This article was originally published in the February 17th issue of The Nation and is republished with permission. Read the full text of the editorial here.
by James Lawrence Powell
University presidents once spoke their conscience on matters of great public importance. In the early 1950s, many protested the loyalty oaths that required faculty members to forswear membership in the Communist Party. One of the...
James Powell: Science Denial Is Not Free
James Powell: Science Denial Is Not Free
In May 2011 the US National Academy of Sciences declared that “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems. Each additional ton of greenhouse gases emitted commits us to further change and greater risks…. The environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks of climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare to adapt to its impacts.” One hundred other national and international scientific organizations agree with the NAS. How many disagreed? None. Zero. Zilch. As one scientist put it, “There’s a better scientific consensus on this than on any issue I know—except maybe Newton’s second law of dynamics.”
One organization that does dispute the NAS and the world consensus on global warming is the US House of Representatives. In April, the House took up a bill to remove the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases, opening a new front in the Republican War on Science (title of a great book by Chris Mooney). Rep Henry Waxman (D-CA) offered a countering amendment with language nearly identical to that of the Academy: “Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” The amendment failed 184-240, with one Republican voting in favor and three Democrats against.
The War on Science does not brook conscientious objectors. Global warming denial has not only captured the Republican members of the House, it has become mandatory for any serious Republican candidate for president. Before he entered the race, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty embraced the need for environmental protection, clean energy initiatives, and a cap-and-trade policy on carbon emissions. By mid-spring 2011, T-Paw had reversed himself and “denounced” his previous stance, regurgitating long-disproven climate myths: “I’m old enough to remember when people were predicting there was going to be the next ice age. Until recently people were worried as much about global cooling. [Some people may have been, but scientists were not.] There is climate change but the reality is the science indicates most of it, if not all of it, is caused by natural causes. [Totally false.] And as to the potential human contribution to that, there’s a great scientific dispute about that very issue.” [Totally false.] Pawlenty summed up: “The science is bad.”
The former governor explained his switcheroo: “Well, anybody who’s going to run…has got some clunkers in their record. As to climate change, or more specifically cap-and-trade, I’ve just come out and admitted it, look, it was a mistake, it was stupid.” He went on, “Everybody in the race, embraced climate change or cap-and-trade at one point or another. Every one of us.”
Republican candidates and prospects vied to outdo each other in denouncing climate change. Potential candidate Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels proved himself a surprisingly adept phrase-maker, condemning the “climate change theocracy” and accusing climate science of having been dominated by “The University of Hollywood and the P.C. Institute of Technology.” We may miss Daniels more than we thought. Herman Cain called climate change “a scam,” while former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-PA) accused liberals of creating “a beautifully concocted scheme because they know the earth is gonna cool and warm.” Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) denounced climate change as “the greatest hoax in many, many years if not hundreds of years.” Newt Gingrich, who in 2008 made a television ad with Nancy Pelosi on the need to address climate change, now said the spot was “misconstrued” and that he was merely demonstrating how to debate the Left on the issue. By June 2011 Gingrich was saying that climate change is just “the newest excuse to take control of lives” by “left-wing intellectuals.”
Only three of the candidates who entered the August Iowa caucus appeared to garner enough support to have a chance: Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry, and Mitt Romney. On the floor of the House in 2009, Bachmann denied that CO2 posed a threat because “Carbon dioxide is a natural byproduct of nature.” The one-woman thesaurus calls global warming, “voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.”
Just after he jumped into the race in August, in the midst of the worst heat and drought in the state’s history, Texas Gov. Rick Perry told a New Hampshire crowd that “a substantial number of scientists have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling in to their projects.” Perry added, “We’re seeing weekly, or even daily, scientists who are coming forward and questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what’s causing the climate to change. Yes, our climates change. They’ve been changing ever since the earth was formed.” Perry believes that happened only a few thousand years ago.
The only one of the three Iowa survivors to admit the possibility of global warming was Romney, who said to a June crowd in Manchester, New Hampshire, “I believe the world is getting warmer, and I believe that humans have contributed to that. It’s important for us to reduce our emissions of pollutants and greenhouse gases that may be significant contributors,” a statement that brought instant denunciation from right-wing bloggers and global warming-deniers. Romney has flipped-flopped so many times that no one could be sure how long he would stick this particular landing. Sure enough, after Rush Limbaugh said “bye-bye nomination,” Romney changed his tune:
“Do I think the world’s getting hotter? Yeah, I don’t know that but I think that it is. I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans. What I’m not willing to do is spend trillions of dollars on something I don’t know the answer to.”
As these politicians attempted backflips, a gymnastic feat evidently made easier by the lack of a backbone, the evidence for global warming has only grown stronger. (I have presented some of the most important evidence in a 12-minute video here.) To cite just three recent facts: (1) 2010 tied 2005 as the hottest year on record; (2) During July, 2011, as measured daily at US weather stations across the country, nighttime high temperatures broke 6,106 records, while daytime highs broke 2,722 records. (3) A new study showed species moving upslope and toward the poles, toward cooler temperatures, three times faster than scientists had previously estimated. The species that have shifted their ranges the most are from regions that have warmed the most.
“To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.” It is had to imagine any Republican presidential contender saying that, but one who skipped the Iowa Caucus, Jon Huntsman, former Governor of Utah and Ambassador to China, did just that in a mid-August tweet. Huntsman went on to explain his position in words that any scientist could admire:
I think we ought to be straight up and rational and stick with the facts. If you had 98 out of 100 oncologists, cancer doctors, who basically said the following course of treatment is going to be good for prostate, breast or colon cancers, we would all salute and say finally we have a consensus among the scientific community.
We raise up our young people we tell them to get a good education and tell them to move forward and solve the great challenges of today, find a cure for cancer, make the world a better place. We then get the results are willing to jettison it and to shun it? I just think that’s the wrong direction.
I’m here to tell you that a lot of people in this country, a lot of people the Republican Party I think are willing to embrace science and willing to embrace the realities that have been present around whether to surround evolution or whether its climate change. And I’m here to tell you that for us to be successful as a party, we must be a party that respects science, not one that runs from science.
The day will come when no candidate who denies global warming will be electable. But the way things are going, that day might not come until it is too late. As I write in mid-September, the odds appear to be increasing that science-denier Rick Perry will be the Republican nominee and thus have a significant chance of becoming the next president. Should he be elected, the anti-science party could hold the White House and both Houses of Congress. That would likely put off serious action to reduce carbon emissions until the 2020s, probably too late to avoid the tipping point of runaway global warming.
Before the American people allow that to happen, they should remember that science denial is not free. History teaches us that it can bear a heavy cost in dollars and in human lives. In the next two posts in this series, I address what we know from the past about the true cost of science denial.