Monday, September 28, 2015

A new low in science: Criminalizing climate change skeptics

I am a global warming skeptic - big time-  come and get me 0bama.

Scientists have many important roles to play in preparations for the upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris. Some are working hard to clarify uncertainties in the science, others on developing and evaluating alternative climate policies.

One group of climate scientists is trying a different approach. Dismayed by what they see as a lack of progress on the implementation of climate policies that they support, these 20 scientists sent a letter to the White House calling for their political opponents to be investigated by the government.

In particular, they are voicing their support of a proposal by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) for a RICO investigation of fossil fuel corporations and their supporters, who the scientists allege have deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, with the consequence of forestalling America's response to reducing carbon emissions.

RICO, short for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, is a federal law enacted in 1970 as a crime-fighting tool for use against the Mafia. It includes prison sentences of up to 20 years and seizure of financial assets for those found guilty of  such "racketeering."

What these 20 scientists have done with their letter is the worst kind of irresponsible advocacy. Attempts by powerful people to silence other scientists, especially in this brutal fashion, is a recipe for stifling scientific progress and for making poor policies.

Senator Whitehouse singled out one climate scientist, Willie Soon, a solar physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who argues that changes in solar radiation, rather than carbon emissions, are the major force behind global warming.

Seven other climate scientists were the targets of a recent McCarthyite 'witch hunt' by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). I was one of the seven. Rep. Grijalva indicated that I was investigated because of my recent Congressional testimony summarizing peer-reviewed research indicating that the magnitude and impacts of expected warming could be less than generally believed.

None of the Grijalva 7 was found to have engaged in wrongdoing of any sort, yet there have been significant career consequences for some.

 The demand by Senator Whitehouse and the 20 climate scientists for legal persecution of people whose research on science and policy they disagree with represents a new low in the politicization of science.

The role of these 20 scientists is particularly troubling.  The consequence of this persecution, intended or not, is to make pariahs of scientists who are doing exactly what we expect of researchers: to critically evaluate evidence and publish that work in the scientific literature.

Minority perspectives have an important and respected role to play in advancing science, as a mean for testing ideas and pushing the knowledge frontier forward. While President Obama bows to no one in attacking climate 'deniers', he recently made an important statement in a town hall meeting at the University in Iowa on the importance of challenging received knowledge in a university setting:

"Because there was this space where you could interact with people who didn't agree with you and had different backgrounds from you … I started testing my own assumptions, and sometimes I changed my mind," he said. "Sometimes I realized, maybe I've been too narrow-minded; maybe I didn't take this into account; maybe I should see this person's perspective. That's what college, in part, is all about."

That's even more what real science is about. It is important for scientists to engage the public and to work with policy makers to assess the impacts and unintended consequences of policy options. However, it has become 'fashionable' for academic scientists to advocate for certain political outcomes, without having much understanding of the policy process, economics, or the ethics of such advocacy.

What these 20 scientists have done with their letter is the worst kind of irresponsible advocacy. Attempts by powerful people to silence other scientists, especially in this brutal fashion, is a recipe for stifling scientific progress and for making poor policies.

Climate policy has been limited by an overly narrow set of narratives and policy options. Expanding the frameworks for thinking about climate change and climate policy can lead to developing a wider choice of options in addressing the risks from it.

That is how democracy is supposed to work. We search for solutions that can garner a critical mass of support. We don't try to criminalize our political opponents, and especially should not try to criminalize scientists who have a different view.

Judith Curry is Professor and former Chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and President of Climate Forecast Applications Network. Follow
Judith Curry on twitter @curryja.


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