Global Warming and Political Intimidation

By Bryan Walker 05/07/2011

Climatologist Raymond Bradley has come out fighting in his new short book Global Warming and Political Intimidation: How Politicians Cracked Down on Scientists as the Earth Heated Up. It’s a lively, albeit sobering narrative which recounts his and others’ experience of harassment, character assassination and unfounded accusation from the politicians who serve fossil fuel interests in the US Congress.

Bradley has worked in climatology since the 1970s and explains in the prologue that it’s only as he has gradually learned more about the subject and scientific evidence has accumulated, that, like almost every other climatologist on the planet, he’s become convinced that global warming is a critical issue that requires urgent attention. He was one of the three authors of Michael Mann’s 1998 Nature article and follow-on studies which produced the so-called hockey stick graph demonstrating the recent warming as unprecedented in the last 1000 years. The graph became the focus of attack by deniers who seemed to think that if it was refuted the whole edifice of climate science would crumble.

’Nothing could have been further from the truth, as concern over global warming rests on a vast array of scientific evidence, of which the hockey stick is but a minuscule part.’

Bradley describes a Senate committee hearing in 2000 chaired by Senator McCain who, in a time before the issue became quite so heavily politicised along party lines, had asked Senator Kerry to share in inviting scientists to testify. It was a positive occasion, and although John Christy, one of the five invited, trotted out the themes of carbon dioxide as a plant food and climate as always changing, the warnings of the others were ’clear, consistent, and stark’. The senators listened and understood and McCain for a time became a global warming evangelist within the Republican Party.

Bradley’s next encounter with a congressional committee was deeply disturbing. In 2005 he and his co-authors of the hockey stick paper received an extraordinary letter from the chairman of the House Energy Committee, Congressman Joe Barton, and the chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Congressman Ed Whitfield. It referred to a Wall Street Journal article reporting methodological flaws and data errors in the authors’ studies of the historical records of temperatures and climate change. The chairmen wanted to know whether obligations concerning the sharing of information developed or disseminated with federal support had been appropriately met. They set out a long list of comprehensive demands regarding all financial support received for the research, all agreements related to funding, the location of all data archives and many details as to how the data was used, what response was made to requests for data and why. They also demanded explanation in detail of the authors’ work for the IPCC, right down to inquisitorial questions as to the steps they took to ensure the soundness of the data underlying the studies forming the basis for the key findings of the IPCC report. Finally they required a detailed narrative explanation of the errors in their studies alleged by McIntyre and McKitrick (neither of them climate scientists) in a paper in Energy and Environment.

It’s a chilling list, and Bradley’s conclusion when he’d recovered from the initial shock is well justified:

’This was not a legitimate inquiry; it was politics, impure but simple. We had unwittingly stumbled into a minefield where the players were the energy companies with infinite financial resources, along with Washington lobbying fronts and political hacks in Congress.’

Many rallied around the scientists in the face of this assault, including Republican Congressman Sherwood Boehlert to whom the book is dedicated. He wrote to Barton:

’My primary concern about your investigation is that its purpose seems to be to intimidate scientists rather than to learn from them, and to substitute Congressional political review for scientific peer review. That would be pernicious.’

The fact that the science was vindicated didn’t stop Congressman Barton announcing yet another hearing at which the infamous Wegman report was presented. Bradley summarises:

’The goal of Congressman Barton, Senator Inhofe, and others like them is to ensure that legislation to control greenhouse gases is never passed by the U.S. Congress. Their strategy, like that of the tobacco industry in the past, is to sow the seeds of doubt about climate science, and if that means destroying the reputations of those who carry out the science, so be it.’

The book carries a very interesting account of the pioneering work which went into the reconstruction represented in the hockey stick graph, and the vast amounts of data involved. In the 1999 paper which extended the period covered by the graph back from 1400 to 1000 Bradley points to the title as a sign of the caution with which the authors proceeded: ’Northern Hemisphere Temperatures during the Past Millennium: Inferences, Uncertainties, and Limitations.’ He also offers an illuminating account of the role of peer review in testing advances in scientific knowledge. Indeed throughout the book there is a strong underlying sense of science as the work of a community of people constantly analysing and evaluating the findings that emerge.

Mention must be made of the global warming primer provided in one of the chapters of the book. Maintaining the conversational tone which marks much of the book Bradley leads the reader through an admirably clear and logical traverse of the central findings of the science. His account of the warming globe includes explanations of how carefully the instrumental data from the last 150 years has been collected and given appropriate weight, an enterprise he was engaged with in one of his early research projects. He explains the part played by the trace greenhouse gases in producing the warming and highlights the threatening speed with which the changes are occurring.

Tackling the problem is already daunting.  If we get to 450 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and were then to stop altogether it would still take a thousand years for the level to return naturally to 350 ppm. Bradley acknowledges the inadequacies of the Kyoto Protocol but still sees it as critically important because for the first time the greenhouse gas problem was universally acknowledged and it set most nations of the world on the path to emissions reduction. He finds some reason for hope on the grounds that we are moving, however laboriously, in the right direction.

The doubt merchants still do everything they can to stop the needed actions. Bradley surveys some of the campaigns they have mounted and continue to pursue. Climategate was one of the worst, and the hounding of Phil Jones appalling.

’Phil is a great guy, as honest as the day is long, and his research has always been careful, thoughtful and significant. The notion that he would purposely manipulate data to deceive anybody is completely ludicrous.’

Bradley’s book is a valuable insight into the harrying that many climate scientists have had to endure over the past two decades. It lets us see what it is like to be on the receiving end of political intimidation and ranting deniers in the media and the blogosphere. These scientists, who have simply gone about their work as they should, have been reviled and threatened, sometimes at high levels of government. Powerful vested interests have gone to war against the science which reveals the dangers threatening humankind. Bradley uses the word malevolent only once, and evil not at all, but both words came to my mind frequently.

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