Tag Archives: climate change

Witch Hunts and Politics as Science – Virginia Edition

Posted by Nick

Michael Mann gets in the news a lot, recently for the wrong reasons.  I feel bad for the guy, but I also hate the way the science of climate change gets represented in the media whenever he comes up.  It remains very clear to anybody remotely familiar with science or reasonably willing to evaluate information and then form opinions based on it that global warming is a very real phenomenon.  I personally believe that it is far and away the most important issue facing humanity in the next hundred years, although there are legitimate debates to be had about the rate at which climate change is occurring.  However, it is reasonable to expect that the relative dangers of climate change and the rate at which it is happening to be discussed and debated among scientists, and that ultimately scientific inquiry will determine the extent of the problem.  Unfortunately, not everybody feels that way.

Apparently Kenneth Cuccinelli, Attorney General of Virginia, is investigating Dr. Mann with the intention of determining that he used grant money improperly while he worked at the University of Virginia.  If found to be true, UVa would be required to return the money to NSF.  In his time as the Attorney General of Virginia, Cuccinelli has also challenged the EPA on fuel standards and greenhouse gases.  He clearly believes that global warming is either not happening or not a problem.  This indicates to me that he either ignores facts for political reasons or that he genuinely believes that his science education in climatology is sufficient to interpret facts in a way that disagrees with an overwhelming majority of experts in the field, making him either intellectually dishonest or very arrogant. Based on his history of using political means to challenge scientific findings, his action against Dr. Mann are nothing less than a declaration of war on scientific inquiry in the state of Virginia.  If Dr. Mann were a prominent climate change skeptic, I have no doubt that Cuccinelli would not be doing this.  The fact is that the inquiry arises simply because a man in power disagrees with the findings of a scientific investigation, and is willing to use any means necessary to discredit these findings.  Since Cuccinelli is not a scientist, he is unable to create scientific dialogue in the usual, constructive, way of publishing contrary results and generating research in an area.  Instead, he is prosecuting a scientist whose findings make his political positions untenable.

One of the beauties of science is that widely accepted theories are widely accepted because they have a large body of evidence suggesting that they are, in fact, correct.  The most distilled mission of science is to find the truth about how our universe works.  Unfortunately, Cuccinelli’s view for science in Virginia is for it to be a mockery of the truth and simply parrot back to politicians what they wish to hear.  This is an incredibly concerning development for anybody who believes that a scientific approach to physical problems is a constructive one.

Max Planck once said that “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”  While the idea of climate change is in no way a new scientific idea, I am hopeful that it will eventually be widely accepted as a problem that must be dealt with.  Unfortunately, waiting for the process Planck describes to occur will take time, which may lead us beyond the point of no return for the world.

Since I’m slow, this is probably a month or so late.  Oh well.

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Fighting fire with smog

Posted by Matt

Graeme Wood, one of the best Iraq/Afghanistan on-location correspondents I’ve read, has a review in the July/August Ideas Issue of The Atlantic of some of the more radical and potentially apocalyptic proposals to reverse the effects of global climate change. The most emblematic of these is probably the proposal that calls for tons and tons of sulfur dioxide to be pumped into the atmosphere, effectively blotting out the sun and shielding the earth’s surface from its warming effects. Other plans propose to accomplish this by different means, like a fleet of cloud-seeding ships or a giant visor in space. Still others would attempt to sequester atmospheric carbon dioxide in chemical compounds, underground, or in the oceans.

It’s not hard to imagine that these plans would have potentially disastrous consequences for local climates, flora, and fauna the world over. The question is whether these consequences are preferable to the consequences of inaction. It sounds like a question that should only be pondered by multinational coalitions. Actions with worldwide consequences should have worldwide consensus. But the danger, Wood points out, is that these “solutions” are cheap enough for a poor state or even a single (very wealthy) individual to implement should they see the need. A lone, well-intentioned crusader fed up with timidity and inaction from the state could take matters into his own hands, inflicting lasting damage on the globe in the process.

The saddest part of such a scenario would be that, despite their radical and far-reaching effects, none of these engineering projects gets to the root of the problem: irresponsible emissions levels and unsustainable lifestyles. Are we willing to accept the environmental costs of these programs simply to cover up a problem that would return if the program broke down?

I hope that these extreme scenarios will be seen as warnings to make healthy changes now rather than blueprints for a bleak future.

I will return to the idea of seeding blooms of phytoplankton to consume carbon dioxide at some point in the future. At first, the proposal seems promising, but it remains unproven and algal blooms can be devastating to oceanic ecosystems.

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