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Politicized Science vs. Anti-Science Republicans

It is an article of faith among many conservatives that climate change is sham science. Even worse, it is the nexus of a vast conspiracy involving governments, the UN, and climate scientists that is seeking to destroy the industrial economies of the West, create a one world government, and enrich people like Al Gore who have bet a bundle on a reduced carbon emissions future. They believe that either the earth is not warming at all, or that rising temperatures are the result of other phenomena like water vapor or the dearth of sunspot activity.

Facing off against them are a vast array of learned climate scientists armed with gigabytes of data, carefully calibrated models, and 600 years of experience in the process of discovering facts using the scientific method. The vast weight of evidence shows that the earth is warming and that man is mostly to blame. Hundreds of scientists and thousands of papers published in the most prestigious science journals in the world in a dozen different disciplines ranging from atmospheric physics to meteorology tell us that the preponderance of scientific evidence cannot be denied: we have a huge problem and we must address it.

It’s no contest, really. Climate change deniers are willing to suspend reason and logic while positing a monstrously large and unwieldy conspiracy to deny the “true facts” of global warming — thus accusing hundreds of reputable scientists of being charlatans, or worse. They can’t all be in on the conspiracy, nor is it possible that the data showing man’s imprint on climate — data gathered over many decades — have all been fudged, or pulled out of thin air.

But is this really no contest? Those “carefully calibrated models” have yet to come close to predicting accurate temperature or CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Tree ring and ice core data have been challenged. The entire scientific basis for rising temperatures — the raw data gathered from weather stations around the world giving a temperature record of the last 150 years — is continuing to come under fire as a result of the email dump from the East Anglia labs last year. The scientists in question — Drs. Mann and Jones — are either unwilling or unable to produce their raw data, thus making it impossible for others to reproduce their results.

Why this violation of a fundamental tenet of the scientific process has not resulted in a mass movement by scientists toward a more skeptical approach to climate claims says more about the politicized nature of government-funded science today than it does the efficacy of science itself.

There is a clear and compelling difference between climate deniers and climate skeptics. Deniers see men in black where skeptics see the very human problem of faulty reasoning based on faulty data. Many skeptics fully accept the fact that the earth is indeed warming and that to one degree or another man is responsible. The issue for skeptics is the draconian measures recommended by climate change advocates to address the problem, not so much the science behind it.

Bjorn Lomborg, whose documentary Cool It has given a boost to the skeptical cause (while being trumpeted by the climate conspiracists as “proof” they are correct), represents the only rationalist approach to the problem of climate change being proposed today.

In an interview a couple of weeks ago, Lomborg outlines his thinking about why he made the film:

I have two fundamental points. One is that global warming is real, it’s man-made, and it’s important, but it is not the end of the world. The situation is in between “it’s the end of the world” and “it’s not happening,” but that conversation is very, very hard to have because we have a very polarized discussion.

The second point is we need to find smart solutions. We’ve been trying to solve global warming for at least 18 years, and we’ve been failing for 18 years. So instead of saying, “Let’s try for another 10 years with the same failed ideas,” let’s stop having this unproductive “either-or” conversation. Then lots of other people are going to come up with smart solutions, and we’re off on a much more constructive way of thinking about global warming.

Lomborg says his film is not so much a response to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth as much as it’s a “post-Al Gore” film that seeks to move beyond the irrational fear mongering generated by Truth. He actually praises Gore for bringing the problem of global warming into the mainstream, but criticizes him because scaring people inevitably leads to bad decision making.

Indeed, you can’t get much worse as far as decision making is concerned than carbon trading or other emissions reduction schemes as they are currently formulated. It is amazing that there is a consensus among scientists, economists, government policymakers, and businesspeople that the cap and trade legislation, so popular around the world with governments, will curtail economic activity and burden ordinary people with increased energy costs while failing to reduce CO2 emissions to any significant degree. No one is arguing to the contrary.

The response from promoters of these schemes is that the effects won’t be as bad as critics are postulating. That may very well be true. Europe’s carbon trading market is quite successful and relatively free of fraud. But German consumers are paying 25% more for electricity, and the carbon reducing regime has had a “much smaller effect on emissions than planned.” Emissions trading is clearly not a panacea for climate change, nor does it appear to be forcing industry to “go green” with any alacrity.

Lomborg realizes the conundrum of being a skeptic but wanting to develop policies to address the problem of climate change:

When you say, “It’s not as bad as Al Gore says,” or “The current solutions are not working,” then people say, “Oh, you’re just a Republican.” And if you say, “We should spend money on working to solve climate change,” then they say, “Oh, you’re just a Democrat.” So it’s a testimonial to the unproductive nature of the conversation that people try to push you into one or the other of those two extreme points.

The fact is, Republicans are terrified of their base, which seems to have abandoned reason and embraced a fanatical anti-scientific viewpoint on climate change. Rather than attempt to carefully weigh and balance arguments, there is a rush to posit conspiracy theories about the motives of climate change advocates. Unfortunately, this attitude has been fed by statements like the one from Ottmar Edenhofer, co-chair of the IPCC Working Group III, that climate treaties are beards for wealth redistribution.

This is hardly a secret, nor is it anything new or conspiratorial. The Kyoto accord made wealth transfers to developing countries the centerpiece of the treaty. And the IPCC’s motives in this regard dovetail nicely with those of the developing world and their NGO advocates who stand to receive a nice sized slice of any developmental funds that result from this massive redistribution of wealth.

But just because the motives of many climate change advocates are questionable, even evil, does that mean the entire global warming proposition is a fraud? There are still those hundreds of scientists and their dogged, 30 years of research and experimentation into the question of whether man-made industrial activity is having an effect on climate. They and their findings are not going away no matter how many “conspiracies” are uncovered or how many UN flacks reveal the true nature of their efforts.

You can’t fault the scientists if their research and conclusions have been hijacked by politicians greedy for loot and power, and far left activists who wish industrialized society and its capitalistic excesses would simply disappear. The problem won’t go away because many conservatives seek to hide in their cocoons and echo chambers, assuring themselves that global warming is a myth and nothing need be done about it.

This is a symptom of movement conservatism’s larger problem of rejecting authority and expertise as the product of elitist thinking. Science is especially vulnerable to their skepticism because it is so easily misunderstood. If it is beyond the ken of “ordinary” people to understand, then it is suspect. Any appeals to “authority” are dismissed automatically as an attempt to use “credentialism” to put one over on the people, or claim competency where none exists.

An Army of Davids may indeed possess intelligence beyond that demonstrated by Ivy League economists or others who base their authority on having attended the best schools while enjoying the company and respect of the inside-the-beltway crowd. But it is unreasonable to reject the findings on climate change from so many scientists across so many disciplines. They may be stiff-necked about being challenged on their findings; most scientists are. But does a reluctance to defend themselves and attempts to shut off debate necessarily and automatically mean they are wrong about their findings or part of some conspiracy to destroy capitalism?

Former Congressman Sherwood Boehlert of New York, a past chairman of the House Committee on Science, bemoans this attitude:

The new Congress should have a policy debate to address facts rather than a debate featuring unsubstantiated attacks on science. We shouldn’t stand by while the reputations of scientists are dragged through the mud in order to win a political argument. And no member of any party should look the other way when the basic operating parameters of scientific inquiry — the need to question, express doubt, replicate research and encourage curiosity — are exploited for the sake of political expediency. My fellow Republicans should understand that wholesale, ideologically based or special-interest-driven rejection of science is bad policy. And that in the long run, it’s also bad politics.

It is impossible to have a debate when so many on both sides are poisoned with excessively ideological approaches to a scientific problem. We can argue, as Lomborg does, about the extent of the crisis. Or we can debate policy alternatives that fit the size and scope of the problem as Boehlert suggests.

But given the heat the climate change debate generates, we appear doomed to muddle along as we have been, tossing rhetorical bombs at one another while nature, in its own way, proves one side right and the other wrong.