"There is no such thing as a stupid question."
I've heard that statement countless times in my life, and have always thought it is itself rather stupid. Of course there are stupid questions.
I've asked many stupid questions and am no doubt fated to ask many more. I've asked my brother where my glasses were when I was in fact wearing them at the time. I've asked a friend where my phone was despite the fact that I was talking to this friend on the phone. Professionally, as a journalist I've been paid to ask questions and indeed some have undoubtedly been rather stupid. I'm always entertained at press conferences by my colleagues' queries. Just watch a White House press briefing on C-Span and you'll know what I mean.
When I tell people that I study global climate change science and policy I'm often hit with an extremely annoying and ill-informed question (notice I didn't say stupid, because you'd have to be stupid to tell someone that they just asked you a stupid question).
"So Andrew," the questioner will say with a sly smile. Right then I know what is coming, and so I begin to prepare my well-rehearsed response that now feels tired and overused.
I nod politely. "Do you believe in global warming?"
That is when I punch the questioner in the face.
Or at least that's what I'd like to do. Instead I speak calmly about the distinction between observations of warming and the issue of whether greenhouse gases are causing that warming.
In other words, the fact that the Earth is warming is not in dispute. It's an observation rather than a belief. I don't look at the thermometer in the morning and say "I'm not falling for that again." Instead I say "It's blank degrees outside." Climate change researchers are really doing just that, only on a global scale, to arrive at the Earth's average surface temperature. While vastly more complicated than my morning observation, the underlying principles are the same in that the only belief system necessary is the scientific method.
The recurring climate change question I get asked should really be phrased as: "So, do you believe that humans are causing global warming?"
The answer to that question, I propose, is that the consensus of the scientific community is that humans are the greatest contributor to recent observed climate change, and there is still some uncertainty involved in reaching this conclusion. So yes, I do in fact believe that humans are causing climate change, but it certainly bears intense further study.
The recurring climate change question isn't in the same category as "where are my glasses?" but it does demonstrate the same failure to observe. In the climate change case it's the failure of many individuals to observe what the scientific community is telling us about the climate.
The recurring question is a revealing glimpse into how people view the science of climate change and environmental politics. It also demonstrates the amount of work that lies ahead in moving policies forward that address the massive challenge at hand.
All of that said, have any of you seen my keyboard? I swear it was just on my desk.