did. He of course tried to confuse everyone by using fancy math and calculating things that ought just to be left alone.

But hey, Fourier was a Frenchman. He probably had the Paris Accord in mind when he did that work, knowing that the United States would need to brought to its knees right about now.

Now we have all those scientists working on climate change. And I can tell you for a fact (straight-up, not alternative), not all of them would qualify for the The Luxuriant Flowing Hair Club for Scientistsâ„¢ (LFHCfS). Just take a look at the pate of that Michael Mann guy. If he spent more time sawing lumber instead of counting tree rings or playing hockey instead of graphing hockey sticks, he might have kept some of that hair he used to have. (He’d probably have fewer fingers and teeth, though.)

It’s just a mass piling-on of all the scientists out there now. They’re calculating and compiling and combobulating all the data they can find to corroborate their “theory of climate change.”

You know what happens when a lot of scientists work on one thing? Bad things happen! Think about it. Remember the Manhattan Project? A lot of the world’s best scientists (including the trespassers, safe crackers, and illegal immigrants mentioned above, but no flashers as far as I know) got together and invented nuclear weapons. Now we’ve got a crazy guy with a bad haircut who could send them to kill millions of people any time he gets the urge.

The reality of science

OK, clearly what I wrote above is over the top. (Or is it so clear? It’s getting hard to tell these days.) Science has led to a lot of amazing accomplishments over the past couple of millennia, especially since the Industrial Revolution.

Here’s how science really works. When you throw out a crazy idea (e.g., “not all skydivers fall to the ground”), that’s a hypothesis. It’s not a theory. Not even close. For something to be called a theory, it’s got to have some significant experimental evidence behind it. And it has to be something that leads to new predictions that can be tested. As scientists continue to find supporting evidence and refine the theory, it eventually becomes a scientific law.

That’s how science works. In the case of climate change, we have huge masses of evidence — literally, in the case of the disappearing Arctic sea ice and the collapsing Antarctic ice shelf. When the vast majority of scientists who work in this field agree that climate change is real, when they’ve calculated a 95% probability that we humans are the cause, and when the main opposition is political, I’ll put my money on science.

The U.S. is certainly free to leave the Paris Accord and abdicate its leadership role in this important realm. It won’t help us, though. And it certainly won’t help us do what needs to be done to battle the very real problem of climate change.

I’ll end by quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson: “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

Allison Bailes of Decatur, Georgia, is a speaker, writer, building science consultant, and the author of the Energy Vanguard Blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @EnergyVanguard.


  1. User avater
    Stephen Sheehy | | #1

    Crazy guy with bad haircut
    Plus we've got that North Korean guy.

  2. User avater Expert Member
    Dana Dorsett | | #2

    Bailing on Paris may be a blessing... (the silver lining)
    The reaction within the US and in the world to the rise of the Trumpian middle-finger toward the Paris Accord has been to double-down on local goals & targets, making them more likely to happen.

    The discussion has also highlighted the fact that new renewable energy is now cheaper than new fossil burners, and provides more middle-class jobs per terawatt-hour or MBTOe than the fossil fuel extraction industry.

    Science-schmiantz, who cares when there's a ton money to be saved or made on distributed renewable power ?!! With accurate information corporate & utility decision makers come to the "right" energy source decision on the raw economics, even if the remain agnostic or apathetic about climate change issues.

    It's not a red-state vs. blue-state issue within the US- a preponderance of the wind power development has been in traditionally red states. Texans got 13% of their power from wind last year, Oklahoma, Kansas, and North Dakota all got more than 20%, and Iowa got 37% (!). Take a look at EIA's recent list:

    Of the states where wind & solar hit a double-digits for all power going onto their grid in 2016, most are in red or purple politically.

    And this party is just getting started. Wind, solar, and batteries are continuing to decline in cost, and only countries/states with politically powerful incumbent fossil fuel industries are still putting up roadblocks to renewables.

    The US is still one of those countries, but decision makers can still be influenced. A founder of Generate Capital, Jigar Shah has compiled a list of folks to bug about this, if you happen to know them or be in a position to be taken seriously, which he refers to in this podcast bit:

    (I don't have the link to his list handy...)

    Bottom line, whether the twitterer-in-chief wants to participate in the Paris accords or not, most countries (including the US) will beat their original stated targets by quite a bit. Obama's Clean Power Plan (CPP) was never a hurdle (it's more like a stripe on the floor), but at least did the math on what would be dead-easy to do or guranteed to happen anyway, and provided a basis to talk about in Paris.

    The CPP also provided for mitigating the economic damage that fossil extraction communities are taking due to this transition. If the CPP goes away under this administration the transition to cheaper renewables happens anyway, but the planned mitigation of the economic damage to declining fossil fuel industry communities doesn't, as highlighted recently in this bit o' NPR reportage (definitely NOT fake news):

    See also:

    So, while bailing on Paris tarnishes US prestige in the world, the reaction to that bit of trolling will likely hasten the transition to cleaner energy, both in the US and elsewhere. It galvanizes people to take concrete action on their own rather than waiting for the cumbersome (and now reactionary) US federal government to move.

  3. Tony Mitchell | | #3

    Alison and Dana
    Good article Allison and I share in most of your optimism Dana.

    Whilst we never be able to prove AGW, as with much of science, we have enough basic understanding of what governs climate and enough evidence of rapid climate changes to be pretty darn sure AGW is a reality. The evidence (atmospheric CO2 and CH4 concentration increase, Carbon isotope data indicating sourced from fossil fuels, temperature rise, sea level rise, ocean acidification, Arctic ice extent retreat, glacial melting, Greenland ice sheet retreat.....) is all predictable if we understand and believe the Greenhouse Effect science. That has to be the first step, and I am not aware of any other theory that explains climate science so well.

    So, in virtually all other walks of life we use our judgement on risk to make decisions and act accordingly. When we get above an 80% confidence limit we tend to act to mitigate against the risks. My concern with the ill informed people such as Trump, Pruitt and Perry may well slow down to advances we have made in renewables, simply by reducing the economic benefits that have helped give the sector a huge kick start. As you suggest Dana, economics drive behaviors. The US had/has a great opportunity to lead the way and demonstrate how Renewables can be a win-win-win for the climate, the economy and for jobs.

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