A Call to De-escalate the Climate Wars

Why the Congressional Investigation Into Scientists Takes Us Backwards

Democratic lawmakers in Washington are demanding information about funding for scientists –– including Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke, Jr. –– who publicly dispute their party’s arguments on climate change, hoping to find information linking the scientists to the notorious Koch brothers or other fossil fuel interests.

Here’s what I know: the Koch brothers have never funded Roger Pielke, Jr, but I have. As a Senior VP at the left-leaning Nathan Cummings Foundation, I was privileged to engage Roger to work with the board on a clean-sheet strategic planning process –– which he did with his customary integrity and equanimity. Roger’s service in the interest of science and climate stabilization requires no elaboration or defense, but the unfortunate pattern of which this Congressional investigation is a part deserves some serious analysis.

After the 2010 failure of climate legislation in the Senate, Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest met with the CEOs of some of the nation’s largest funders to explain what had happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars they’d collectively invested: "As Pete Seeger said about the Spanish Civil War, 'We had better songs, but they had more bullets.’” This is how, with one evocative sentence, the nation's largest funder of climate change activism dodged accountability. It wasn't his fault, or his allies’, it was the overwhelming force brought to bear by bad guys against good guys.

It was a neat trick, and it signaled a pattern that has come to define climate activism: deny responsibility; focus on opponents (describing them –– implicitly or explicitly –– as fascists); and work to delegitimize any alternative view of the case. In fact, we now know that the David vs. Goliath imagery was problematic; proponents of the bill had probably outspent opponents, and their own conceptual blind spots and political miscalculations contributed significantly –– if not decisively –– to the bill's defeat. Moreover, their efforts helped to create a harsh new reality: it is harder to take meaningful climate action today than it was when activists made their well-funded push in 2009 and 2010.

The steps taken this week by Rep. Raul Grijalva and Sen. Edward Markey follow the pattern and threaten to set us further back –– if that’s possible. Is the point of the investigation to ensure that Congress hears a full range of perspectives, or safeguard the integrity of the process? Or is it meant to intimidate anyone who offers a different perspective, to act as a warning to those who might consider doing so in the future? As Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger point out, having Congress go through your financial records can be a time-consuming, expensive, and stressful experience. And at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if there’s no evidence to support a charge; in the Internet age there's no exoneration, only the lasting insinuation of guilt.

What will these investigations accomplish beyond tarnishing reputations and sending a deep chill into the debate? Will it bring the different sides together, or create common ground between the parties who will, after all, have to come together if anything's going to be accomplished? In fact it's hard to imagine a tactic less likely to foster progress.

I’m glad to see Breakthrough take this on (along with the American Meteorological Society, the Arizona Republic, and many others), and to make the appropriate observation that intimidation tactics are counterproductive no matter which party is practicing them. As a former Democratic Congressional aid –– I was the Chief Environmental Advisor to Senator Barbara Boxer, and before that Congressman Leon Panetta and Senate candidate Dianne Feinstein –– I understand how tempting it must be to go after the Koch brothers, who after all carry their own share of the blame for the sorry state of our climate politics. But, it’s not the Koch brothers who will suffer (in fact partisan paralysis serves their interests beautifully) –– it’s good people like Roger, and in some ways more importantly, Congress itself and any hope that the U.S. will make a serious contribution to efforts to stabilize the climate.

If Grijalva and Markey really want to make progress on climate change, they’d do well to undertake an honest evaluation of the responsibility they –– and their well-funded allies –– have for the serial failures of climate legislation. Unlike this wrong-headed attack on academics who happen to disagree with them, a serious, objective analysis of their own performance would be a surprising, and surprisingly constructive, move.

Peter Teague is Senior Advisor at the Breakthrough Institute.