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Climate of Incivility

Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus .'s picture
Consultants, Breakthrough Institute
  • Member since 2018
  • 21 items added with 19,278 views
  • Mar 6, 2015

unfairness and congressional oversight

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.

Photo Credit: Climate Change, Science, and Politics/shutterstock

Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on Mar 5, 2015

I could not agree more with this piece. Grijalva and Markey’s politically motivated attacks on researchers like Pielke (who is a widely respected scientist) are reprehensible. They are showing themselves to be no more committed to scientific integrity than political bufoons like Cuccinelli and Inhofe

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 5, 2015

I have been generally supportive of much of Breakthrough’s positions on climate, especially on nuclear power, but here we part company.

The public has a right to know who’s bribing our scientists, just as much as we have a right to know who’s bribing our politicians. Or if the word “bribe” is too impolite for your sensibilities, you can substitute “paying for”, which amounts to much the same thing. And yes, I would include scientists who accept the consensus on climate change in that group. (I rather doubt that the Sierra Club has enough cash to throw around for grant money, but if they do, hell yes I want to know who and what they’re funding.)

It wasn’t too long ago that the tobacco industry was spending big bucks on biologists to find nothing-to-see-here about tobacco, and on economists to find nothing-good-here about tobacco taxation to recover external costs. God only knows how many people died needlessly as a result of such efforts.

In spite of what some would have us believe, profit is not the be-all and end-all of human society. And when scientific “truth” becomes just another bought-and-paid-for commodity, we all suffer as a result.

I’m sure Dr. Pielke is an honorable man, who has properly declared all outside funding in his research. But I’m not quite so sure of every scientist. And when it comes to critical points of science that impact critical policy making, that’s one more datapoint that we really need to have.

Jeffrey Miller's picture
Jeffrey Miller on Mar 5, 2015

If you believe this, then you should be supporting a policy requiring such disclosure, which, by the way, most journals and institutions already have. You should not be favoring a political witch hunt against seven individuals who have been singled out because they have reached conclusions that these politicans don’t like. We need less politics in science, not more. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 5, 2015

Michael and Ted, I’ve also been largely supportive of Breakthrough, but you’re contributing to the air of incivility by mischaracterizing the tone of Grijalva’s letter. Calling it a “fishing expedition”, “part innuendo campaign”, suggesting they’re intended to “drag his good name and reputation through the mud”, and  “delegitimize” him – this is way over the top.

Let’s look at what he actually wrote. Grijalva notes (correctly):

As you may have heard, the Koch Foundation appears to have funded climate research by Dr. Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, some of which formed the basis of testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology and the Kansas State Legislature’s House Energy and Environment Committee — funding that was not disclosed at the time. Exxon Mobil, in response to an inquiry from the House Science Committee, may have provided false or misleading information on its funding for Dr. Soon’s work. Southern Services Company funded Dr. Soon’s authorship of several published climate studies; Dr. Soon did not disclose this funding to many of those journals’ publishers or editors.

If true, these may not be isolated incidents. Prof. Roger Pielke, Jr., at CU’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research has testified numerous times before the U.S. Congress’ on climate change and its economic impacts. His July 2013 Senate testimony featured the claim, often repeated, that it is “incorrect to associate the increasing costs of disasters with the emission of greenhouse gases.” John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has highlighted what he believes were serious misstatements by Prof Pielke of the scientific consensus on climate change and his (Holdren’s) position on the issue.

I’m familiar with Pielke’s positions on weather and AGW. I’ve read all of his posts on TEC as well as his book, The Climate Fix. In general I agree with him, but without accusing him of being on the take he seems a bit too reactionary in his interpretation. Weather statistics are somewhat like Rorschach tests – you see in them what you want to see – and when the tagline of his book is, “What Scientists and Politicians Won’t Tell You About Global Warming”, it’s clearly Pielke who has thrown down the gauntlet.

So bring it on. I don’t think they’ll find a lot either, but it won’t hurt to have a look.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 6, 2015

I do support such policies completely. The recent disclosure that at least one prominent scientist has violated such rules provides reasonable grounds to investigate whether there might be other cases, and the logical place to start looking in any such investigation is right where vested interests might be expected to throw their cash around.

If it turns out nobody (else) has done anything wrong, well and good. If we don’t even bother to look, shame on us.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Mar 6, 2015

The public has a right to know who’s bribing our scientists”

The check on scientific publication has long been peer review and response publications, not deep dives by government into the motivations and finances of the authors.  Why should scientists be singled out for such treatment?  Pielke, Jr by the way is a political scientist by training.    Should TEC authors have their employers or clients contacted by self-righteous Congressmen insisting on disclosure?  Several identify as having worked in the oil and gas or chemical industries. 

Roger Arnold's picture
Roger Arnold on Mar 6, 2015

I’m a strong believer in transparency of funding sources for researchers — particularly when their findings are used in policy debates. BUT, I also strongly believe that it is not the job of congressmen and their committees to take it upon themselves to launch investigations that target individual researchers. It’s pure posturing and political theater. It’s contemptible, regardless of which side of the aisle it’s coming from.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 6, 2015

Mark, in regards to

Why should scientists be singled out for such treatment? [“dives by government into the motivations and finances of the authors”]

These particular scientists have been singled out because they’ve been testifying before Congress, and it’s in the public interest.

Bring it on.

Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Mar 6, 2015

Why should scientists be singled out for such treatment? 

They shouldn’t be “singled out”, they should be part of a larger group who should be subject to the same scrutiny. Any pulbic servant or public employee who recieves funding from any non-public source should have those sources revealed. 

If someone claims to be working only in the public interest, that claim deserves to be evaluated on its merits.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on Mar 6, 2015

It was interesting to learn that the famous “hockey stick curve” was a measure of tree rings. Since I don’t follow the latest “science” evidence, it was new to me that this constituted some form of proof of temperature change. I’ve been advocating biomass development simply because it was responding to new CO2. Now some annual International Biomass Conference is again being held in Minneapolis with most of the agenda being consistent.

The “science” I learned built on basic principles. Only in the end did I learn it was “a club.” So my first effort was to exploit communications opportunities and push the internet. Most non-scientists don’t know (at least in the olden days) each “peer reviewed” publication required a disclaimer that it was an “advertisement.”

I wish our indignant “environmentalists” would spend some time pushing China to employ known coal technology to clean up known coal pollution. Most of that “air pollution” becomes Pacific Ocean pollution, and I suspect California will dry up before they figure out why a warmer ocean isn’t evaporating rain water.

Some “science” creates new opportunity. Some not so “science” simply creates new taxes.

Thanks for the article.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Mar 6, 2015

Detailed financial disclosure and intimidating correspondence to employers/clients has not been a requirement of Congressional testimony.  That kind of financial interest check is typically required of elected politicians and some government employees.  The “public interest” is prudently used in the passage of law and control on the government itself.  Application to private citizens as a justification because they happen to be public figures smacks of Soviet show trials.

In any case, the financial conflict of interest on the government funding side seems to me to dwarf anything done by private industry.  The meme circulating now in academia is that to inflate the chance of public grant funding for any marginal proposal, in a fields typically having nothing to do with anthropological global warming, is to invent some angle for the proposal to pertain to anthropological global warming.  But we won’t see Rep Grijalva demanding information from the institutions employing these researchers in the name of the public interest. 

As for prudence, if Pielke or Soon neglected to disclose financing as required by a journal in which the publish then the *journal*, not Rep Grijalva or the government in any form, has the right to impose sanctions.  

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Mar 6, 2015

Any pulbic servant or public employee …”

Pielke Jr, Soon, etc are not government employees.   If you mean anyone who receives public funds for services rendered should render full financial disclosure to the goverment, then that is a extraordinary suggestion, as roughly one in six of the US labor force is directly employed by government of some kind, many more of course receive government funds through grants or other contracts. 

“If someone claims to be working only in the public interest…”

I’m thinking these authors claim their research is sound in its conclusions, as any published researcher should, and not that the research provides some guarantee on the debateable concept of what is or is not the public good. 

Leo Klisch's picture
Leo Klisch on Mar 6, 2015

      “his research finds that there has been no identifiable increase”

Hard for me to believe that he can use the word “no” with out putting a probability on it for science that’s so complex. I have not read his work so may he has.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 6, 2015

Mark, the sum total of all federal grant money allocated for climate research is probably three to five orders of magnitude less than fossil fuel annual profits. So comparing the potential influence of the two is a bit ridiculous, as is pointing out supposed similarities to the McCarthy hearings or Salem witch trials, as some have done.

That’s not to say investigators should have carte blanche to pick away at the personal information of anyone with whom they disagree. Here, Michael Halpern of the Union of Concerned Scientists presents a balanced view of open records laws, how they apply, and where they fall short. An excerpt:

Parts of the requests are appropriate, and parts are not. Each letter asks for information about funding received by the university in connection with the academic’s work, and whether there are any strings attached to that funding. This is entirely appropriate, as funding and the agreements that come with it can create conflicts of interest and be the source of undue influence on the research itself. The universities and researchers that are named in the letters should comply with requests for this information…

Open records laws are designed to support the public interest, and exemptions to those laws should do the same. In the case of research communications, the public interest lies in the ability of scientists to ask difficult questions and pursue new lines of inquiry. In the case of financial records, the public interest lies in the ability of those outside the university to see if funds were misspent or financial conflicts of interest were kept secret.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Mar 7, 2015

Bob – 

Thanks fo response.  

All of profits of CO2 intensive industries are not available to researchers, nor are all governmental revenues.  Only that fraction of each made available through grants, donations, contracts, etc matter financially to researchers.  Measured in this way, government has no peer. 

From the standpoint of a given journal, I see the point of disclosure, to include appropriate sanctions for those who don’t comply.   However, governmental interference by grandstanding poticians grates on me, and can’t help to further principled debate.  That said, I retire from the matter and thank you for the discussion. 


Erich J. Knight's picture
Erich J. Knight on Mar 12, 2015

Inhofe recently threw a snowball in the senate to “demenstrate”, I guess, that climate change has a snowball’s chance under his hellish chairmanship. God help me, but I just want to grab him by the lapels and scream; Soil Carbon!, Soil Carbon!, Soil Carbon!, at the top of my lungs.

CO2 must become a fungible commodity. Like oil. Oil cost more here or cost less there but the world oil price is controlled by a market. Adding the Externalized cost of oil, fossil carbons, to this market is what is needed. CO2 is that mechanism.

Cap & Trade worked for NOX & SOX, no public outcry, no financial pain, the best solutions guided by the proverbial “invisible hand” sweeping away acid rain.
Conventional policy; is closing the Ozone Hole. Rid our ecology of really bad pestocides
& has rid our waste streams of heavy metals

The invisible hand of CO2e needs to be made manifest by policy, the same for NPK, nutrients in the wrong place have social/ecological cost, in the right places high values. Carbon in the right place tremendous values. These now mostly “Externalized Values” for society, hydrology, ecology, soils etc. must be placed on the balance sheet.

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars”, But in our policy.
A Hansen Fee & Dividend, back to the people, will power said invisible hands.

Soil-C Farming of Oz

“The Cat’s Cradle”
Improving Agricultural Productivity and Economic Viability through Improved Understanding of Natural Systems


Michael Shellenberger & Ted Nordhaus .'s picture
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