Ecopop star Al Gore increasingly recalls another one speech man, William Jennings Bryan, whose glittering oration ushered in the golden age of American demagogy. Today, green fire blazes in Al’s belly bright as Bryan’s cross of gold, but what he preaches would crucify the American economy - the levels of fossil fuel use he advocates were last seen in the days of Mark Twain.
Gore took no physics or chemistry courses at Harvard. Yet his native eloquence, polished by a year of Vanderbilt divinity school, allows Christopher Hitchens to wonder " if Al Gore wins the Nobel Peace Prize, will he run for president ?" If voters listen raptly , it is because An Inconvenient Truth is a galvanizing example of the rhetorical style Michael Lind terms "armed cant."
This factoid-rich product of the advertising age overflowed from politics into science a generation ago, as double barreled Nobel laureates like Linus Pauling pontificated about peace in the depths of the Cold War. Today, armed cant is distorting popular perceptions of climate science as severely as Bryan's populist caricature of biology did Darwinism, but its ease of digestion has made it a cultural staple. TV advertising depends on the power of iteration, and by rerunning science programs again and again, PBS can elevate whatever it elects to portray to the status of urban myth.
When amplified by television, the deployment of soft science by both armed camps in the Climate Wars makes sensible politics even harder. In the course of the 2000 election, Gore' campaign economists disparaged Green proposals to knock America's energy economy back into the 1960's. Now he seems to be reaching beyond Bryan’s incendiary speech, into the era of constitutional flux that saw amendments abolishing slavery, prohibiting alcohol and establishing income taxation. With Al committed to coal prohibition and punitive carbon taxation, Deep Greens need not risk the failure of a constitutional amendment abolishing fire.
A political Neanderthal like Bryan could only applaud the skill with which Al has eased the debate onto Amory Lovin's Soft Energy Path. Though riveting as Jurassic Park, the sermon Al delivers in An Inconvenient Truth apes Climate of Fear in its willingness to deprive viewers of polemically inconvenient scientific facts . That's show business--the Alley Oop constituencies on both sides of the political aisle haven't cracked a science textbook since the late Neolithic, and don't give a whoop about facts or factoid inflation in scientific journals the electorate at large can scarcely read.
Many are secretly relieved to see scientific debate downshift into the more popular media- why should they, or the voters who elect them need technical dictionaries when the Supreme Court of the United States can exhale a condemnation of CO2 without having to wrestle with terms like " troposphere " and "radiative forcing" ? In any forum, it is generally easier to score points by citing The Whole Earth Catalog than The Handbook Of Chemistry and Physics.
Tabloid climate science makes better bedside reading too. Alarming as Rush Limbaugh's departures from natural history may be, Green talking heads predicting Weather of Mass Destruction have become a soporific standby of late night television. The other evening, Al Gore assured Conan O'Brien "We don't know enough not to make a catastrophic mistake in dealing with the world's climate. " He then proceeded to expound a 50 year plan for rationing fossil fuel. The normally excitable O'Brien just nodded in agreement. There is no opposition to climate catastrophism on late night TV.
Lacking media traction, the Green's Red State counterparts base their anodyne opposition less on scientific evidence than political intuition, trusting in the authority of scientific bedtime stories that wouldn't trouble a ten year old expecting the tooth fairy. Yet the quality of the scientific information both sides muster is growing ever more critical to the formulation of sound policy as the Climate Wars enter their second century, because the atmosphere remains the Earth's most complex dynamic system.
If you think it will grow simpler in time for the election, dream on. Those unwilling to heft the heavy scientific chronicles of climate change research risk falling prey to views by turns parochial , tendentious, or just plain daft. Conservative scientists find themselves in a waking nightmare, as scanning from Fox TV to the Washington Times, they see right wing journalism devolving into a 21st century scientific eyesore. This raises a disturbing question : is a sensible Conservative consensus on climate change even possible?
The talking heads on both sides often seem more interested in trading truth for influence than speaking truth to power. Those on the right, though well , lawyerly , lack a first-rate scientific constituency to back them or constructively criticize their briefs. They present a stalwart front, but behind it, there's little stomach for seriously debating the scientific facts Ditto Al Gore, who his 1001th performance of The Speech to an audience of 12,000 earth scientists in San Francisco last month, but wisely skedaddled before they could ask too many questions.
Only one skeptic on climate change counts as a real player in the fast moving scientific game underlying the debate. Richard Lindzen is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a prolific and respected author of peer-reviewed papers on the atmospheric sciences explaining climate's 'Quasi-Biennial Oscillation' and the role of tides and gravity wave drag in the circulation of the upper atmosphere.His sheer creativity sets the MIT professor of atmospheric sciences conspicuously apart from a cohort largely comprised of politically appointed TV weathermen and researchers whose central competence lies outside the realm of state of the art climate studies.
Lindzen is no stranger to technical controversy. He has over the years
posed several novel and scientifically interesting objections to the
common wisdom in the climate change debate, focusing on how rising
amounts of atmospheric water vapor could curb the rate of man made
temperature rise. But science is about being able to change your mind when the available facts change, and Lindzen's stance has altered as his views have been coherently and quantitatively
replied to in the peer reviewed science literature. Senator Imhofe and Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding , that's how science works.
Though celebrated as an iconoclast in Michael Crichton's 'State of Fear ' Lindzen's views are not cast in stone. He no longer defends some talking points yack TV pundits refuse to relinquish, and his reticence in seconding Crichton and British geographer George Stott in a recent debate in New York speaks even more loudly than his vigorous denunciation of hype in the service of politics.
This may never register on those whose scientific bandwidth is limited to talk radio. Before Congressman Waxman took over, the ringmaster of the Congressional climate policy circus was Rush's Limbaugh's scientific casting director, Marc Morano. Yet if Gore knows better than to show his head at MIT, what of the impact , or lack of it , of Lindzen's views on hisMIT colleagues ? He has had twenty years to persuade them, and The National Academy's members, that man-made warming remains too uncertain to be a serious issue. Like most respectable skeptics, he began by questioning warnings detectable existence, and invoking negative feedbacks that could curb it in models and reality alike.
Ask around the Academy as to how many have been won over to these views ,and you will discover that the answer is closer to none than a dozen This is just as true on Lindzen's home turf.Other MIT professors share the view that the Climate Wars have become egregiously politicized , and that climate models are sorely constrained as predictive tools. Yet in a quarter century of almost daily interaction Lindzen has failed to persuade such colleagues as MIT climate scientist Kerry Emanuel or oceanographer Carl Wunsch that global warming is" not a big deal." Wunsch agreed to appear alongside Lindzen in the recent British TV program , 'The Great Global Warming Swindle' but has ended up accusing the producers of swindling him -and their audience by playing fast and loose with scientific truth.
Emanuel is a far cry from a liberal icon; MIT is not Harvard, and like Lindzen ,he harshly criticized Carl Sagan's attempt to use a primitive climate model as a policy lever during the Cold War, calling ' nuclear winter ' studies "notorious for their lack of scientific integrity " They may disagree as to both the nature of solutions and the immanent need for them , but it is worth noting where their views coincide- a bipartisan commitment to the integrity of science makes Emmanuel's take on what the climate wars have come to 'Phaetons' Reins' a necessary compliment to Lindzen's. Both agree that whatever is happening is happening slowly - policy maters may lack the energy ,but they do not lack the time confront the full spectrum of facts that define a debate that defies both sides attempts to reduce it to sound bites. One that emerges from such study is an economic analogy -- their are parallels between the problems posed by climate change and gradual inflation.
As long as CO2 is rising by a few parts per million per year , radiative forcing of warming is growing by microwatts per square meter per day. It does not sound like much, , given the kilowatt per square meter power sunlight already deposits , but the microwatts have been adding up since The Wealth Of Nations manuscript first lay on Adam Smith's desktop, and some hundreds of thousands of days , and a lot of Mr.Watt's steam engines later, CO2 bracket creep has given rise to unavoidable debate as to the present and future costs of ignoring climatic inflation.
If any species of Palaeoconservative principle is at once worth conserving , and profoundly endangered , it is that the political neutrality of scientific institutions must first exist in order to be respected. That sentiment may not be ready for prime time today. The disdain shown science by erstwhile conservatives and intransigent liberals waging the Climate War on TV too much recalls Thucydides view of an earlier conflict :
"The state which separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools"
At present, none speak for science in a warming debate caught in the crossfire between vying political agendas. That may be the way Washington works , but while Republicans and Democrats clearly have different metaphysical views of the world, its atmosphere neither knows nor cares. There can be no scientific armistice in the Climate Wars until both sides acknowledge that there can be , at most , one kind of physics.
Copyright 2007 Russell Seitz All Rights reserved.