The Commie Fighters
In my previous post, I recounted how Rep. Chris Herrod (R-Provo) had indicated that his reason for dismissing the vast majority of climate scientists’ views was that he was concerned the political solutions proposed to address climate change would lead to loss of freedom and an inevitable slide toward Totalitarianism. Yes, he’s a Commie Fighter. Now, I’m a political Conservative, too. I don’t like Big Government, and if there is any way to get around dealing with climate change by levying huge taxes, and so on, I’m all for giving it a try. Even if I sympathize with such sentiments, however, I have a hard time going along with some members of the Utah Legislature when they try to paint mainstream climate science as part of a global conspiracy to impose a Totalitarian regime.
During the last Legislative Session, Rep. Kerry Gibson (R-Ogden) introduced House Joint Resolution 12 (HJR 12), which was a non-binding resolution urging the EPA to hold off enacting any planned carbon emissions reduction policies. Opposition to a particular type of policy is one thing, but the reasons given in HJR 12 gave me visions of tinfoil hats and bomb shelters. The original version of the resolution referred repeatedly to a “climate data conspiracy,” and proceeded to back up this claim with a number of red herrings, and the like. When the bill was first considered in committee (click here for the audio file,) Rep. Mike Noel (R-Kanab) argued that climate science has been serving a global conspiracy to impose population control by forced sterilization. The Salt Lake Tribune reported,
But Noel defended the “conspiracy” wording, pointing to an out-of-print textbook, Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment , written in the 1970s by biologist Paul Ehrlich, Ehrlich’s wife, Anne, and physicist John Holdren about the potential hazards of unchecked population.
The Kanab Republican, referring to Holdren as the Obama administration’s “energy czar,” read from passages of the 1,000-plus-page tome about population-control alternatives that included abortion and forced sterilization. He did not share the authors’ conclusion: that voluntary population-limiting methods are “a far better choice.”
“Now, if you can’t see a connection [of a conspiracy] to that,” the legislator said, “you’re absolutely blind to what is going on. This is absolutely — in my mind, this is in fact a conspiracy to limit population not only in this country but across the globe.”
When asked whether he thought there was a huge conspiracy, Rep. Gibson responded, “I’m not sure we’ll ever know the depths of it.”
Skipping Science Class
Now, I realize it’s a losing proposition for scientists to reason with people who think there’s a global conspiracy of scientists trying to attack their reproductive organs. (They tend not to listen to what we have to say, for some reason.) But being an eternal optimist, I decided to write another letter to the Legislature, hoping that at some point at least the voters would listen, if not the legislators. I got a number of other scientists at BYU to help edit and sign it, then sent it along to several of the legislators involved and local media outlets.
In our letter, we critiqued several of the worst arguments given in HJR 12, showing that they were based on half-truths, out-of-context quotations, and physical impossibilities. We also showed that some of the arguments contradicted one another. Note that we didn’t say a thing about what the EPA should do, because we didn’t agree with one another about that. We didn’t even say that there are no rational arguments against the scientific consensus. Rather, we focused on the fact that the particular arguments marshaled in the bill were absurd. Over fifty scientists and other scholars at universities around Utah subsequently endorsed our letter.
To my knowledge, none of the legislators involved (Gibson, Noel, etc.) ever offered any rebuttal to our critiques of their arguments. The legislators simply ignored them. Why? When faced with a bunch of actual scientists telling them their “scientific” arguments were deeply flawed, why did these politicians not even bother to reply? I can think of three reasons.
1) Gibson, Noel, and Co. didn’t have the scientific background to tell whether our criticisms were sound.
Kerry Gibson, the sponsor of the bill, is a dairy farmer. When he first introduced his bill in committee (click here for audio,) he had Randy Parker, CEO of the Utah Farm Bureau do a presentation about the state of the climate change debate. Gibson introduced Parker as “something of an expert on this issue.” Yep, Randy from the Farm Bureau is an expert on climate science. In fact, Randy from the Farm Bureau seems to have had a profound effect on the text of HJR 12. His article about climate change in the Feb. 2010 issue of the Utah Farm Bureau News contains much of the same language as the bill.
But for Kerry Gibson, you don’t need any book learning to understand climate science. All you need is a dairy farm. In the Senate committee hearing (click here for audio) he said,
All of you know that I don’t have a bunch of letters behind my name. And I don’t propose to know any more than anyone else. What I will tell you is that my opinion matters just as your opinion matters….
I own and operate a 6th generation dairy and crop farm in Western Weber County. For some people that disqualifies me from entering into an issue like this. To me, I think it gives me all of the knowledge that I need.
Some of the legislators involved have some scientific background, at least, though not in closely relevant fields. However, when I listened to their attempts to make scientific arguments, it became clear that they simply were not up to speed about climate change. Mike Noel (R-Kanab), for example, has had a long career as a rancher and BLM manager, but in the early 70’s he received a Master’s degree in some kind of plant ecology. He even went on to a PhD program for a while (he didn’t finish), though I have found no evidence that he ever used his degrees for anything. When Joe Andrade (a U of Utah scientist) commented on HJR 12 in the House committee, Noel leapt into action. Here’s how the Salt Lake Tribune reported the incident.
But Noel really got heated when Joe Andrade, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Utah, calmly said that he worried that passage of the resolution would slow down the movement to find new, clean energy sources such as nuclear, solar and wind.
Noel asked Andrade: “Are you stating on record that CO2 is a pollutant?
Andrade: “I’m saying that CO2 has a unique molecular structure which absorbs infrared radiation, and that that is in part responsible for the effects you’re concerned with, Rep. Gibson is concerned with….”
Noel: “I want to get this on the record: Are you saying we have to rid the planet of carbon dioxide?”
Andrade: “Of course not!”
Noel: “It’s not a pollutant, then it’s not going to kill you. It’s not going to kill plants. Is that correct? I have a degree too, Professor.”
Finally, the exchange devolved enough that the committee chairman broke it up.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Noel said. “It got out of hand.”
Now, as an environmental geochemist, I have to say that Noel’s argument is about as bad as it gets. The EPA regulates a number of substances that are plant nutrients, because they can cause severe problems if there is “too much of a good thing.” For example, phosphate and nitrate are essential plant nutrients that are in every fertilizer. But if some of the fertilizer (and detergents, etc.) we use gets into the rivers and wastewater streams, it ends up in lakes and coastal areas. Algae blooms like crazy, and then dies, but when there is so much rotting algae around it tends to use up all the oxygen in the water, causing fish and other organisms to die. This is the well known problem of “eutrophication.” In other words, it is reasonable to regulate plant nutrients as “pollutants” when they have indirect effects that don’t necessarily involve poisoning anyone. Whether or not it’s a good idea for the EPA to regulate CO2, I think it has to be admitted that Noel’s reasoning about the issue is deficient.
When the bill came up for clearance by the relevant Senate committee, the chairman was Sen. Dennis Stowell (R-Parowan). Stowell, who lists himself as a rancher and engineer, received a Master’s degree in Chemical Engineering, so I was hoping that at least he would have some understanding of the scientific issues. But here’s what he said (click here for the audio.)
I am a chemical engineer. Uh, CO2, I, you know, know a lot about CO2. It’s odorless, colorless, stable, I view it as being self-regulating. Uh, that is when concentrations of any chemicals in a reaction increase, the reaction speeds up. Uh, when, uh, the temperature rises, normally in a reaction, uh, the reaction speed, uh, speeds up. We call that the kinetics of the equation. And so, I view CO2 as being self-regulating.
Stowell was right that if you increase the concentration of a chemical, the reactions that consume that chemical tend to speed up. Raising the temperature generally increases reaction rates, as well. So… what? Does that mean that CO2 consumption rates (as it is dissolved in the ocean, or consumed by plants, or used up weathering silicate rocks,) rise so much that extra CO2 can’t build up in the atmosphere? This is obviously not true, since atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been exponentially increasing since the Industrial Revolution. So Sen. Stowell’s argument is baseless, because while he could spout a few truisms about chemical kinetics, he forgot about what happens when you perturb an equilibrium system (i.e., Le Chatelier’s Principle).
So after all that posturing about their degrees, Noel and Co. couldn’t come up with any arguments for their case that were even remotely plausible. All they really had going for them was summarized by Rep. Gibson in the Senate committee hearing for HJR 12.
I am proud of the science that has stood up for this resolution. There are many more, who we can’t hear from in a short period of time, but they are there.
That’s right. In the absence of any scientific arguments that even make sense, Rep. Gibson copped out with the dreaded appeal to “consensus” among some undisclosed number of scientists that are out “there” somewhere, and presumably agree with him about… something. I’m not sure what.
2) They could save themselves the work of trying to address our criticisms by hiding behind a fake expert and resorting to baiting us.
Question: What do unscrupulous legislators do when they haven’t gone to school for several years to get up to speed on climate science, and can’t even make a coherent argument about the subject, but still want to impress upon their constituents that they are hard-nosed public servants who are making sure that all sides of the debate are heard?
Answer: They choose a “champion” to hide behind. It would be preferable to recruit an actual climate scientist, but barring that, a fake expert will do. And when their opponents make arguments against their bill that they can’t answer, such legislators should try to bait their opponents into a public debate with their champion. After all, how can anyone really settle a complex technical issue in front of the general public in an hour or two of he-said-she-said? So if their opponents accept, the champion can blow a bunch of smoke for an hour, and nobody will know whom to believe. But if their opponents decline, the legislators can bait them with it ad nauseum.
The “champion,” in this case, was none other than Lord Christopher Monckton, 3rd Viscount of Brenchley. Bob Ferguson of the Science and Public Policy Institute sent a threatening letter (he later apologized for the tone) to a number of BYU scientists who had spoken out about the Climate Circus in the Legislature, and challenged us to debate some undisclosed climate skeptic. (See a Salt Lake Tribune article about the challenge here.) We all declined, because we didn’t think a public, oral debate was a legitimate forum to sort out a complex, technical issue. But what Bob “forgot” to tell our esteemed legislators was that I offered to do a written, online debate instead. My reasoning was that this would give me a chance to do some fact-checking on my opponent’s claims, and it would allow for proper sourcing, linking to the primary literature, and so on. When it turned out that Bob’s skeptical champion was Monckton, it appeared that my conditions were wise indeed, because as I told the Salt Lake Tribune, His Lordship “has a reputation for making up stuff.” (See this previous post for evidence that Monckton makes up data to discredit the IPCC and goes about falsely claiming to be a member of Parliament, to boot. If you really want to go nuts Monckton watching, consider this interview, where he revealed that he thinks he may have come up with a cure for AIDS, MS, the common cold, and flu. I can’t wait to see what it is–I’m betting on h0meopathy or vitamins.)
Well, our legislators didn’t know Monckton was such a charlatan. How could they? (Unless they checked the Internet to find out about his claims to membership in the House of Lords.) And Bob Ferguson apparently didn’t tell them that I had agreed to debate Monckton in a forum that allowed for fact-checking, but was flatly refused. So instead of arguing against any of our criticisms of HJR 12, they hid behind Monckton and tried to bait us. Rep. Mike Noel said this at the House committee meeting where HJR 12 was considered.
I would like to challenge them, and we have challenged them, in fact. They have not answered, but Lord Christopher Monckton of Benchley [sic], who’s a world-renowned individual that’s spoke on this particular subject for years, used the IPCC’s own models to show that they are in error, will be here on the 23rd of March at UVU for a full day debate and talk on this issue. I would encourage all of you to attend that, and for the public to attend that.
Sen. Margaret Dayton (R-Orem) followed suit in the subsequent Senate committee meeting:
But I would just like to mention that those who want to keep discussing climate change and have a scientific discussion, that the scientists from BYU, and I think the University of Utah if I have correct information, have been invited to come and present with Lord Christopher Monckton is coming to our state and is going to a presentation and these scientists who have information have an opportunity to do a side-by-side with them, and the public can be there, and we’ll have an opportunity for some science on both sides.
3) They didn’t care that much about accuracy.
The bottom line is that these legislators were supporting a bill that made scientific arguments they didn’t really know how to defend. Instead of stopping to check on the disputed claims, they blindly pressed on, hiding behind some nebulous body of scientists who supposedly agree with them, or behind a fake expert provided by the Science and Public Policy Institute. Why couldn’t they just hit the “Pause” button long enough to make sure they weren’t putting their names on something really stupid, like the South Dakota legislators who recently passed a resolution urging schools to teach climate change as “just a theory” because there are “astrological” arguments against it? (At least their Senate amended the resolution to omit the reference to “astrology” and sent it back to the House. Our Senate did nothing.) The answer is that, in the end, these legislators just didn’t care whether their arguments were scientifically accurate.
They didn’t care because their overarching purpose was to block the expansion of Federal power, which they see as a sort of creeping Socialism. Immediately after baiting us to debate Lord Monckton, Sen. Dayton explained,
I would like to speak to the motion, however, and say that, um, the purpose of this resolution is to ask the EPA to halt carbon dioxide reduction policies and endangerment findings. Um, I’m very concerned about an expanding bureaucracy, to which people are not elected, and where we are losing the voice of the people.
As I said, it’s abundantly clear that these legislators don’t understand the science behind climate change. And that’s ok! Nobody can be an expert in everything, after all. But instead of just admitting their ignorance and deferring to the scientific community, they insisted on siding with a tiny minority of the experts and a few crackpots like Monckton. The legislators weren’t in a position to make informed judgements, but they chose to go along with the small minority because it isn’t as easy to support more government regulation if there is no climate problem to be solved.
Am I painting with too broad a brush? Weren’t there ANY Republicans in the Utah Legislature who crossed party lines and tried to have the scientifically illiterate nonsense amended out of HJR 12? Well, at least the House voted to amend out the references to a “conspiracy,” because it wasn’t respectful, you know. Of course, the substance of the charges of fraud and graft among thousands of scientists remained, and by my count, EVERY SINGLE REPUBLICAN in the House and Senate who was present for the floor votes supported the bill.
I was expecting the bill to pass, but this really shocked me. Why wouldn’t any of the Republicans suggest substantive amendments? After the Senate committee hearing about the bill, I talked with a guy who was associated with Rep. Gibson. He told me that he didn’t think the resolution needed all those outrageous charges, either, but if they stopped to amend that stuff out of the bill then, it would have to go back to the House, then back to the Senate, and he didn’t think they would be able to pass it by the end of the legislative session. Accuracy trumped by political expediency again.
Enemies of Democracy
Unfortunately, Utah’s Republican legislators aren’t alone in using these kinds of tactics to fight the Enemies of Democracy. The well known science historian Naomi Oreskes (UC San Diego), along with coauthor Erik Conway, has written a book called Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming (release date–May 25, 2010). You can preview the subject matter of the book by watching this talk by Naomi Oreskes. Oreskes documents the fact that many of the most prominent scientists who go about spreading the message that the science behind human-induced climate change is uncertain, have done EXACTLY the same thing in the past about issues like the health effects of second-hand smoke. These efforts have largely been funded by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries through “think tanks” like the George C. Marshal Institute and the Heartland Institute. Yes, the SAME organizations (and some of the same scientists!) that fought against regulation of second-hand smoke now fight against regulation of greenhouse gases.
Why have they done this? Are they all just hired guns trying to make a buck from fat industrial wallets? Maybe some of them are, but I think this characterization would be an oversimplification if too broadly applied. Oreskes shows that many of the scientists involved worked in the weapons complex during the Cold War. For them, the threat of Communist expansion is a fresh memory, and ever increasing government regulation seems like a kind of creeping Socialism that will inevitably lead to loss of freedom. If they can succeed at bringing to the forefront any uncertainties in the science behind the health risks of second-hand smoke or anthropogenic global warming, they can forestall further liberty-stealing government regulations.
Sound familiar? If Priority #1 is to fight the Enemies of Democracy by opposing increased government regulation, then it is easy to justify trumpeting (or even exaggerating) uncertainties in the science that indicates there might be a problem. If we’re not sure there’s really a problem, then why impose new regulations? The problem with this approach is that there is always some uncertainty involved in any complex scientific conclusions, so the mere fact that uncertainty exists is beside the point–unless we want to forego making ANY policy decisions based on scientific input.
By exaggerating the degree of uncertainty, these scientists (and people like the Utah legislators who follow their lead) have become what they claim to fight–Enemies of Democracy. Democracy requires well informed citizens, and when these people participate in targeted disinformation campaigns, with little regard for scientific accuracy, they are fighting Democracy. I don’t care whether these people have good intentions of saving us from creeping Socialism. I don’t even care whether I sometimes agree with their politics. I still cling to the (deluded?) belief that elected officials don’t have to be truth-deficient opportunists.
In my next post, I’ll play nicer and explain why I don’t think our esteemed legislators are entirely to blame. The scientific community has to take some of the rap for the public confusion.