Climate change as a scientific paradigm (part 1)

These past two weeks have seen an escalation in ecological activism with protesters taking control of the arteries of major cities in the UK, bringing traffic to a standstill, in order to force radical action on the government regarding climate control. While I feel encouraged by young people taking action over an issue they are passionate about and one which they feel will directly impact their own lives, it is not clear that the situation is as apocalyptic as the most dire predictions or that implementation of the most extreme demands would not result in anything less than the collapse of civilisation as we know it.

The science of climate change is fairly simple in its fundamentals, but complex in the processes which make up its phenomenology, imprecise in its predictions given the complexity of the interacting contributory systems and overladen with moral, political and ideological perspectives which make it a contested ground even among developed nations. Even where consensus has been reached on the nature of the problem, in realpolitik there is little incentive to act, as the scale of the changes that might need to be made are unknown and every concession disadvantages the economy under the competitive rules we live by at present.

In this essay I want to explore whether the science of climate change is best understood as a scientific paradigm and the moment we are living through now coincides with what Thomas Kuhn, in his seminal work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn, 1970) referred to as a paradigm shift. This may help to create a neutral space between and make possible a degree of rapprochement between climate change believers and sceptics, but, more importantly, also suggest what some of the main priorities should be.

The Kuhnian idea of a paradigm

Kuhn was principally an historian of science, and his concept of a paradigm was derived from a fundamental historical truth that things change over time and that prior certainties come, with historical distance, to be seen as erroneous or, at least, limited. This observation could apply to scientific theories as much as political systems and moral beliefs. The paradigm concept was fashioned as a sociological perspective on the development of science, that what constituted science was defined by the activities of the scientific community. At any time, the scientific community is acting largely around a consensus on fundamental scientific truths, beliefs about reality that enable them to carry out the routine work they do, such as experimental research, authoring research papers, teaching, devising new technologies, and so on.

At the fringes, however, there are always questions and anomalies in the data that challenge the prevailing consensus. These can be ignored for the most part or accommodated within the prevailing theories by theoretical ‘fixes’, as the consensus allows ‘normal science’ to continue, the economies to be boosted by new technologies, people to have jobs and more comfortable lives. At a certain point in time, the anomalies will inevitably become too great and the fixes patently unconvincing and the time will be ripe for a new theoretical foundation and new consensus. From the fringes a new theory will emerge that claims to explain the phenomenon better than the existing consensus but based on different assumptions. The new paradigm will be embraced enthusiastically by some and rejected by others, perhaps based on the claim that there is insufficient evidence. Over time, if certain conditions are met, a new generation will come to accept the new paradigm and the believers in the old will die off. In Kuhn’s parlance a scientific revolution will have taken place.

Criticisms have been raised of Kuhn’s work, principally of relativism and of lack of specificity of the concept of the paradigm. On the charge of relativism, there is the obvious criticism that Kuhn’s idea of the definition of science as that activity carried out by the scientific community, would tend to support the charge, as well as involving an obvious tautology. Nevertheless, Kuhn does set out fundamental criteria of rationality as a basis for judging between competing paradigms (Chen, 1997). Pointing out that theories change over time does not automatically qualify as relativism. However, a failure to indicate that theories have improved in terms of the accuracy of predictions or our ability to manipulate nature, might.

Regarding the accuracy and specificity of the term paradigm, it is difficult to judge. The change from the Newtonian concept of gravity to an Einsteinian one is an obviously paradigmatic example of the paradigm, which has fundamentally altered the way that scientists (at least) see the world. Yet relativity is incompatible with quantum physics, so there are two competing paradigms for the overlap between the macrocosmic and microcosmic worlds. So, even this one example demonstrates a problem with the concept: it is one thing to have historical incommensurability between explanations of the same phenomenon, and see a universal paradigm shift, and another to see multiple incommensurabilities between paradigms in narrow areas. Do general relativity and quantum mechanics belong to an as-yet undetermined greater paradigm?

As well as these criticisms, it is also necessary to consider the important contribution of Kuhn’s ideas. Compared with the strict and exclusionary criteria of falsificationism, it allows for the existence of anomaly within the day-to-day operations of the scientific community. Not every fact will fit within an existing paradigm, but for the most part they can be put to one side awaiting explanation within the existing paradigm when new and better data is gathered, or such facts will accumulate, eventually putting pressure on the scientific community to seek a better explanation, while still allowing routine scientific work to continue.

Does climate change modelling constitute a scientific paradigm?

The political and moral posturing around global warming, to say nothing of the preferments and funding within the relevant academic departments and scientific specialisms, make it difficult to separate out the facts from the fictions, credible theories from ideology and justified belief from mere convenience. The problem is compounded – indeed it is rooted in – the complexity of the global system of the climate, something that is still imperfectly understood, comprising not a single, but multiple interlocking systems, including the atmosphere, the oceans, the biosphere and the anthroposphere, the arena of human economic activity. It is almost certainly the case that the regulatory flows and feedbacks within and between these systems are not completely understood and are the subject of ongoing research.

The hypothesis underlying the climate change debate consists basically of two linked ideas, that human economic activity since the industrial revolution is the main contributory factor to a global increase in average temperature and that this rise in temperature produces changes in climate patterns, resulting in more thermal burden on plant and animal species, more chaotic, more extreme and less predictable patterns of weather, and terrestrial changes such as the shrinking of the polar icecaps and glaciers, all changes that will in turn impact on human civilisations.

There seems to little contention over whether regional climates are changing, because even the most casual observers have noticed changes in the weather patterns over the last few decades, particularly with less severe winters and higher summer temperatures. What is less clear is whether the planet as a whole is warming, though data from remote regions indicate that changes are taking place there too. For a period, sceptics were able to trumpet the fact that, after decades of temperature increases, there was no net atmospheric warming for about 20 years and proclaim that global warming had ended or even reversed. In fact, data indicates that the warming had switched to the oceans, one of the little-understood complexities of the global energy system.

The most contentious issue, though, is the purported cause of this change, as it is reckoned to be a single vector: the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Again, there is little dispute over the basic facts, that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas (though by no means the most powerful), which functions to retain heat in the atmosphere and slow its radiation into space. Its presence is the reason we are able to live on earth under temperate conditions but its proportion in the atmosphere is increasing, has been increasing since the start of the industrial revolution, and stands at a historic high. Carbon dioxide is produced naturally as a by-product of animal respiration and volcanism, but, significantly, also as a by-product of burning fossil fuels, which we have done in increasing amounts since the industrial revolution.

The supposed anthropogenic causes of global warming driving climate change are where the scientific data become muddied by politics. At an early point, those on the political left and radical environmentalists saw in these hypotheses evidence that man, and specifically, capitalism, was destroying the planet, which gave spurious support to their politics – spurious, because the worst precipitators of ecological disasters have been socialist countries in which the state is all powerful and unresponsive to citizens’ concerns. Nevertheless, the acquisition of global warming as an issue of the left naturally sparked a reaction from the right, which was essentially to carry out a rear-guard action in the form of multiple denials: denial that there was any warming; denial that it was the result of human activity; denial that it mattered anyway, and so on.

Is there any merit to the claims of warming deniers? While not doubting that there are anomalies to be explained, the question itself is indicative that the bigger question, of whether the proposed model of global warming constitutes a scientific paradigm, has been answered in the affirmative. We are already thinking within the paradigm, either in support of it or in opposition to it. Global warming has all the hallmarks of a paradigm: it has absorbed many of the individual scientific disciplines and allowed ‘normal science’ to continue, giving a patina of coherence to their endeavours, even if the science is not settled and anomalies exist. It has created a research frame, in which people are funded and have jobs and proceed to fill in the gaps in a theoretical construct that they have accepted largely on faith, because it offers a plausible explanation for the data available and because it accords with their sense of worth as a moral agent.

Does this mean that global warming is true? As Kuhn pointed out, the lesson of history is that all theories are ultimately shown to be overturned by theories that have more generality and better predictive strengths; that is the strength of the paradigmatic view, in enabling us to separate out the utility value from absolute truth claims. On the first of these points, that of generality, I would say that the climate change model has been successful in proposing a unifying framework for multiple sciences, particularly the climate sciences, atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and to some extent ecology, the biological sciences, ethology (animal behaviour), chemistry and the social sciences. Its record on predictions has been less successful, owing to some exaggerated claims, possibly to gain media attention and funding, possibly as a result of partial or faulty models, but the overall claim that human activity has resulted in climatic changes as a result of industrialisation seems to hold up.

(part 2 will consider how climate change scepticism may challenge the idea of the model as a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense)


Xiang Chen (1997). Thomas Kuhn’s Latest Notion of Incommensurability. Journal for General Philosophy of Science / Zeitschrift für allgemeine Wissenschaftstheorie, Vol. 28, No. 2 (1997), pp. 257-273.

Thomas S. Kuhn (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. London: The University of Chicago Press.

By Don Trubshaw

Don Trubshaw is a co-founder of the website Societal Values. He has a PhD in the philosophy and sociology of education and teaches in Higher Education.


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