Though Mark Twain originally provided Rudyard Kipling with the advice to “get your facts first, and then you can distort ‘em as much as you please,” it appears as if some modern day writers have adopted the mantra.
In a chapter of the newly released book entitled “The Oxford Handbook of Climate Change and Society,” Oklahoma State University professor Riley Dunlap and Michigan State University associate professor Aaron McCright attempt to make the case that “climate denialism” is simply a product of a baseless anti-science campaign by “contrarian scientists, fossil-fuel corporations, conservative think tanks and various front group” aimed at “blocking domestic legislation and contributing to the U.S. becoming an impediment to international policymaking.”
Covering the book, New York Times science reporter Andrew Revkin offers some much needed perspective:
“But it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone skeptical of worst-case predictions of human-driven climate disruption, or everyone opposed to certain climate policies, is part of this apparatus.
And there’s plenty to chart on the other edge of the climate debate — those groups and outlets pursuing a traditional pollution-style approach to greenhouse gases.”
Dunlap and McCright’s allegations constitute scholarship by distortion and character assassination. Rather than engage on the merits of the arguments of those who oppose a forced reduction in fossil energy use, the chapter’s authors resort to ad hominem attacks. In particular, their use of the term “denier”—which the anti-oil lobby regularly deploys to equate those who question the certitude of certain climate theories to those who deny the occurrence of the Holocaust—is reprehensible. Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto has weighed in on this unseemly tactic:
“There’s an enormous difference between doubting an outlandish prediction (even one that comes true) and denying the grotesque facts of history. Because we are ignorant of the future, we can innocently misjudge it. Holocaust deniers are neither ignorant nor innocent (though extremely ignorant people may innocently accept their claims). They are falsifying history for evil purposes.”
In scientific pursuits, it’s necessary to constantly challenge theories. Just consider Albert Einstein. Even 95 years after he published his theory of relativity, physicists around the world are still testing its limits. In light of that proud tradition, Dunlap and McCright’s criticisms of those who question the validity of what they call “essentially, a settled scientific truth” appears politically rather than scientifically motivated. Science invites legitimate questions of existing theories, and that includes skepticism surrounding claims that drastic reduction of traditional energy use and the accompanying emissions will reverse the global temperature increase that has taken place over the past century.
Even the work of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the ultimate authority for many in the environmental lobby—makes clear that many of the mechanisms of our climate system are not well understood. For instance, of the eight factors the IPCC lists as components that influence the atmosphere’s energy balance (aka “radiative forcing”), it acknowledges that the state of knowledge is high for only two. In other words, a great deal of uncertainty still remains around the most important factors of climate science, especially ocean currents and cloud formation.
If this issue was truly “settled,” activists could effortlessly answer questions raised by skeptics. They haven’t. Just recently, EU nuclear physics lab CERN conducted an experiment that confirmed a hypothesis about the role of cosmic rays and solar activity in cloud formation. A decade ago, climate advocates dismissed the hypothesis as nonsense.
As to Dunlap and McCright’s claims about skeptics’ role in the political process, they should recall that economic factors ultimately determined Congress’ failure to pass so-called “cap and trade” legislation. Lawmakers responded to their constituents concerns that onerous restraints on our energy production and consumption would costing hundreds of billions annually and destroy millions of jobs. After the EU implemented similar controls years earlier, Americans saw Europe’s energy prices and unemployment rise. The U.S. pubic didn’t want similar fallout.
That’s not to say there’s not appetite for public or private actions that will improve energy efficiency and reduce the carbon intensity of economic activity while promoting economic growth. Unfortunately, those on the extreme of the climate movement show little concern with mitigating economic impacts or finding common ground on a path forward to address climate issues.