Climate Change Denial and the Climate of Fear

blind fold typists from france circa 1940 photoDr. Gotlieb comments on the attempts by economically and politically interested parties to obscure the climate change debate. Scientists are “street fighting” the demagoguery in prestigious journals, like Nature.

There is a mean spirit blowing — and its not a sirocco out of the Maghreb.

The issue began brewing around the time of the ill-fated Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change last December.  Shortly before then, in November 2009, climate change deniers received a windfall when a set of email correspondence from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU)) at East Anglia University in the UK was commandeered and its contents leaked.  The deniers broadly published their (mis-)interpretation of the contents of some of the exchanges, alleging duplicity among climatologist in misleading the public and policy makers about the urgency of climate change.

The controversy spawned a small industry of virulent attacks in newspapers and the blogosphere on climatologists and the policy makers they supposedly duped. While academic boards have cleared the professors involved, right-wing political forces, petroleum industry groups and other interested parties have continued their phantasmagoric attacks.

Organized science now feels it necessary to respond. In its March 11, 2010 issue the esteemed journal, Nature, published an editorial entitled Climate of Fear. The editorial notes that climate scientists “are in a street fight” with “a re-energized community of global-warming deniers who, by dominating the media agenda, are sowing doubts about the fundamental science….[the battle is] only superficially about the science.

The real goal is to stoke the angry fires of talk radio, cable news, the blogosphere and the like, all of which feed off of contrarian story lines and seldom make the time to assess facts and weigh evidence. Civility, honesty, fact and perspective are irrelevant.”

The Nature editorial quotes renowned Sanford University ecologist Paul Ehrlich as stating “[e]veryone is scared shitless, but they don’t know what to do.”

The  witch hunt has a prominent inquisitor in the form of Sen. James Inhofe, Republican of Oklahoma. On a speech on the Senate floor given on July 28, 2003, Inhofe, then Chairman of the Committee on Environment and Public Works articulated  his position concerning climate change:

It’s also important to question whether global warming is even a problem for human existence. Thus far no one has seriously demonstrated any scientific proof that increased global temperatures would lead to the catastrophes predicted by alarmists. In fact, it appears that just the opposite is true: that increases in global temperatures may have a beneficial effect on how we live our lives.

For these reasons I would like to discuss an important body of scientific research that refutes the anthropogenic theory of catastrophic global warming. I believe this research offers compelling proof that human activities have little impact on climate.

In a Senate Minority Report following the CRU emails affair and an incident involving the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (in which a the estimated rate of Himalayan glaciers recession was found to be exaggerated, a mistake the IPCC has acknowledged), Inhofe is quoted as stating that there isunethical and potentially illegal behavior by some the world’s leading climate scientists.”

He is reported to be seeing the prosecution of 17 scientists in this connection and has called on the Obama Administration to “abandon greenhouse gas regulation under the Clean Air Act-a policy that will mean fewer jobs, higher taxes and economic decline.”

Scientists are not taking the harassment passively. In the lead letter of the May 7, 2010 issue of Science, the weekly magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 255 members of the US National Academy of Sciences write that they are “deeply disturbed by the recent escalation of political assaults on scientists in general and on climate scientists in particular.”

The letter which makes note of the IPCC mistake puts in perspective: “thousands of scientists producing massive and comprehensive reports, have, quite expectedly and normally, made some mistakes. When errors are pointed out, they are corrected.”

The scientists make it unequivocally clear that despite the denial of climate change which is “typically driven by special interests or dogma, not by an honest effort to provide an alternative theory that credibly satisfies the evidence,”  the conclusions are clear: climate change is anthropogenic in origin and a threat to “coastal communities and cities, our food and water supplies, marine and freshwater ecosystems, forests, high mountain environments, and far more.”

The missive calls “for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.”

The scientists conclude by stating that: “Society has two choices: we can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively.”

In assessing the much of climate change denial, it is important to see from whence it comes. Senator Inhofe represents the State of Oklahoma, an oil-producing state where approximately 14 percent of its GDP comes from mining, principally oil production and the state is a major headquarters for business involved in that industry.

It is logical that the petroleum industry and their political allies fuel climate change denial: the conclusions of climate science conclusively indicts emissions from carbon fuels as the leading cause of global warming. In a system when economic growth is considered an absolute good, anything that would put brakes on the system is to be condemned – even if by so doing the future of the planet is endangered.

Scientific debate is a cornerstone of what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called normal science. The stronger a theory is in overcoming empirical challenge, the greater is its validity and efficacy. Legitimate debate in science feeds the pursuit of knowledge. What is abnormal about the climate change debate is that the deniers maintain positions that do not derive from fact but largely from the self-interest of those with responsibility for the threat to the planet. The cost of inaction is in all likelihood catastrophic and those who attempt to obfuscate the truth are  accomplices of disaster.

Dr. Yosef Gotlieb, a regular contributor to Green Prophet, is a social scientist who identifies with the statements in Nature and Science cited above.

More on climate change in the Middle East:
Egypt Builds Climate Change Plan for Cairo and Nile Delta
Rethinking Climate Change Under the Middle East Sun
Lebanon’s Environmental Inaction Could Influence Entire Region

Above image via foxtongue

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One thought on “Climate Change Denial and the Climate of Fear”

  1. Dr. Gotlieb:

    I especially like the image that accompanies this post.

    Scientific debate strives to be calm and rational. Do you think that science can quell the irrational fervor of the masses who are unwilling to give up the comforts to which they have grown accustomed?

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