Stephen Colbert famously complained that "reality has a liberal bias." Now, as 192 nations meet in Copenhagen on climate change, the Right and Business have seized on some stolen emails to argue against the nearly unanimous scientific judgment that global warming is a real and present danger. We've seen this movie before...call it Fatal Distraction.
There's the scientific method, until recently not identified with a particular party or ideology, which questions premises with examples, evidence, and peer-reviewed studies. And then there's a faith-based method of reasoning, which basically is more catechistic than empiric -- that is, instead of facts leading to conclusions, conclusions lead to facts. At the intersection of science and politics, remember Terry Schiavo and tobacco causing cancer?
Because the Schiavo story was appealing to to pro-life conservatives -- notwithstanding every medical diagnosis -- Republican leaders from President Bush to Majority Leader Tom DeLay to Senator Bill Frist all argued in 2005 that this brain-dead woman was alive and that her husband shouldn't exercise an end-of-life decision.
And in 1994, eight tobacco executives swore under oath that they didn't know whether tobacco caused cancer. Yes, there were countless correlations between smoking and the deaths of smokers -- first declared as fact in the 1964 Surgeon's General Report -- but was there proof?
For a while in both cases, politics trumped science, as Lysenko-ism infected public policy. Lysenko was the Soviet biologist who conveniently came up with the theory that learned traits could be inherited. Soviet authorities were only too happy to adopt this hoax in the service of pushing the notion that their people were a self-replicating superior breed. This foolishness set back Soviet science for decades.
Now some hacked and publicized emails from The Climate Research Unit in Great Britain have energized those who deny the existence of global warming. Out of thousands of emails, one quotes a scientist referring to a "trick" used to massage temperature statistics to "hide the decline" in temperatures. Limbaugh and Beck quickly cited the emails as proof that global warming itself was a trick. Sarah Palin concluded that President Obama should avoid Copenhagen until the emails were further investigated. Republican Congressman Darrell Issa denounced the Obama administration for using "flawed science created by a community of bullies to push through ideologically based policies."
So here's where we are: our Energy and EPA offices, the governments of nearly all the world's countries and the scientific community believe that heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide and methane) produced by human activity is the major contributor to a .4C degree increase in temperature since the 1970s and, if uninterrupted, will lead to a 4C degree increase by 2100, which will dramatically raise sea levels, drown millions, drastically limit rainfall in some areas and bring extreme weather in others.
On the other side are coal executives, conservative radio show hosts, Sarah Palin et al and a handful of skeptics saying more proof and debate is necessary before adopting public policies that could reduce jobs in America.
First, while some jobs will be lost in coal-producing states, many other "green" jobs will be produced in a shift to a low-carbon economy in solar, alternate energy, weatherization and other sectors.
But second, and more significantly, it's true that more exchange and debate sounds appealing, like when President Bush suggested that both evolution and creationism should be taught in classrooms. But it's one thing if two schools of thought should be taught in religion class, another if they should be taught in science class, since one school is science-based and the other is faith-based. And quite another if your house is burning down and two insurance companies are debating who should assume liability while fire trucks are kept waiting.
With the polar ice caps melting and some coastal cities starting to submerge -- and the science community concurring with near unanimity that human activity is the precipitating cause -- a few emails from some loose-lipped scientists kibutzing among themselves should not and will not throw a monkey wrench into the Copenhagen Summit. As the UN Panel on Climate Change announced at the start of the talks yesterday, "We've run out of time."
There's a fair debate over how much reduction President Obama should pledge when he represents the American position next week -- as low as 13% by 2020 or as much as 25% suggested by the UN Panel. But there's no satisfying opponents who fulfill the axiom that "to the jaundiced eye all looks yellow" -- modern-day Luddites who elevate politics and profits above science and who always demanded more and more scientific proof that smoking causes cancer and that man descended from apes. Now that they mention it, has anyone actually seen an ape grow into a man?
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