When climate science and politics collide
There’s science, as in climate science.
And then there’s politics, as in the politics of climate change. The two came together Sunday in what was billed as the “largest climate rally in U.S. History” to coax Washington, D.C., into acting on dealing with the global environmental crisis.
Politics was also in full force in a series of heavy-handed steps to bully scientific inquiry itself, says University of Massachusetts climatologist Raymond S. Bradley.
Bradley, the author of “Global Warming and Political Intimidation” (2011, University of Massachusetts Press), presented a talk recently to a packed gathering at the Wendell Free Public Library, where he explained what set off critics of climate researchers was a 1998 “hockey stick” graph — based on research he’d done with two colleagues. Published in “Nature,” it depicted global temperatures rising steadily over the past century after years of a slow decline.
The graph, based on data that extrapolated pre-historic temperature changes by examining tree rings, glacial-ice layers and coral-growth layers, showed that temperatures have skyrocketed over the past century compared with the 1,000 years preceding it. The work of the three researchers helped prompt the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2001 to declare the 1990s as the warmest decade in the past 1,000 years. The IPCC also judged that most of the increase in global average temperatures is “very likely” due to human activity in releasing greenhouse gases.
But to what Bradley calls “a whole industry of people out there with their own blogs and websites that are just obsessed with proving that global warming exists, the visually compelling graph was a very compelling figure that was visually like throwing a red rag at a bull.”
Bradley and his two co-researchers — Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University and Malcolm Hughes of the University of Arizona — received a letter in 2005 from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton, R-Texas, demanding not only details about their study, but also financial records including any honoraria and his contract with UMass, any emails he had received along with his responses, other details from his 30-year career and, said Bradley, “a long, long list of ridiculous things.”
“They didn’t care about the hockey stick,” Bradley said. “Their purpose was to discredit me and the other guys and the science we’d uncovered. They were trying to make it seem we fabricated the information, and it was kind of a warning to the other scientists: ‘Don’t go there.’”
The UMass distinguished geosciences professor and director of the Climate System Research Center writes that committee members “probably wouldn’t even recognize a validation statistic if it bit them on the rear end. It seemed this was a put-up job.” And he explains that the research had been criticized by two authors in a British publication who “bungled” their 2003 analysis but it was republished in another journal and then was mentioned in the Wall Street Journal.
But while scientific scrutiny and review is expected, the congressional inquiry and posturing amounted to “just sniping, nasty ad hominem attacks on us,” said Bradley, who earlier had testified before the Senate Energy Committee, including Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain. That had been what Bradley relates was “a genuine hearing (where) they wanted to hear what we had to say.”
This congressional inquiry, he told the Wendell gathering, represented “an unprecedented attack on scientists.” And what saved Bradley and the others was the action taken “out of the blue” by a more moderate Republican congressman, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert of New York.
Boehlert wrote a letter to Barton that resulted in the Energy and Commerce Committee calling off its inquiry, which Bradley likens more to an inquisition.
“I do think if it hadn’t been for Sherwood Boehlert, it would have been a Scopes type hearing,” Bradley said, referring to the 1925 Tennessee trial over evolution. “It would have been an awful (Sen. Joseph) McCarthy hearing, I’m sure. That’s what I was concerned about.”
Boehlert, who released his letter to the press, called Barton’s probe a “misguided and illegitimate investigation,” adding, “My primary concern about your investigation is that its purpose seems to be to intimidate scientists rather than to learn from them, and to substitute congressional political review for scientific review.”
The New York congressman added, “The only conceivable explanation for the investigation is to attempt to intimidate a prominent scientist and to have Congress put its thumbs on the scales of a scientific debate. This is at best foolhardy; when it comes to scientific debates, Congress is “all thumbs.”
Bradley, who’s never met Boehlert but dedicated his book to him, said, “To have somebody like that was really a big deal, arguing, why are you intimidating and harassing us? It was front-page news, and it took the pressure off us. It made Joe Barton back off completely. Had it not been for Boehlert, we’d have been toast. It came out of his sense of public responsibility, which is sadly lacking in Congress nowadays.”
The political tension over climate science continued, with the next eruption occurring when emails from the University of East Anglia’s Hadley’s Climatic Research Centre in Great Britain were hacked and leaked to the media, just before the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. They were portrayed in the media’s “Climategate” scandal as proving that scientists were manipulating data to perpetrate a hoax .
But if there was manipulation taking place, Bradley explains, “Climategate” reflects how adept political forces were at manipulating the media. An Associated Press analysis of the emails showed that of about 1 million words sent between the “top-notch scientists” with whom he’d worked, a few choice phrases were selected that sounded suspicious out of context.
For example, Phil Jones, who headed the Climate Research Unit, writes to Mann about “the trick of adding in the real temps to each series … to hide the (temperature) decline,” which Bradley explains was simply describing a technique — not exactly a trick — for presenting the data more clearly.
“When it’s in black and white, it looks pretty damning,” he said of the emails.
The manufactured scandal fed a move by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, — who called global warming the “greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people — to call in 2010 for a Justice Department investigation of 17 leading climate scientists, including Bradley for alleged fraudulent use of public research money.
“To the general public who looks at this, all they read is the headlines: ‘Climate scientists charged with fraud,’” says Bradley. “This is what they wanted: to create this stink in the air so the general public believed something was going on, that scientists were just out to manipulate data and make money. That was the message they wanted to get across.”
The Justice Department — by then under the Obama administration — ignored Inhofe’s assertion. But if the Republican Bush administration had still been in power, “it would have been different story,” said Bradley.
Playing fast and dirty with science to protect the fossil fuel industry, whose wealth is based on in-ground reserves that if released would spike the atmosphere with greenhouse gases to dangerous levels, the climate scientist called the attacks an attempt to “destroy the message by destroying the messenger.”
The “hoax” contingent, he says, “know what they’re doing. They’re sufficiently familiar with the system and they know how the media will react. They’re manipulators of information ... They are ideologues. I could sit down and talk to them until I’m blue in the face. You start to respond to one issue, and they bring up another.” And yet, he adds, he appreciates opportunities he’s had to engage at conferences with business and industry leaders.
Climate change is one of those easy-to-say catchphrases for a very complicated set of principles that are difficult for people to grasp, Bradley said, “and something people feel powerless to do anything about. It’s not a happy message people want to hear, it’s not an easy thing to solve. So it requires some sacrifices, whether it’s higher taxes on fuel, a change in lifestyle or whatever is.
“And it’s not just a U.S. problem either,” so there are plenty of motivations for people to deny, defer and deflect the colossal challenge. And given that key industries can pressure powerful political forces to delay taking action on a problem that will take time to solve, the planet’s most pressing environmental problem is far from solved.
Scientists, by their nature, are, “a lot more cautious than people think,” Bradley said, and they tend to keep their scientific inquiry and their politics far apart. “You never hear a climate scientist saying, ‘We have to save the climate.’”
And yet, he says, “We simply cannot continue to produce CO2 without having major consequences,” and admits that as a scientist who’s been well aware of the data for decades, “It’s very frustrating. But I understand it would require enormous change in the way we’ve done things. Energy’s always been cheap. What people have to realize is that there are some short-term costs, but the long-term benefits (of adapting by conserving energy and emphasizing renewable sources) are positive. We just have to get heads around that.”
Bradley, who makes it clear that it’s impossible to tie the phenomenon of climate change, which is likely to cause more erratic patterns, with single events like hurricanes Sandy or Katrina, a particularly dry summer or snowless winter, said that people are beginning to accept that climactic changes are at hand.
“They see by their own experience that things are not right,” he said. “
For whatever reason, and I think for the wrong reasons, the public perception is that something’s going on.”
Meanwhile, as global carbon levels continue rising, and IPPF prepares to release its next report on climate change this fall, Bradley said a colleague at the University of Arizona “spent all last summer responding to harassing Freedom of Information requests for emails … to get some dirt on what we we’re doing. They’re just poking around trying to find a sentence, anything they could use, to look like we’re manipulating information. That’s part of the goal: to dismantle your ability to do science.”
You can reach Richie Davis at
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