The US Environmental Protection Agency has, of late, been operating on the principle that you can prevent environmental disasters by simply getting rid of the environment. As part of this mission, the EPA has considered a plan to put climate science up for public debate. This “Red Team, Blue Team” exercise would have pitted scientists against people who do not like them in order to cast doubt on the consensus that human activities are warming the planet. I am completely on board with this, as long as the Blue Team also gets private jets and enormous security details. We will, however, take a pass on the used Trump Hotel mattresses.
I’m kidding, of course. In fact, as a general rule, I refuse to debate basic science in public. There are two reasons for this: first, I’m a terrible debater and would almost certainly lose. The skills necessary to be a good scientist (coding, caring about things like “moist static energy”, drinking massive amounts of coffee) aren’t necessarily the same skills that will convince an audience in a debate format. It is very fortunate that things like the atomic model of matter do not rest on my ability to be charming or persuasive.
But second, and maybe more importantly: once you put facts about the world up for debate, you’ve already lost. Science isn’t a popularity contest; if it were, I’d definitely vote to eliminate quantum mechanics, set π to 1, and put radium back in toothpaste. I really, really don’t want sea levels to rise, rainfall patterns to shift, and heat waves to intensify. Climate change is definitely not my first choice. But physics and chemistry don’t care what I, or anyone else, wants.
Here’s the thing: there is a debate among climate scientists. It’s just—and I say this with love—very boring. I have somehow been sucked into a longstanding argument over how fast dirt dries out in the sun, and you would not believe the vitriol it generates. I have witnessed passionate fights over satellite viewing angles, eigenvalues, and the correct way to parametrize marine stratocumulus cloud formation. All of these things matter deeply, and arguing about them advances science. But these are not the debates that make for entertaining television.
Too often, we scientists find ourselves asked to “debate” people who believe (simultaneously) that the Earth is cooling, that it’s warming but the warming is natural, that the warming is human-caused but beneficial, and that NASA somehow made it all up in between faking moon landings and covering up alien abductions. These things cannot all be true. Climate denial is like bad science fiction: there’s no internal logic, the characters aren’t compelling, and you can see the scary things coming from miles away.
So, if we’re being asked to debate things that are essentially fictional, we should respond in kind. Not by misrepresenting the science—that’s too important to mess with. But I’m happy to debate fiction, if we’re honest that that’s what we’re doing. I happen to believe very strongly that it was a stupid idea to send Frodo into Mordor with the ring. I also feel that Killmonger had a point, Holden Caulfield is insufferable, and Jane could have done much, much better than Mr. Rochester.
In all seriousness, it makes me sad when objective reality is treated as something up for debate. We should be arguing about energy and tax policy, not whether climate change is real. If you love coal and oil and gas, feel free to make your case. But don’t pretend that burning these things doesn’t put carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and don’t pretend that this doesn’t make the planet warmer. Or do pretend these things, but admit you’re writing fiction and throw in some sex scenes while you’re at it.
There are only so many hours in the day for coding and writing and trying to care about moist static energy while balancing school drop-offs, doctor’s appointments, and household chores. I want to be on the team of scientists who do all this while engaging with the public, telling everyone about the amazing stuff we get to do. Let’s call it, say, the Pink Team. I think it’s going to win.