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The Climate Crisis and The Assault on Science

Any objective assessment of climate change and the development of the science of climate change can only conclude:  climate change is continuing relentlessly; climate science has continued to develop a deeper understanding of why that is happening and its very dangerous implications; human society's greenhouse gas emissions is driving global warming.

But instead of the public understanding of this getting clearer and determined global action beginning in earnest, the last year has seen the opposite - significantly because of a relentless assault on climate science.  This assault is not based on reason or on evidence - it is driven by economic, political, and ideological currents and compulsions and not by the reality of what human society is doing neither to the planet, nor by flaws or weaknesses in climate science.  And unfortunately, in the face of this, many who have once taken better positions have been intimidated or retreated, and in particular the positions taken by the US government have continued to fall far short of taking responsibility for the future of the planet.  In this situation, the role of scientists speaking in defense of a scientific understanding of what is going on has great importance.

Three short years ago, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and Al Gore were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work in alerting the public to the dangers of global warming.

In 2008, after 8 years of harassment, suppression and distortion of the work of climate scientists by the Bush administration, Bush was forced to release a court-mandated Scientific Assessment on climate that stated that human-driven climate change will damage ecosystems and pose challenges to key sectors of the U.S. economy including agriculture and energy.  This report was in large part based on recent reports from the IPCC.  It also stated that climate change was very likely due to human activities. (see http://www.climatescience.gov/Library/scientific-assessment/Scientific-AssessmentFINAL.pdf )  Some may not recall that cap-and-trade (flawed and limited as it is as a solution for reducing carbon emissions) was originally put forward by the Republican party, as a move in opposition to more direct proposals to directly limit greenhouse emissions.  As candidates in 2008, John McCain and Sarah Palin both proposed to reduce global warming pollution via a cap-and-trade program.

There were noisy global warming doubters, deniers and skeptics, including James Inhofe, the senator from Oklahoma who dismisses global warming as a hoax but in the main they were regarded as fringe elements.  As the Obama administration prepared to take office, the basic facts and conclusions that form the overwhelming scientific consensus about global warming and the role of human-produced carbon emissions seemed to many to be on the verge of becoming well understood in U.S. society.

In stark contrast, today, the US is the only developed country in the world that has a powerful mainstream party that denies global warming science.  Today extremists like Inhofe are not isolated fringe elements, but are setting terms for the mainstream of the Republican party.

As reported in a recent L.A.Times article, written just before the mid-term elections:
Skepticism about human technology's role in accelerating climate change, and doubt concerning the phenomenon's very existence, have become, at least on the Republican side, a matter of lock-step partisan orthodoxy. (emphasis Defend Science)
For example, 19 of the 20 GOP candidates who are in closely contested races and have expressed a position on the issue say they have doubts about the scientific evidence for global warming, despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists. That includes Arizona's John McCain, who formerly supported legislation to reduce carbon emissions. Mark Kirk of Illinois, who voted for cap-and-trade as a congressman, is the lone Republican holdout. Some of the other senatorial candidates express ambivalence about the science but firmly reject any legislative or regulatory remedy; more agree with Louisiana's David Vitter, who calls the evidence for climate change "pseudo-science garbage."”
("Delusions, dollars and climate", October 30, 2010)

James Sensenbrenner, notorious climate change “skeptic” is now set to become the vice chairman of the House Science Committee.  In 2009 he attempted a McCarthyite move to have all climate scientists whose names appeared in the stolen so-called “climate-gate” emails blacklisted from participation in the IPCC’s reports.

And as for the Democrats, in the face of mounting scientific evidence of the climate crisis, with CO2 levels reaching 390 ppm, going into the Cancun climate talks the government abandoned even the attempt to actually arrive at an international agreement now that would limit carbon emissions.  This so-called "realism" will be the death of the planet. footnote 1

What Happened? And what does it mean, for science and society?

A concerted attack on science under the name “climate-gate” happened for starters.

With the publication of damaging e-mails from a climate research center in Britain, the radical environmental movement appears to face a tipping point. The revelation of appalling actions by so-called climate change experts allows the American public to finally understand the concerns so many of us have articulated on this issue.” (Washington Post, Wednesday, December 9, 2009, op-ed by Sarah Palin on the politicization of the Copenhagen climate conference)

You knew something was very wrong when Sarah Palin stepped forward as a defender of the “integrity of science” – and the Washington Post gave her op-ed space to do so.

The virulent stream of anti-science know-nothingism and denial of reality that has always characterized a major part of the American response to the science of global warming reached a crescendo going into the December, 2009 Copenhagen climate talks.  A key part of this was triggered by the illegally hacked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climactic Research Center in the U.K.  What started out as a right-wing assault on climate scientists was turned into a supposed "climate-gate" significantly by the mainstream press!

There are a number of important parallels here with the attacks on evolution (as well as some differences).  One basic point is that the virulence of the attacks has nothing to do with weaknesses in either evolution or global warming science – both these attacks stem from political, ideological and economic causes.  A second is that both of them have tapped into and helped feed the dangerous current in this culture which is opposed to scientific thinking as a whole.  And a third is that while there are differences between those mobilized around creationist banners and those opposing global warming, there is also quite a lot in common in these circles – and they are both mixed together in the right-wing populist milieu that has given birth to the “tea party”, “birthers”, and others. footnote 2

The goal of the “climate-gate” attackers is not confined to generally attacking and throwing doubt on climate science but includes trying to threaten and intimidate climate scientists from speaking out publicly on these questions that are vital for all of humanity, and to cast doubt and confusion on science itself.  And what makes all of this increasingly dangerous is that the overall political initiative is in the hands of these right wing forces, and mainstream political forces have adopted a defensive posture towards the “climate-gaters” and their “charges” - in effect giving them both more public credibility than they ever deserved.

There have been some positive exceptions to this trend: 250 members of the U.S. National Academies of Science signed an open letter in opposition to these attacks “Climate Change and the Integrity of Science” (appeared in Science Magazine May 7, 2010 http://www.sciencemag.org/content/328/5979/689.full  )

Also, among climate scientists there have been some initial efforts to counter this anti-science wave.  The Climate Science Rapid Response Team was formed as “a match-making service between top scientists and members of the media and office holders and their staffs from various levels of government...The group is committed to providing rapid, high-quality information to media and government officials.” 

Cancun: 'lowered expectations' means giving up on stopping global warming

In the months going into Cancun, it seemed that the watchword of what could be accomplished at the talks was "lower expectations", and then, "lower them again."  What this meant was that any attempt to talk about meaningful measures to actually do anything to reduce carbon emissions in a serious way was cast off as going against political realism.  We cannot here fully assess what happened at Cancun - but the talks did indeed completely fail to do anything serious to lower carbon emissions, and this was hailed as progress by the chief US negotiator.

All this–

***the seemingly unending assault on global warming science and scientists
***the emergence of a hard-core of climate science deniers with a great deal of political power and influence in Congress and the government more generally
***failure of those with real power who have at least talked about doing something serious about climate change to confront the hard reality of what the physics and chemistry and biology of carbon are telling us

all of this has had mutually re-enforcing negative impact.

Science is not being strongly defended in the face of these attacks.  Anti-scientific rhetoric is promoted and allowed to run unchecked polluting the political environment much as the gulf oil spill spewed contaminants into the natural environment.

And in turn these largely unanswered attacks on science are further deepening a political climate of accepting continued reliance on fossil fuels.  All of this reflects, re-enforces and perpetuates the deep structural dependence of the U.S. and world economy on fossil fuels.

Major damage is occurring to the broad public's understanding of science, the scientific method and its ability to know how to understand and change the world for the better at a time when that understanding is crucially needed.

And humanity is losing precious time in responding to what really is a planet-wide emergency. 

footnote 1 The upper safe limit for atmospheric CO2 is 350 parts per million (pps). Atmospheric CO2 levels have stayed higher than 350 ppm since early 1988. See Target Atmospheric CO2: Where should humanity aim? Hansen et al:

footnote 2 Anti-science forces attacking climate science have injected a very deliberate mis-understanding of what “uncertainty” in science means. They want people to confuse the scientific concept of uncertainty ranges in measurements and in particular quantitative predictions made by scientific theories with overall uncertainty, then on to doubt and then to rejection of climate science itself.  The methodology behind this deliberate confusion around “uncertainty” is very similar to what anti-evolution forces do when they try to convince the public that evolution is “just a theory”.  All of this represents continued attempts to mis-educate the public with anti-scientific thinking.  This phony argument about “uncertainty” has been picked up, given wide exposure and treated as a legitimate issue in an unfortunately typical “even-handed” way by various media.

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