Earlier this week Erik flagged a NYT story revealing that one of the most prominent climate change skeptics had failed to disclose, as he was required to do, that he’s gotten a lot of funding from energy interests.
This story is part of a real problem, since Wei-Hock Soon is far from the only climate change skeptic whose professional expertise and/or motivations are open to legitimate question.
In the wake of the story, US Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), the ranking member of the House of Representatives Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, sent a letter to seven institutions, requesting information regarding the funding sources of seven academics whose work has been associated with some aspect of climate change skepticism.
One of those institutions is the University of Colorado, which got this version of the letter on Tuesday, regarding Prof. Roger Pielke, who teaches in the Environmental Studies Program. Pielke is none too happy about this development:
[L]et me make one point abundantly clear: I have no funding, declared or undeclared, with any fossil fuel company or interest. I never have. Representative Grijalva knows this too, because when I have testified before the US Congress, I have disclosed my funding and possible conflicts of interest. So I know with complete certainty that this investigation is a politically-motivated “witch hunt” designed to intimidate me (and others) and to smear my name.
For instance, the Congressman and his staff, along with compliant journalists, are busy characterizing me in public as a “climate skeptic” opposed to action on climate change. This of course is a lie. I have written a book calling for a carbon tax, I have publicly supported President Obama’s proposed EPA carbon regulations, and I have just published another book strongly defending the scientific assessment of the IPCC with respect to disasters and climate change. All of this is public record, so the smears against me must be an intentional effort to delegitimize my academic research.
Pielke came to Rep. Grijalva’s notice (or more realistically to that of his staff, about which more in a moment) because he has testified to Congress regarding his research on the relationship between extreme weather events and climate change. Pielke says he takes the same view as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regarding this matter. To quote the latter: “Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded.” Whether and to what extent there’s a relationship between carbon emissions and such events is a hotly debated topic among mainstream climate scientists, so Pielke is understandably aggrieved that his position on the matter has gotten him labeled a climate skeptic or denialist by various lazy and/or dishonest people.
What seems to have happened here is the Congressional staff members who were tasked with identifying climate skeptics whose financial ties might be worth inquiring into further did a poor job of distinguishing between actual climate skeptics and somebody like Pielke.
I have a lot of sympathy for Pielke, as the root of this kerfuffle seems to be Pielke’s disagreement with an Obama administration science adviser, John Holdren:
When Holdren links specific weather events to human-caused climate change—such as the California drought or the cold winter—he is exaggerating the state of scientific understandings.
His subsequent attack on me has him serving not as science advisor to the president, but rather wielding his political position to delegitimize an academic whose views he finds inconvenient. We academics wouldn’t stand for such behavior under George W. Bush and we shouldn’t under Barack Obama either.
Naturally, it’s disconcerting to have a member of Congress send a letter to your employer, suggesting if only by implication that you may be a bad or corrupt scientist. Furthermore, Pielke argues that his sworn testimony to Congress regarding the sources of the funding of his research makes those sources a matter of public record, which in turn makes the letter to his administrative superiors demanding to know what those sources are superfluous, and perhaps even vaguely threatening.
On the other hand . . . Pielke’s reaction to all this seems in its own way equally excessive. His blog post on the matter features a photo of the cover of Joe McCarthy’s magnum opus, and he says that the “smears” to which he’s been subjected are chasing him out of the climate change research business permanently:
The incessant attacks and smears are effective, no doubt, I have already shifted all of my academic work away from climate issues. I am simply not initiating any new research or papers on the topic and I have ring-fenced my slowly diminishing blogging on the subject. I am a full professor with tenure, so no one need worry about me — I’ll be just fine as there are plenty of interesting, research-able policy issues to occupy my time. But I can’t imagine the message being sent to younger scientists. Actually, I can: “when people are producing work in line with the scientific consensus there’s no reason to go on a witch hunt.”
When “witch hunts” are deemed legitimate in the context of popular causes, we will have fully turned science into just another arena for the exercise of power politics. The result is a big loss for both science and politics.
This strikes me as evidence of both political naivete and an unduly thin skin. While Pielke has good reason to be deeply annoyed with Griljava’s letter, comparing it, or the criticism he’s received from Holdren, to a McCarthyite-style witch hunt is ridiculous. When you get involved in a politically contentious issue, people are going to criticize you. Some of these criticisms will be unfair, and some will be flatly dishonest. Your personal motivations and professional competence will be called into question, often by morons whose sum total of knowledge on an issue to which you’ve devoted years of study consists of bullet points they read on a blog somewhere. That’s how the politics game is played, even when it involves questions of science (or “science” as the case may be).
If stuff like this is going to chase you out of the arena, you’re going to make the ghost of Teddy Roosevelt cry.
Anyway, Pielke’s petulance is leading right-wing critics to characterize him as a Galileo-like martyr to the cause of climate skepticism. Rich Lowry:
[P]roponents of a climate alarmism demanding immediate action to avert worldwide catastrophe won’t and can’t simply let the science speak for itself.
In fact, for people who claim to champion science, they have the least scientific temperament imaginable. Their attitude owes more to Trofim Lysenko, the high priest of the Soviet Union’s politicized science, than, say, to Gregor Mendel, the founder of modern genetics whose work was shunned by Lysenko for ideological reasons. . .
It has to be counted a small victory in this project that Pielke will no longer be an obstacle. . .
And so the alarmists have hounded a serious researcher out of the climate business. All hail science!
The other day, the head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, quit amid a sexual harassment scandal and noted in his letter of resignation: “For me the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion.”
Is it too much too ask that the man in charge of a project supposedly marshaling the best scientific evidence for the objective consideration of a highly complex and contested phenomenon not feel that he has a religious commitment to a certain outcome?
Why, yes it is. The kind of people who run inquisitions may lack for perspective and careful respect for the facts and evidence. But they never lack for zeal.
Now this isn’t completely false. Like any other contentious issue, climate science produces its zealots and true believers, whose dogmatic commitment to a certain viewpoint isn’t open to revision in the light of further evidence. But of course such people can be found on both sides of any policy debate. And in this case the debate among scientists remains extremely lopsided, for reasons that ultimately don’t seem to have much of anything to do with bad motivations on anyone’s part.