The Inquisition of Climate Science

By Bryan Walker 05/09/2011


’…in the denial of global warming, we are witnessing the most vicious, and so far most successful, attack on science in history.’ Those strong words are from James Lawrence Powell in his recent book The Inquisition of Climate Science. The book chronicles the campaign of denial which has resulted in the widespread failure of public understanding of climate science and the long delay in addressing what is now an urgent and pressing threat to the human future.

Powell, a former geology professor, college president and museum director who also served as a member of the US National Science Board for twelve years, is rightly disturbed at the treatment meted out to climate science. The evidence of global warming has accumulated over the past twenty years until it has become overwhelming. Yet climate scientists have been denounced and ridiculed, their ethics and honesty have been questioned, and Congressional committees have subjected them to Kafkaesque interrogation. A sustained attempt has been made to attempt to neutralise a whole field of science. Science denial is so widespread that ’reason itself is threatened’.

The book explains the consensus that obtains in the scientific world on the reality of global warming. Powell offers a very useful description of the process of peer-reviewed publication of papers by which science advances. He quotes Dr James Baker, former head of NOAA, as saying that there’s better scientific consensus on the issue of climate science than on any he knows — except maybe Newton’s second law of dynamics. Powell then offers a brief account of the history of the science from Fourier in 1824 to the present and a description of the greenhouse effect as ’one of the oldest and most thoroughly studied ideas in science’. He concludes that the core evidence for global warming is plain and fits on a single chart. It is backed by simple observation of ’the abundant, incontrovertible, and growing evidence that the earth actually is warming’.

Enter the small group of scientist-deniers who have played such a useful role in the denial industry’s public relations campaigns. They turn up again and again among the ’experts’ the media use to ’balance’ mainstream science. They write the books that deny global warming. They speak at the Heartland Institute conferences. They are ’research associates’ of the denier organisations. Powell examines some of them. Fred Singer, one of the best-credentialed, has a record of denial that includes tobacco smoke, ozone depletion, acid rain and toxic waste. Patrick J Michaels is a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute; he claims that climate models have failed. Richard Lindzen has the most relevant credentials in climate science but does not hesitate to attack even colleagues as selling out their scientific integrity for grant money. He too denies any adverse health effects from second-hand smoke and questions the linking of smoking to lung cancer.  Distinguished theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson scoffs at climate models, though his last acquaintance with them appears to have been in the 1970s. He is particularly critical of James Hansen who he claims has turned science into ideology.

Powell also highlights a few non-scientist deniers. Washington Post columnist George Will deals in cherry-picking and plain untruth in matters such as Arctic sea ice decline.  Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear portrays the science of climate change as weak and disputed by the scientists themselves, presents scientists as willing to distort their findings in order to achieve their ideological goals, and posits a media and intelligentsia as suckers for the latest doomsday fad. Bjorn Lomborg now agrees that global warming is real and manmade, but claims it is not urgent and that trying to prevent it will be very expensive and not money well spent. The ubiquitous Christopher Monckton speaks nonsense with an air of authority. Powell marvels at the deniers’ assurance that they are right and the global community of scientists are wrong.

He offers a quick guide to the confusing array of ’toxic tanks’ modelled on and sometimes supported by the conservative think tanks which have become so influential an institution in American politics. The Global Climate Coalition, the Heartland Institute, the George C Marshall Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute are commented on. Myron Ebell, the spokesman for the last named recommends burning more fossil fuel to deal with global warming on the grounds that the more prosperous the energy industry becomes the more quickly it will be able to replace its fossil fuel plants with new technology. Like other deniers Ebell reserves special venom for James Hansen.

The most profitable company in history, ExxonMobil, has been a powerful funder of denier organisations, and continues in that role albeit claiming to have cut back on such funding. Powell juxtaposes his discussion of ExxonMobil with a report on the massive industry ’that cannot afford denial’ — the insurance industry, with revenues three times as large as Big Oil.  It’s the big re-insurers in particular who may cause a realignment of the corporate response to global warming, as they demand attention to global warming from companies and industries which seek insurance at an affordable price.

The US media have played a key role in aiding the denial industry. Right-wing outlets like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal make no bones about their plain espousal of denial, but the media pillars, the Washington Post and the New York Times, are also guilty of complicity by their failure of understanding or their laziness or by a misguided attempt to be balanced. Powell details some of their failures to do simple fact-checks of what they publish, giving an unwarranted status and credence to the claims of deniers.

There are no research findings that falsify global warming. The denial industry is built on discredited claims and ultimately can only resort to the ridiculous notion that a global community of thousands of scientists have joined a vast international conspiracy without precedent in human history – ’a corrupt criminal enterprise to dwarf the Mafia’. It is absurd, yet it is openly entertained by prominent US politicians and voiced by eager propagandists.

Climate science is to be trusted. Powell is sure of this. It has been assembled by thousands of scientists ’plying the deep oceans, forbidding deserts, icy poles and torrid jungles’ as well as working in their laboratories.  It has been through all the self-correcting work that peer review demands. The evidence is overwhelming and irrefutable. The western world has trusted science and achieved a standard of living and a life expectancy unimaginable even two centuries ago. Why distrust it now, for no good reason and at the very moment it warns of the greatest threat ever to face humanity? Powell is absolutely right to see that as the abandonment of reason and of our uniquely human ability to imagine the future.

Powell’s book covers ground that is becoming familiar as others also delve into the background of the denial campaign.  But his treatment is comprehensive while remaining compact and accessible and he brings his own independent researching to the story. Above all he brings a stout defence of the science with an underlying warning of how profound are the implications of the attacks it has suffered. For me they raise the spectre of a society which has lost its intellectual bearings and surrendered to irrationality.