In The Inquisition of Climate Science, James Lawrence Powell clearly outlines the climate denial movement that has “duped half the American public into rejecting the facts of climate science.” His thorough and enlightening text is useful both as a tool to help counter denialist arguments and as a comprehensive understanding of the controversy and why it exists.
As a young environmentalist who pursued the worlds of academia in a country that signed the Kyoto Protocol and clearly respects the opinion of the IPCC, returning to the States has been a bit of a nasty shock. Those politicians who insist that the EPA is an unnecessary, job-killing, left wing propagandistic branch of government whose powers should be taken away are no longer just names in the newspaper. They’re politicians in my Washington backyard. And it's not that they are merely expressing the views of some far off, vocal minority either.
No, as it turns out, they’re expressing the views of my friends, neighbors, and relatives. It’s a common occurrence for people who find out about my environmental background to say “I don’t think climate change really exists, there’s a lot of debate on the subject” or “It’s clear that the earth is warming, but I know that humans are not the cause.” This flies in the face of every bit of scientific information I’ve encountered both on my own and in my university career. And upon further probing for why this person believes that, the common arguments always come out. “Well, I remember in the 1970s, scientists were predicting that the earth was actually cooling.” Or “It’s the sun.” Or “The planet hasn’t actually warmed at all in the past ten years.”
Enter Powell and The Inquisition. Powell starts off by explaining that there is a significant difference between skepticism and denialism. Skepticism is good – its part of the scientific method, and just because one study shows that the earth is warming doesn’t necessarily make it so. But it’s not just one study or a couple of studies, it’s the majority of scientific research on the subject. “Science is self-correcting” (26), he emphasizes. And while its clear that society should not elevate its scientists to a level of unquestionable, white-coat expertise, we should have some trust in the scientific method and the peer review process to weed out the junk.
With The Inquisition of Climate Science, published by Columbia University Press, Powell walks his readers through every facet of the climate change controversy. It is a fascinating, quick-reading text that clearly and succinctly lays out all the players (both right wing deniers and mainstream scientists), their motives, who funds them, and how they interact in a way that obscures the truth from the general public. But the book is much more than that. It’s a tool – containing everything one needs to understand the science, including who is critiquing it and why. Most importantly, it explains why denialist critiques of mainstream science are a gross distortion of facts and a demonization of mainstream scientists and the IPCC.
As Powell takes us steadily through the denialsts and the right wing think tanks that support their research, he cites argument after argument implying that those who call for climate change mitigation hold anti-American or illegitimate values. Harrison Schmitt, NASA astronaut and Harvard PhD, claims that reducing emissions would constitute “an enormous transfer of wealth and liberty from the people to the government” (67). Dr. Timothy Ball, a Canadian professor at University of Winnipeg, holds that global warming is “a political agenda of a group of people who believe that industrialization and development and capitalism and the Western way is a terrible system and they want to bring it down” (72). The Competitive Enterprise Institute, an anti-regulatory think tank founded in 1984, said of carbon dioxide in television ads, “they call it pollution; we call it life” (105).
This troubling theme was quite striking. When discussing climate change or any environmental issue with a critic, how many times have I felt, directly or indirectly, accused of caring more for the tree in my backyard than the welfare of a hardworking family who needs low energy prices to make ends meet? That in advocating for political action to abate GHG emissions I was knowingly damning this family to a life of poverty, all in the name of advancing my “liberal ideas” that, according to my accusers, have no basis in fact in the first place?
Citing these arguments in such rapid succession, Powell exposes them as a denialist tactic rather than arguments possessing any real substance, especially when the long-term welfare of Americans is considered. He writes:
“To distrust science and scientists now, for no good reason and at the very moment they warn of the greatest threat ever to face humanity, is to abandon reason and our uniquely human ability to imagine the future.
The clock is ticking. Our leaders do not have the luxury of waiting to find out if scientists are right about global warming. By the time there is sufficient evidence for the deniers, it will be far too late to limit the worst effects of global warming. We do not really even know how bad those worst effects might be” (189-190).
The book features, among other things:
• A detailed, understandable discussion of the mainstream, IPCC supported science surrounding global warming.
• A discussion of denialst tactics to date, including an enthralling chapter on its similarities to the tobacco industry campaigns of the previous generation.
• A list of the skeptic “scientists,” their arguments, and clear/concise rebuttals to these arguments.
• A list of think tanks that fund the research of these “scientists,” and where the majority of the funding for these right wing tanks has come from (ExxonMobil).
• An explanation of the role of the media in promoting controversy where none should exist.
• A full chapter on the “Climategate” scandal; what happened vs. what denialists pretend happened.
Climate Science Watch was especially pleased to find an excellent summary discussion of the Bush administration's suppression of the first National Climate Assessment on pages 105-108, with references to CSW’s work in documenting and calling attention to this problem.
No, the “debate” about climate change isn’t really a debate at all, but a part of a larger question that is facing American society – should we trust our scientists? Powell’s unequivocal answer is yes; these guys do, in fact, know what they’re taking about, and the dangers posed by climate change to humans and non-humans alike make it imperative that we start listening.
Verdict: Powell’s book is well thought out, supremely interesting, and dead useful for those tricky interactions with your friendly local climate change denier(s). But I wouldn’t go so far as to bestow it upon them as “the gift of knowledge” – you wouldn’t want to add to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere by enabling a book burning session.
Earlier CSW post: ‘Merchants of Doubt’ responsible for climate confusion - book review
The Inquisition of Climate Science published by Columbia University Press.
For much more on rebutting global warming misinformation, see the website Skeptical Science.