The Climate-Change Wars

Reviewed by Ellen Griffith Spears

Global Warming and Political Intimidation: How Politicians Cracked Down on Scientists as the Earth Heated Up. Raymond S. Bradley. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011.

By now, the invocation of the persecuted seventeenth-century scientist Galileo Galilei by Texas governor Rick Perry to support his rejection of climate-change science during the Republican primaries may seem an all-but-forgotten odd moment in the 2012 presidential campaign. Perry mangled the history, seeming, in fact, to make a point directly counter to that which he intended—“ Galileo got outvoted for a spell”—but the climate-change wars reverberate nonetheless through politics and the academy, constituting a potentially far-reaching threat to scientific investigation and academic freedom. Evidence for this claim is documented in Raymond S. Bradley’s recent book, Global Warming and Political Intimidation.

University Distinguished Professor of Geosciences and director of the Climate System Research Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Bradley has more than thirty-five years’ experience in climate-science research. He originally studied the glacial era, but he became interested in contemporary climate patterns once breakthroughs in climate-modeling technology using data from “natural archives such as tree rings, ice cores, corals and sediments” made realistic future projections possible. The attempts of right-wing politicians to outvote the carefully considered research by an overwhelming majority of global climate-change scholars, Bradley argues, reveal a larger concern: character assaults leveled at scientists who study the effects of human actions on temperature rise threaten scientific integrity more generally. His book is a cautionary tale about the politicization of science.

Holding science prisoner to politics is hardly new. Science has always been political, from well before the persecution of Galileo through the trial of secondary-school science teacher John Thomas Scopes in 1925 for teaching evolution to the “textbook wars” that persist today. What makes these recent attempts to smother scientific independence especially problematic is the extent of congressional and state-legislative intervention. Bradley points, for example, to language in one Clinton-era agricultural appropriations bill that actually blocked the administration from further negotiations on the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, the international agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. (The United States is the lone signatory country to Kyoto that has failed to ratify the treaty.)

A number of other scholars have detailed the well-funded energy industry assault on climate-change scientists and their studies in the context of a broader attack on scientific research. For example, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, in Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, document just how long the climate-change consensus has been developing and detail the orchestrated campaign to derail government actions addressing it. Escaping governmental regulation is frequently the aim of industry attacks. Industry strategists have reacted with particular venom to those scholars who, like Bradley, regard it as their social responsibility to advocate for a governmental response to global warming.

What makes the book compelling is Bradley’s own story. His personal run-ins with the congressional forces out to clip the wings of science began innocuously enough, with testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. In accessible prose, Bradley spells out the details of his experience and explains the science, giving the reader useful background on global warming. His occasional flippant asides, however entertaining, sometimes detract from his argument, but this concise, personal, and lively book offers warnings that we ignore at our peril.

 As Bradley’s experience suggests, the political assault on climate-change science is especially problematic because it contributes to the difficulty world leaders are having in coming to agreement on a global strategy to address global warming. A succession of meetings since the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change formed in 1988, including Kyoto (1997), Copenhagen (2010), and now Durban (2011), have failed to reduce carbon emissions significantly, largely because developed nations such as the United States continue to demand that developing nations first agree to substantial reductions in emissions. A five-year extension of the Kyoto Protocol negotiated in Durban is positive. “We avoided a train wreck and we got some useful incremental decisions,” Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists told the Associated Press at the close of the December 2011 conference in South Africa. But incremental steps have done little to slow escalating carbon emissions by the two biggest polluters, the United States and China. A revolution in both political will and technological solutions will be necessary to meet growing energy demand without increasing carbon emissions. Little can be accomplished if climate scientists must forego valuable research time to respond to overburdening requests for the release of all raw data (including documents provided to researchers with stipulations limiting release) and specious political attacks.

Bradley devotes several pages to “Climategate,” the “gotcha” moment in 2009 when global-warming deniers revealed hacked private e-mails that, they claimed, exposed efforts by scientists who have documented anthropogenic climate change to block the publication of research that ran counter to their views. Press attention focused not on the illegality of the theft of private e-mail but on what appeared to be damaging language in the purloined e-mails of climate scientists. Bradley acknowledges the damaging comments but rejects the claim that climate-change scientists themselves are restricting free debate about global warming.

Bradley’s argument also reaches beyond global warming, addressing fundamental concerns about scientific integrity and academic freedom. Can this ill-conceived politicization of science lead us to a strengthening of safeguards—especially in the face of declining tenure rates and the associated loss of academic freedom protections? Will colleges and universities continue to uphold their commitment to support scholars who challenge powerful interests? Bradley’s news on this front is encouraging. He reports that the University of Virginia invoked Thomas Jefferson’s tradition of the “illimitable freedom of the human mind” in backing Bradley’s research colleague Michael Mann. “Unfettered debate and the expression of conflicting ideas without fear of reprisal are the cornerstones of academic freedom [, . . . which are] carefully guarded First Amendment concerns,” UVA officials responded to the state attorney general’s civil investigative demand. “Investigating the merits of a university researcher’s methodology, results, and conclusions (on climate change or any topic),” wrote university officials, “goes far beyond the Attorney General’s limited power.” The University of Massachusetts likewise supported Bradley.

Bradley closes the book on what he regards as an upbeat note about climate policy, citing legislation then before Congress to cap carbon emissions and allow producers to trade unused pollution credits, but that legislation went down to defeat. One cause for optimism is action at the state level, including California’s decision last year to establish a “cap-and-trade” system that will be the world’s second largest after the European Union’s.

Environmental historian Ellen Griffith Spears is an assistant professor in the Department of American Studies and the interdisciplinary New College at the University of Alabama. Her forthcoming book, Baptized in PCBs: Race, Pollution, and Redemption in the New South’s Model City, explores competing scientific claims in environmental public health. Her e-mail address is egspears@as.ua.edu.

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