A reporter for a national newspaper covering the reaction to the stolen Heartland Institute documents asked me:
Why does the question of climate change science matter so much to conservatives? Why do they fight these battles with liberals and scientists so fiercely, when no one on the national level is suggesting nationwide limits on greenhouse gases?
In many ways, the question was as surprising as revealing. It assumes that climate change only matters to conservatives, that those individuals cannot be scientists, and that the only reason for challenging the climate orthodoxy is to prevent some national legislation. All of those assumptions are wrong.
Science is supposed to be about the pursuit of knowledge: challenging hypotheses, testing and validating new theories, and being skeptical until a theory can be validated or falsified. As Ted Koppel admonished Al Gore during an interview in the early ‘90s:
The measure of good science is neither the politics of the scientist nor the people with whom the scientist associates. It is the immersion of hypotheses into the acid of truth. That’s the hard way to do it, but it’s the only way that works.
But that admonition has been largely ignored and the politics of personal destruction continues. Lest anyone think that this conclusion is exaggeration, consider for a moment what some climate change advocates have asserted.
- James Hansen, the high priest of global warming, told Congress in 2008 that those who question him should be tried for “high crimes against humanity and nature.”
- Congressman Robert Kennedy, Jr. claimed “This is treason. And we need to start treating them as traitors.”
- Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, commenting on the defeat of 2009 cap-and-trade legislation, wrote: “And as I watched the deniers make their arguments, I couldn’t help thinking that I was watching a form of treason – treason against the planet.”
- Grist magazine reporter David Roberts called to host “war crimes trials for these bastards—some sort of climate Nuremberg.”
Rather than engage on the merits of the arguments, these activists 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.
In scientific pursuits, it’s necessary to constantly challenge theories. Just consider Albert Einstein. Slate writer Brian Palmer explains that Einstein been proven wrong “at least twice on major issues.” And scientists are still testing his theories nearly a century after they were first published. That’s because 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.
Instead of questioning the integrity and motivation of those who raise important questions about our understanding of the climate system, advocates should engage in an honest discussion of what actions are consistent with our state of knowledge and how best to resolve major uncertainties. That would make an important and serious contribution to climate policy.