The U.S. Heads Towards a Science-free Science Policy

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists agree that anthropogenic climate change is a very large and growing problem that affects us all.  The scientists reached this conclusion through decades of research, modeling, observation and analysis.  They are the professionals, and the science is settled.

Donald Trump agrees with the scientists.  Maybe. Sort of.  He recently admitted to the New York Times that he thinks “there is some connectivity [between human activity and climate change]. He said that “there is some, something. It depends on how much.”  One can’t read too much into this statement, however.  Over the past 7 years Trump’s position on climate change seems to have (quite literally) changed with the weather.   He signed his name to a public statement supporting “meaningful and effective measures to control climate change, an immediate challenge facing the United States and the world today.”   Then he described climate change as “bullshit,” a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese.  He called it a “very expensive form of tax.”  But, he also saw fit to build a sea wall at his Irish golf course in order to protect the property from erosion caused by ”a sea level rise as a result of global warming.”

So, based on his previous malleable opinions, one can conclude that Donald Trump, President-elect, doesn’t really know where he stands about climate science.  His unpredictability about scientific matters should come as no surprise – this is, after all, a man who claimed that asbestos was perfectly safe and its banning was a plot by the mafia, and that autism was “doctor-inflicted.”

Without a coherent policy on climate change coming from the top, the policy will be increasingly drafted, promoted and enacted by those who have the President’s ear.  That’s where we run into trouble.  The advisors and “experts” within the administration that will influence the President have already shown that they have no interest making decisions based on science.  They have, purely and demonstrably, a shared political agenda.  Consequently, the U.S. is heading toward the nation’s first science-free science policy.

Here’s a few of the guys who will be put in charge of the henhouse:

Myron Ebell:  appointed by Trump to head the transition of the EPA.  Considering Trump’s blustering promise that he’s going to drain the Washington swamp of lobbyists, it’s interesting that one of his first appointments was of a lifelong lobbyist.  Ebell was previously a policy director in the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an ideologically-driven lobby group advocating a libertarian, free enterprise approach to public policy.  Ebell is not a scientist, but has spent a lifetime trying to discredit science that goes against corporate interests.  He was an early contributor to the industry of climate change denial, participating in the Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan, an effort led by the American Petroleum Institute to convince the public that climate change science was uncertain.   According to the plan, “victory will be achieved when average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science; recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the ‘conventional wisdom’.  That sums up Ebell’s life work – nothing about advancing the science, just about discrediting or ignoring the science. 

Robert Walker: senior policy advisor to Trump, and a former head of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee.   Mr. Walker advocates halting the work currently done within NASA on climate change, and shifting the mandate to other government agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  By itself, that news is not alarming, but when viewed with Walker’s continuing denial of anthropogenic climate change, it shows that the intention is to silence the voices of sound science.  In an interview with the CBC this past week, Walker confirmed his alignment with the sceptics by talking about a “lack of consensus” among climatologists regarding man-made climate change, and making vague references to dissenting voices being suppressed.  When asked to justify those claims, he couldn’t identify his own sources of information.  As Mr. Walker admitted, he’s a politician, not a scientist.  Then maybe if he’s advising on scientific matters, he should avail himself of the actual science.  He did forward his sources after the interview – they included a lobby group funded by the Scaife Foundation (one of the usual Dark Money suspects in the funding of right-wing libertarian causes), and a group that, probably to Walker’s dismay, actually agreed with there being 97% consensus. 

Lamar Smith: current chairman of the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  This committee provides oversight to a multitude of federal agencies, including NASA, the NOAA, and the EPA.  Smith is an unapologetic, extremely active climate change denier, and thinks that the NOAA should stop “hyping a climate change agenda” and instead focus on weather forecasting.  He has publicly accused scientists of deliberately manipulating the temperature record to manufacture the climate crisis (completely false).  His committee gives a forum for climate change sceptics , and has harassed scientists within the agencies it oversees when they published research results it didn’t like (i.e. climate change has anthropogenic causes).   In admonishing the NOAA, he misquoted and misinterpreted another study as having “confirmed a halt in global warming,” prompting an author of that study to publicly announce that it did nothing of the sort.   More than any chairman in the committee’s 50+ years, Smith has politicized the scientific process, especially concerning climate-related science.  Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the fossil fuel industry has been the largest source of his political contributions. 

It’s interesting that these three argue that “the science isn’t settled,” but refuse to listen to the scientists who argue that it is.  They instead draw heavily on the work of prominent spokesmen such as Fred Singer, who has made a very good living as a professional sceptic.  Singer previously argued the case for CFCs not having any effect on the earth’s ozone, second-hand smoke not being carcinogenic, and UVB rays not causing melanoma.  Also prominently featured is Chris Monckton – a hereditary peer and well-known kook whose qualifications for a scientific debate include his education in classics and journalism, his inability to win a seat in the British parliament, and the dubious distinction of having been fired by Nigel Farage.

Myron Ebell once said that if he’s proven wrong on anthropogenic climate change, he will apologize and move on.  After all, it’s not a big deal to him – in a Forbes article, he claimed that warming may not be such a bad thing.  I guess he’s not concerned about crop losses, flooding, droughts, more frequent and severe storms, loss of species and habitat, etc.    When the overwhelming consensus becomes irrefutable proof, an appropriate response to Ebell’s admission of guilt should involve tar, feathers and pitchforks.  Meantime, the science policy is devoid of science, and is being driven by lobbyists and politicians.  Let’s hope we can limit the damage.

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