Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What Climate Deniers Get Wrong on “Politically Motivated” Science - by Naomi Oreskes

Group of Scientists (Credit: Shutterstock) Click to Enlarge.
Recently, the Washington Post reported new data showing something most of us already sense:  that increased polarization on Capitol Hill is due to the way the Republican Party has lurched to the right.
Ozone science was not attacked because it was wrong scientifically, but because it was politically and economically consequential — because it threatened powerful interests.  The same is true of climate science, which is telling us that business as usual will endanger our health, wealth, and well-being.  Under the circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that some sectors of the business community — especially the Carbon-Combustion Complex, the network of powerful industries that centrally rely on the extracting, selling, or burning of fossil fuels — have tried to undermine that message.  They have supported attacks on the science and its scientists, while funding distracting research and misleading conferences to create a false impression that there is fundamental scientific debate and uncertainty on the subject.

The point of all this, of course, is to confuse Americans and so delay action, which brings us to the crux of the matter when it comes to “politically motivated” science.  Yes, science can be biased, particularly when the financial support for that science comes from parties that have a vested interest in a particular outcome.  History suggests, however, that such vested interests are far more likely to be a feature of the private sector than the public one.

The most strikingly documented example of this is tobacco. ... By the 1950s, its executives were well aware that tobacco caused cancer; by the 1960s, they knew that it caused a host of other diseases; by the 1970s, they knew that it was addictive; and by the 1980s, they knew that secondhand smoke caused cancer in non-smokers and sudden infant death syndrome. Yet this industry-funded work was significantly less likely to find tobacco use damaging to health than research not funded by the industry.  And so, of course, they funded more of it.

What lessons can be drawn from this experience?  One is the importance of disclosing funding sources.  In preparing for my congressional testimony I was asked to disclose all sources of government funding for my own research.  That was a reasonable request.  But there was no comparable request for disclosure of any private funding I might have had — an unreasonable omission.  To ask only about public funds and not private sources is like asking for safety inspections of just half an airplane.

Unnatural disasters and the nightmare of denialism
Many Republicans resist accepting the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate change because they fear it will be used as an excuse to expand big government.  Here’s what should give them pause:  by delaying action on reducing global carbon emissions for more than two decades, we have already significantly increased the likelihood that disruptive global warming will lead to the kinds of government interventions they most fear and seek to avoid.  Climate change is, in fact, already causing an increase in the sorts of extreme weather events — particularly floods, extreme droughts, and heat waves — that almost always result in large-scale government responses.  The longer we wait, the more massive the required intervention will be.

In the future, as the devastating effects of climate change unfold here in the United States, natural disasters will result in a greater reliance on government — especially the federal government.  (Of course, our grandchildren will not call them “natural” disasters, because they will know all too well who caused them.)  What this means is that the work climate deniers are now doing only helps ensure that we will be less ready for the full impact of climate change, which means greater government interventions to come.  Put another way, climate deniers are now playing a crucial role in creating the nightmare they most fear.  They are guaranteeing the very future they claim to want to avoid.

Read more at What Climate Deniers Get Wrong on “Politically Motivated” Science

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