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Memo to Rick Perry: Galileo Was a Liberal

Ever since the Republican presidential debate last week, science watchers have been shaking their heads over Rick Perry’s ridiculous invocation of Galileo Galilei to defend his denialist position on climate change.

Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” Perry said–presumably meaning to suggest that climate “skeptics,” too, will have their day in the sun (the sun that, thanks to Galileo, we know lies at the center of the solar system).

Not only is this junk history on Perry’s part. A more accurate analogy would liken today’s climate researchers to Galileo—delivering an inconvenient truth that some right wing ideologues (then and now) just can’t handle—and Perry to the Inquisition.

Let’s face it: In the context of his times, Galileo was a liberal. He was a fearless explorer of new knowledge, as well as a puckish challenger of assumed wisdom. He famously argued that science and religion don’t have to be in conflict—so long as religionists don’t insist on reading Scripture literally (as so many of Perry’s anti-evolutionist supporters today do).

So to find a conservative Texas governor, backed by the religious right, invoking this canonical questioner of authority is really precious.

But forget historical accuracy for a moment. Climate “skeptics” have long been invoking Galileo as their mascot, and the interesting question is why.

On Global Warming, the Tea Party is Worse than the GOP

There’s a fascinating new public opinion analysis out today from Anthony Leiserowitz and the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. It looks at political divides and how they impact one’s views of the science, but with this new twist—Tea Partiers and Republicans are treated differently.

And look what results:

  • 53 percent of Republicans believe global warming is happening, but just 34 % of Tea Partiers.
  • 56 percent of Republicans, but 69 % of Tea Party members, say there is “a lot of disagreement” among scientists about whether global warming is happening.
  • Tea Party members are much more likely than Republicans (45 % to 20 %) to have heard of “ClimateGate.”
  • Staggering, but not surprising if you’ve been following my posts: “Tea Party members are much more likely to say that they are ‘very well informed’ about global warming than the other groups,” according to the Yale study. “Likewise, they are also much more likely to say they ‘do not need any more information’ about global warming to make up their mind.”

In other words, Tea Party members are more extreme than Republicans in their rejection of the scientific consensus on global warming—simultaneously more wrong, and also more sure of themselves.

What’s up with that?

Why Questionable "Science" Gets Published, Pounced On in the Media, Retracted, Causes Resignations…Rinse and Repeat

An editor resigns after a journal publishes a paper that seems to trash the scientific consensus on climate change—but is heavily criticized by top scientists. Where have we heard this kind of story before?

From my book The Republican War on Science, reporting on a 2003 hearing held by Senator James Inhofe designed to bash climate science:

The very day before Inhofe’s hearing, the editor in chief of Climate Research, the small journal where the Soon and Baliunas paper originally appeared, had resigned to protest deficiencies in the review process leading up to the paper’s publication. Several other editors also subsequently resigned…

Where else have we heard this kind of story before?

Communication Fail: Why the IPCC Must Do a Heck of a Lot Better in 2013

Regular readers know I’m pretty critical of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–particularly when it comes to how this expert body communicates climate science. Basically, my view is that any organization that holds a key climate meeting in Copenhagen in winter is pretty clueless about the politics and public perception of this issue. [See Correction Below.] But even worse is that IPCC has shown far too little investment in communication or public outreach (although lately that is beginning to change), and has handled crisis communication moments—like the Himalayan glaciers flap—terribly.

Now, before I get too many ticked off emails: I know the IPCC is the leading expert source for climate science assessments, and deservedly so. I know that the scientists who volunteer to work on its reports do a heroic job. I recognize and commend all of this. But it simply isn’t enough in this day and age—and it is in the communications sphere where the IPCC’s scientific excellence simply has not been matched.

Number One Lesson *Not* To Take Away from Hurricane Irene

I was watching CNN this morning. I don’t know why—except that it was on in the gym at the hotel where I’m staying.

Pretty soon, I was arguing with the screen.

A narrative is developing in the media that Hurricane Irene was somehow “overhyped,” that politicians “cried wolf,” and then the devastating damage that was forecast didn’t appear. Piers Morgan, tonight, will supposedly head up a segment called “Hurricane Hype.”

Never mind that there’s more than enough disaster imagery to keep the cable news channels on the story 24-7. And never mind that the storm killed at least 27 people and has caused an estimated $ 7 billion in U.S. damage.

Nevertheless, somehow Irene still wasn’t damaging enough, and so we’re going to hear about how politicians were covering their $#^@, scaring people when they didn’t have to.

Not only is this idiotic—it’s downright dangerous.

Hurricane Irene, Climate Change, and the Need to Consider Worst Case Scenarios

In May of 2005, a few months before Hurricane Katrina, I wrote an article that nobody noticed. It was entitled “Thinking Big About Hurricanes: It’s Time to Get Serious About Saving New Orleans.” In it, I talked about how devastating a strong hurricane landfall could be to my home city:

In the event of a slow-moving Category 4 or Category 5 hurricane (with winds up to or exceeding 155 miles per hour), it’s possible that only those crow’s nests [of lakefront houses] would remain above the water level. Such a storm, plowing over the lake, could generate a 20-foot surge that would easily overwhelm the levees of New Orleans, which only protect against a hybrid Category 2 or Category 3 storm (with winds up to about 110 miles per hour and a storm surge up to 12 feet). Soon the geographical “bowl” of the Crescent City would fill up with the waters of the lake, leaving those unable to evacuate with little option but to cluster on rooftops—terrain they would have to share with hungry rats, fire ants, nutria, snakes, and perhaps alligators. The water itself would become a festering stew of sewage, gasoline, refinery chemicals, and debris.

Afterwards, the article was passed around furiously and I was hailed for having some sort of deep insight. I didn’t: The danger was staggeringly obvious and I was only channeling what many experts at the time knew.

The Republican War on Science Returns

As author of the 2005 book The Republican War on ScienceI’ve watched recent developments in the presidential race with fascination.

It is not exactly news that many candidates on the GOP side take “war on science” positions, e.g., denying that global warming is human caused, or that human evolution explains who and what we are. Climate and evolution have long been the “big two” issues in the “war,” but I would expect that many of the GOP candidates reject modern scientific knowledge on a variety of other subjects as well. (Just ask them about, say, reproductive health and contraception.)

The standard “war on science” saga has droned on—usually in the background–for years and years. But somehow, it all exploded into political consciousness last week with Texas governor Rick Perry’s attacks on the integrity of climate researchers, and his claim that his own state teaches creationism–which if true would violate a Supreme Court ruling. (Actually, this is not state policy, though I suspect much creationism is being taught in many schools in Texas, in defiance of the law of the land.)

At that point, former Utah governor and outsider GOP candidate Jon Huntsman Tweeted some simple words, which ended up nevertheless serving as a shot heard round the political world:

Become What You Despise? Why "Beating" Conservative White Male Climate Deniers May Mean Joining Them

David Roberts of Grist has written a wonderful and psychologically deep portrait of why conservative white males deny climate change—and much else—and how this is an unshakeable part of their political identities. He concludes that you can’t sway them, so you have to just beat them, politically, with activism and votes.

To do that, Roberts adds, you need not to move to the center, but to stoke intensity on the part of your base. So that’s what we need to focus on:

….perhaps the answer is not to reduce intensity in hopes of attracting CWM. Perhaps the answer is to increase intensity in order to overcome CWM. Intensity is increased first and foremost through organizing, but also through clear, inspiring messages that draw sharp lines between those fighting for progress and those fighting against it.

The implicit premise of climate “pragmatism” and similar efforts is that CWM are stronger, that climate hawks can’t win a direct clash. And for now, that seems to be true. Beating back the radical conservative resurgence is something that nobody on the left has figured out yet. But the alternative, attempting to win over CWM by soft-pedaling climate, doesn’t exactly have a record of success either.

Roberts is so close, and yet also so far.

S&P Downgrades Planet Earth, Citing Unbalanced Carbon Budget, Reckless Political Debates and Role of “Deniers”

help!

Washington, D.C.—In a move that came as a shock both in this city and throughout the planet on which it is located, Standard & Poor’s late Monday downgraded Earth from its unique HHH rating—the only one in the galaxy—to HH+.

The coveted HHH rating—meaning, “extremely habitable”—has become indefensible, the ratings agency said, due to continuing failures to balance the atmospheric carbon budget and an increasingly toxic political debate that renders better policies unlikely any time soon. 

Atmospheric carbon inputs continue to outweigh carbon outputs (or sinks), leading to a growing and unsustainable carbon ‘surplus,’” wrote S&P. “Unlike fiscal surpluses, this surplus is very dangerous and is already triggering rising temperatures, heat waves, droughts, and extreme weather patterns.”

Under the new HH+ rating, the Earth is still considered “highly habitable” for humans. However, S&P also changed the planet’s outlook to “negative,” suggesting the possibility of further downgrades. 

Critics Cite Dearth of Spaceships

Criticism came fast and furious.

The Attacks on Climate Science Education Are Picking Up Steam

A few months back, those who care about accurate climate science and energy education in high school classes registered a minor victory. Under fire from outlets like The New York Times, the education publishing behemoth Scholastic (of Clifford the Big Red Dog and Harry Potter fame) pulled an energy curriculum sponsored by the American Coal Foundation, which gave a nice PR sheen to coal without bothering to cover, uh, the whole environmental angle. The curriculum had reportedly already been mailed to 66,000 classrooms by the time it got yanked.

When it comes to undermining accurate and responsible climate and energy education at the high school level, Scholastic may have been the most prominent transgressor. But precisely because it is a massive and respected educational publisher, and actually cares what The New York Times thinks, it was also the most moderate and easy to reason with.

Although it’s hard to find online now, I’ve reviewed the offending coal curriculum, entitled “The United States of Energy.” In my view, it didn’t even contain any obvious falsehoods—except for errors of omission. It was more a case of subtle greenwashing.

What’s currently seeping into classrooms across the country is far, far worse—more ideological, and more difficult to stop. We’re talking about outright climate denial being fed to students—and accurate climate science teaching being attacked by aggressive Tea Party-style ideologues.

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