Climate of Incivility

Climate McCarthyism is Wrong Whether Democratic or Republican

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McCarthyite attacks on climate scientists were un-American when Republican politicians like Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (above right) practiced them. They are no less so when practiced by Democratic politicians like Representative Raul Grijalva (above left).

February 26, 2015 | Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

On April 23, 2010, the Attorney General of the state of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, initiated an investigation into the research of climate scientist Michael Mann. Mann is the creator of the so-called “hockey stick” graph, which used tree-ring measurements and other proxies to show that average global temperatures have spiked dramatically since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Mann’s research was cited by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), but was controversial among climate skeptics.

Scholars rightly viewed Cuccinelli's investigation as ideologically motivated. The Faculty Senate at the University of Virginia issued a statement saying the Attorney General’s actions sent "a chilling message to scientists engaged in basic research involving Earth's climate." Professors at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, issued a statement saying the Attorney General’s actions "echo some of the worst offenses of the McCarthy era.”

Happily, Cuccinelli's investigation never got off the ground. In March 2012, Virginia’s Supreme Court dismissed the investigation, ruling that the Attorney General did not have the legal authority to demand any records from the university. 

At the time, Democratic politicians including, Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, denounced Cuccinelli’s investigation as “intimidation tactics” and “a threat to academic freedom and open scientific inquiry.” But this week they started using the very same tactics against climate scientists with whom they disagree.

On Tuesday, Representative Raul Grijalva, a Democratic Congressman from Arizona, sent letters to seven university presidents, asking them to release information on funding sources for university professors. And Sen. Markey, who held a House hearing on Cuccinelli’s investigation of Mann, announced he had begun a related investigation.

One of the professors under investigation is Roger Pielke, Jr., who has been an unpaid Senior Fellow at Breakthrough Institute since 2007. Pielke is a tenured environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and a leading researcher on climate change and weather extremes.

Grijalva’s beef with Pielke is plainly ideological. Pielke is not a climate skeptic. He has long affirmed the view that human emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the planet, and his work on weather extremes has been widely cited by the IPCC. Moreover, he has endorsed a carbon tax and President Obama’s carbon pollution regulations.

But because his research finds that there has been no identifiable increase in the cost and human impacts of natural disasters due to human-caused global warming — a finding that the IPCC has endorsed — he has become a target of environmental activists and now, the ranking Democratic member of the House Natural Resources Committee. 

In advance of multiple testimonies before Congressional committees, Pielke has affirmed that he has no financial conflicts of interest. Grijalva has offered no evidence to the contrary. Rather, Grijalva’s investigation is part fishing expedition, part innuendo campaign. It won't find nefarious funding of Pielke's research. But it will drag his good name and reputation through the mud — especially in an era where long debunked accusations take on a life of their own in the blogosphere. Long after Pielke's name is cleared, accusations that his research is funded by the fossil fuels industry, and old links to the news stories that ran when Grijalva publicized the letters, will live on in cyberspace. 

Efforts to delegitimize one's political opponents are, of course, nothing new in American politics. But they become especially toxic when they get mixed up with scientific controversies. Pielke's sin after all, is not that he has questioned the consensus that human greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet, but rather that his research strongly suggests that human-caused warming has not to-date made natural disasters worse — a finding that has proven inconvenient for activists and Democratic politicians, including the President, who regularly claim that human emissions are playing a significant role in the rising toll of natural disasters in hopes that doing so will galvanize public support for climate action. 

The desire to take action is, no doubt, sincere. And if you believe that the fate of the planet hangs in the balance of a Manichean battle between environmentalists and fossil fuel interests, then any scientist claiming that human emissions haven't yet impacted things like hurricanes or floods must be part of grand conspiracy by the industry and must be delegitimized by any means necessary. 

But such efforts do violence to climate science, efforts to address global warming, and our civic culture more broadly. Both climate activists and their opponents reduce a sprawling field of scientific inquiry, encompassing atmospheric science, geo-physics, climatology, biology, and economics to a single question of belief.

The shrill climate science debate between "ecofascists" and "deniers," conflates the very basic question of whether climate change is happening with all manner of further scientific and policy questions about which there is no consensus at all, namely how rising global temperatures will be expressed at the local and regional scales at which they impact human societies, what capacity human societies will have to adapt to those impacts, and what our capacities are to reduce emissions at a scale that will much matter to either. 

Neither does the escalating polarization and incivility put us in better stead to address the uncertainties, trade-offs, and competing legitimate interests that any plausible political path to addressing global warming will need to navigate. McCarthyite attacks on climate scientists were un-American and inappropriate when Republicans practiced them. They are neither less toxic nor more appropriate when initiated by Democrats in the name of saving the planet. The party of liberals and progressives should be the first to be outraged by the use of such tactics.


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About Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger are leading global thinkers on energy, environment, climate, human development, and politics. They are founders of the Breakthrough Institute and executive editors of Breakthrough Journal.

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