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February 21, 2007

Armed Cant in the Climate Wars

If  hard cases make bad law , soft science makes sensible politics even harder, witness how the armed camps in the Climate Wars  are deploying the mode of ideological rhetoric Paul Weyrich and Michael Lind style "armed cant".

Boom_1_1 This weapon of mass distraction deprives legislators on both sides of the aisle of access to the facts in a debate that still rages in scientific journals nobody reads , even as the climate change  controversy downshifts into more popular--and  political-- media.

One side  depicts any human impact as tantamount to Weather of Mass Destruction, and  accordingly counsels despair, witness Al Gore telling Conan O'Brien "We don't know enough not to make a catastrophic mistake in dealing with the world's climate " The other , lacking media traction, bases its opposition to apocalyptic rhetoric  less on a close reading of the scientific evidence than the authority of a few individuals it deems philosophically trustworthy.

But  perceptions of authority differ. In science , as in politics the truth that sets men free is seldom the one they want to hear. As the Climate Wars enter their second century, the atmosphere remains  the Earth's most complex dynamic system.  Those that forgo wrestling with the heavy scientific literature that chronicles efforts to understand it risk falling  prey to views on climate change  by turns parochial , tendentious, or just plain daft. That's why scanning from Fox TV to the Washington Times , journalism  on the right seems in danger of becoming a  21st century scientific eyesore. This raises a disturbing question.Is a sensible Conservative consensus on climate change possible?

Many of the talking heads on both sides seem more interested in trading truth for influence than speaking truth to power. Though presentable to the point of being , well , lawyerly , those on the right by and large have no first-rate scientific constituency to back them. And though they put up a stalwart front , as little stomach for debating the facts in a serious scientific forum as Al Gore, who appeared before an audience of 12,000 earth scientists in San Francisco last month, but wisely skedaddled the minute he finished his 1001th performance of  The Speech.

Only one skeptic on climate change stands out 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.Climodeles

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 each of his serial objections has been coherently replied to in the peer reviewed science literature. So good scientist that he is , Lindzen has accepted as valid many quantitative objections to his theoretical views, and altered his stance accordingly.

That's how science works. Senator Inhofe's words notwithstanding , the iconoclast celebrated in Michael Crichton's 'State of Fear ' no longer defends some talking points yack TV pundits refuse to relinquish. To their dismay , he has committed the unpardonable political sin of allowing scientific facts to change his mind. What he chose not to say about the state of the science 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 with  some , for the ditto head common wisdom on climate has been projected into the halls of congress by  Marc Morano, Rush's former scientific casting director, who was chosen by Senator Inhofe to run his committee's public policy circus. But what about Lindzen's impact on his  colleagues views ?   Lindzen has had twenty years to persuade The National Academy's  thousand-plus 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  pointing out that  negative feedbacks 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 oroceanographer  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 " That 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 if we are to  confront the full spectrum of facts that define a debate that defies both sides attempts to reduce it to sound bites . This  has not changed since Bush 41's day- my first report from the front  'A War Against Fire appeared ( it is linked atop the sidebar)  in 1990 . I stand by  Its conclusion. If any species of 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"

Republicans and Democrats clearly have very different  metaphysical views of the world, but there can be no armistice in the Climate Wars until both acknowledge that from the atmosphere's perspective, there can be , at most , one kind of physics.


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This is a terrific article. I think you make a number of salient points in a clear and concise fashion and a lot of people would benefit by reading it, whether they agree with you going in or not.

If you have an interest in expanding your audience a bit, I run a science site that is in private beta now but, when open generally, will have about 500,000 readers a month. If you'd like, you could post this article over there and see what kind of response you get. Even in private beta you would probably have 1,000+ readers. I know I was impressed by it and I'm sure others will be as well. If that makes sense, please send me an email and let me know.

The Dems and Repubs share the same world view. The Dems want man sacrificed for the state (public interest) and the Repubs want him sacrificed to God. A non-sacrificial way of life is alien to their minds.

As always a thoughtful contribution - if only we could all agree to leave the science to real, honest, unafraid scientists and apply "Conservative" or "Green/Red" or "Liberal" only to how we respond to what the real, honest, unafraid scientists are thinking. We seem to be in a warming trend in many parts of the solar system just now (including Mars, but not including Earth's South Pole) and have no clear understanding why. Conservatives will probably not want to take too drastic a corrective action, while Liberals and Green/Reds will want to use it as an excuse to expand the power of the state. What else is new?

Hi RS:
I'd like to know specifically which of Lindzen's skeptical ideas have changed in the face of quantitative data. Can you name a couple?
Nice essay.

Very good Russell.

[No relation to userid 'Hank' who's flogging his blog]

If scientists were restricted in their speeches only to language they'd had published in their peer-reviewed work (grin) they'd be far less quotable.

One problem of course that is not addressed here is that the American public, and particularly politicians, are scientifically illiterate. This explains some of the disdain by both liberals and conservatives toward each other's views on the subject of global warming. Al Gore does not rise to the level of scientific literacy, nor does Rush Limbaugh. This is the fault of a remarkably poor public education system. You can't have a rational and informed debate with a public that is neither. Add to this the woeful performance of our scientists, who barely meet Bacon's criterion of 4th rate individuals for scientific endeavors. Add a post-modern jingoism from our "leading thinkers" who purvey the idea that perception and belief are our only relevant "reality" and "science" has no inherent validity but is only to be deconstructed to show its roots in our irrational belief systems, and you have a perfect storm of idiocy as we are seeing in this climatic "debate."

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