A couple of weeks ago the Republican-controlled house Science and Technology committee put together a “blue-ribbon” panel to demonstrate their side of the now highly politicized climate change debate. Their intent was to continue to introduce fear, uncertainty, and doubt into the scientific claim that the earth is warming at an alarming rate and humans are the cause of that warming. This was part of the larger Republican efforts to block EPA efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The panel was stuffed with anti-regulatory advocates. One called for called for the end of all government funding for climate change research, as well as support for all “global organizations” working toward agreements on reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. Another said the US should not rely on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and needs a second opinion from a “non-activist” scientific team.
Richard Muller was supposed to be the lynch pin of this orchestrated attack on the EPA and the Obama administration’s support for restricting greenhouse gases. He is a UC Berkeley physicist and long time critic of government-led climate studies. He created The Berkeley Earth Science Project to challenge the scientific consensus on global warming. His project’s largest private backer is the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. This foundation is one of the charitable funds set up by oil billionaires and tea-party funders, Charles and David Koch.
A funny thing happened on the way to forum.
Professor Muller took a statistical approach to analyzing the scientific data that has already been published on global warming. He was the first to speak and dropped a bombshell on the panel.
Instead of finding some variance in the results which would suggest that the data as well as the interpretations of the data suggesting global warming was suspect, he told the hearing that the work of the three principal groups that have analyzed the temperature trends underlying climate science is “excellent…. We see a global warming trend that is very similar to that previously reported by the other groups.”
Other members of the scientific community applauded Muller’s courage in recanting his previous views. Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science, which contributed some funding to the Berkeley effort, said Muller’s statement to Congress was “honorable” in recognizing that “previous temperature reconstructions basically got it right…. Willingness to revise views in the face of empirical data is the hallmark of the good scientific process.”
Unfortunately, some global warming skeptics reacted differently to Muller’s conclusions.
Anthony Watts, a former TV weatherman who runs the skeptic blog WattsUpWithThat.com, made a name for himself through his efforts to show that weather station data in official studies are untrustworthy because of the urban heat island effect, which boosts temperature readings in areas that have been encroached on by cities and suburbs. Muller has praised Watts for his work in the past, but leading climatologists said the previous studies accounted for the effect. The Berkeley analysis confirmed that. “Did such poor station quality exaggerate the estimates of global warming?” Muller asked in his written testimony. “We’ve studied this issue, and our preliminary answer is no.”
Watts responded that the Berkeley group is releasing results that are not “fully working and debugged yet…. But, post normal science political theater is like that.”
The realities are that this particular scientific issue has become so politicized that researchers are faced with the very real challenge that the result of their work may affect their future access to research funds. If we really DO want unbiased scientific research, we have to insulate researchers from the political effects of their findings. Professor Muller represents the best of what we should expect from our scientific community. When the data did not agree with his previous public position, he changed his position rather than continue to question the data.
Unfortunately we don’t seem willing or able to hold our politicians to the same high ethical standards as we expect from our scientists. The reality is that our politicians often represent what is best for their largest donors. Here are a couple of examples.
Sen. Jim Inhoffe is famous for saying, “man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.” Inhofe has accepted $1.2 million from oil and gas interests over the course of his career, making the industry far and away his most generous contributor. He voted to preserve $35 billion in oil and gas subsidies last year.
Sen. John Barrasso (R-WY) is a strenuous opponent of the Endangered Species Act because the economic consequences “would be utterly devastating”. Over the past few years, oil and gas companies have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Wyoming Republican.
This really comes down to a question of trust. If we trust our scientists, we have to force our politicians to respond to the guidance we are receiving from them. If we would prefer to trust our politicians, we leave ourselves vulnerable to those special interests who clearly are attempting to influence the political agenda for their own gain. Three quarters of the American people want to eliminate oil and gas subsidies. More than half call global warming a “major problem” and feel that the government is “doing too little”. It will be interesting in this next election cycle to see how long conservative Republicans can continue to hold out against both science and popular opinion.