Today’s war on climate scientists is worse than under the Bush Administration


“The war on climate science and scientists that’s going on now makes the Bush Administration look moderate,” we said to Science for their December 17 news article “Climatologists Feel the Heat As Science Meets Politics.”  Bush can’t be rehabilitated on climate change, but during the past two years the global warming denial machine has launched a nihilistic war on climate science and climate scientists that makes Bush officials seem tactically subtle and rhetorically nuanced in comparison. 

Climatologists Feel the Heat As Science Meets Politics,” by Richard A. Kerr and Eli Kintisch, in the December 17, 2010, issue of Science (by subscription), includes this:  

… For 40 years, researchers had wrestled with three big questions: Is the world warming? If so, are humans behind the warming? And are natural processes likely to rein it in? In the past few years, climate scientists finally agreed on solid answers: yes, yes, and no—just as they had suspected.

There were surprises, and they were bad ones. The effects of rising greenhouse gases on oceans and polar ice were swifter than models had predicted. Yet, faced with the obvious remedy—cutting carbon emissions—the world balked. In the United States, even as the science grew stronger, a political backlash forced climate scientists to defend their credibility and motives.

The sudden reversal blindsided global-warming researchers. …

As a presidential candidate in 2000, George W. Bush had pledged to regulate CO2; as president, he swiftly reneged and refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, an emissions-limiting treaty that 187 countries had ratified 3 years earlier. There followed years of efforts by the Bush Administration to alter a handful of climate science reports to downplay the possible effects of climate change, while lawmakers in Washington and negotiators overseas repeatedly failed to pass comprehensive U.S. or international regulations. …

Last month’s U.S. congressional elections may hint at things to come: Most Republicans who won election to the House and nearly all Republican Senate candidates have questioned the fundamental science behind climate change, and a few of them denounce the entire field as a conspiracy. “The war on climate science and scientists that’s going on now makes the Bush Administration look moderate,” says Rick Piltz, a White House* climate official from 1995 to 2005 who now heads the watchdog group Climate Science Watch in Washington, D.C. …

[*Note:  The U.S. Global Change Research Program / Climate Change Science Program Office where I worked from 1995-2005 was not a White House office, but rather a program coordination office for federal agencies.  It was, however, under White house oversight authority and thus could be subject to political interference.]  

The Bush Administration, of course, had a bad record on climate science integrity — in particular on climate change communication — that has been documented and discussed in detail in multiple sources.  I have discussed it herehere, here, here, and here, to cite a few examples.  My look-back analysis, “Secrecy, Complicity, and Resistance: Political Control of Climate Science Communication Under the Bush-Cheney Administration,” is forthcoming in a special issue on government secrecy of the journal Research in Social Problems and Public Policy.

The Bush Administration ran out the clock on eight years in office without adopting a climate change policy that had a meaningful relationship to the findings and conclusions of the mainstream climate science research and assessments.  To the end, they suppressed activity by the Environmental Protection Agency designed to move toward regulating emissions of greenhouse gases, as mandated by the Clean Air Act under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

But by 2008 the Bush Administration (for the most part, and excepting the hopelessly retrograde Vice President Cheney), while refusing to adopt a respectable climate change policy, was backing away from outright censorship and misrepresentation of climate science. And the Bush Administration’s political interference with communication by federal climate scientists did not take the form of overt public attacks on the personal and professional integrity of the climate science community, nor of individual climate scientists.  Under the Bush Administration, in 2008, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program issued a number of mainstream climate science assessment reports — typically without much, if any, publicity, and certainly not embraced by the White House, but without attacks on the authors or on the legitimacy of the scientific findings.

Bush’s supporters shouldn’t be under the illusion that there is any way to rehabilitate his reputation on climate change science and policy — but during the past two years the global warming denial machine has launched a nihilistic, take-no-prisoners war on climate science and climate scientists that makes Bush officials seem tactically subtle and rhetorically nuanced in comparison.  And they have made considerable strides in enshrining rejection of mainstream climate science as a litmus test for Republican Party candidates and office-holders.  In that respect, the situation has deteriorated.   

Good science education and communication can effectively counter the arguments of legitimate climate change “skeptics” who are actually interested in education and discussion.  See, for an outstanding example, the Skeptical Science website.  In particular, see the site’s Skeptic Arguments and What the Science Says for rebuttals to 136 skeptic talking points.  This is a valuable resource for the great and essential task of public education that lies ahead.  (Thanks to Joe Romm at Climate Progress for calling attention to this. See his December 27 post, Eight great figures summarizing the evidence for a “human fingerprint” on recent climate change.)

But what we face today also includes members of Congress and other politicians, plus an army of lobbyists and political and propaganda operatives, who are essentially acting as agents for corporate interests and right-wing anti-regulatory radicalism.  And the blogosphere is awash in science-ignorant attack dogs who appear to take lessons from thugs like Limbaugh and Morano. 

They’ll hide behind climate science denialism, but most of them really have no interest in science or in learning anything much about it.  They are more cynical than that, and pose a problem that is essentially political (and economic, and cultural, and normative), and beyond the reach of science education per se.  Climate scientists have diagnosed and continue to characterize a problem that must be addressed in an arena very different from their own — one in which great power is in the hands of people whose agendas are indifferent to science. 

For earlier CSW posts:

Attacks on Climate Science and Scientists

Global Warming Denial Machine

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3 Responses to Today’s war on climate scientists is worse than under the Bush Administration

  1. JWH says:

    I volunteered for Obama based on his climate change views. Now it seems he has no view and the denialists have become even more vocal. Now we not only have to worry about climate change and all of its dangers, but we need to worry about a well funded and vocal deluded group intent on killing the messenger. Just remember; they usually kill off the intellectuals and scientists first whenever there is a revolution, even silent ones.

  2. Greg says:

    Very interesting article, thank you.

    In your opinion, how much value is there in trying to focus the Press and bloggers on the US Military’s clear statements that they consider the effects of climate change to represent a series of strategic risks? Is that an avenue for questions to legislators about public accountability?

  3. admin says:

    I think there’s a lot of value in that framing in terms of raising questions about public accountability. If our legislators demand a response when the military and intelligence agencies warn of other threats, similar weight should be given to the climate change issue, particularly because it’s supported by robust scientific evidence. Consideration of climate change as a national security issue also has implications for research agendas going forward. An interesting article on the CIA’s approach to the issue discusses current intelligence gaps:

    The Operation Free coalition is doing great work raising awareness of climate change by connecting it to national security threats:

    And a few other things we’ve written on the issue:

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