“Junk Science” and the Environmental Ethic

There are compelling reasons for the U.S. to develop alternative energy sources, and compelling reasons for all Americans to change their lifestyle and to begin conserving resources. But global warming does not have to be one of them. I’m not sure that global warming can be one of them.

Yes, the earth appears to be warming. But I am beginning to seriously doubt that there is scientific evidence that supports that a) greenhouse emissions are causing global warming or b) human beings can stop or reverse that warming. The late author Michael Crichton made many salient points about how consensus is being confused with peer-reviewed scientific findings, and he was, if not denounced for it, marginalized by the media, in my opinion. His most salient point is that we cannot possibly predict what the issues the world will face in 50 years, let alone 100 or more, and that basing policy on those faux predictions based on what some are calling “junk science” is ill-advised, even dangerous.

But the green ethic is not only a good one, but an essential one for our survival. And what I wish Mr. Crichton, who had an enviable cultural platform before he died last year of cancer, had done, and what I wish others like him still would do is address the nuance in the conversation about the reasons why we need to go green. Instead it would appear we are all rushing to one of two poles: the green crowd or the drill-baby-drill crowd. And both sides are using if not junk science then a strictly either/or rhetorical construction to win converts. It’s become a holy war instead of a cooperative. And that doesn’t bode well for conservation or energy innovation.

Let’s say that we can’t reverse what appears to me to be a rise in the earth’s temperature. Let’s say that Climatologist Roy W. Spencer is right when he asserts that “clouds in the climate system not only limit the effect of humanity on climate, but can themselves cause global warming or cooling.” Or that we accept the emerging and, admittedly, yet-to-be-rigorously-tested data that suggests a rush to policy-making is ill-advised because we still don’t know enough.

Even if we suspect or even know that we humans cannot stop or reverse global warming, there are still compelling reasons to warrant going green. What I fear is that in our haste to get environmentalists and politicians (like Al Gore) and organizations (like the United Nations) all on board to act, we are obfuscating other scientific findings that oppose this juggernaut of group-think. This works against green initiatives in the end. Opposing views (and more importantly people whose support we need) are shouted down and, in the words of Mr. Crichton, proves the postmodernists’ claims “that science is just another form of raw power, tricked out in special claims for truth-seeking and objectivity that really have no basis in fact.”

I do not believe that science is immune from what we used to call in graduate school during the early 90s the “social construction of reality.” But science, which has been rightly lauded for bringing the world into extraordinary enlightenment and even safety, needs to maintain its integrity by rigorously questioning itself and not becoming the new Mother Church calling the new Galileos “heretics.” I agree with Mr. Crichton that this sort of character assassination and reckless consensus-building in the science world is happening. The scientific conversation in the best sense of that phrase needs to continue under its own standards. If those standards have been compromised of late, and I believe they have by the likes of science sexifier Carl Sagan, then there needs to be some house cleaning.

There isn’t enough acknowledgment of people like me: people who believe that global warming is happening but that it is part of a natural, historical cycle and cannot be impacted by humans; people who still believe we must proceed with alternative fuel production and drastically increased conservation and lifestyle adjustment. That’s why I’m blogging this.

I do appreciate the esteemed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman who recently talked about the need to pass cap and trade regulations for greenhouse gasses. He at least acknowledges that there are other compelling reasons besides global warming to proceed with developing an environmental conscience. And too, he brought up the lunatic fringe which is quickly moving to the center of political discourse. That fringe is madly conjuring apocalyptic reasons (the world is ending anyway) as well as good old-fashioned denial of the flattening of the world, to use Friedman coinage, to fight green initiatives.

These biblically-based, right wing voices (like Sarah Palin) must be fought as rigorously as the science community needs to fight for its procedural integrity. But my point here is that there are environmental folks spewing their own eco-apocalypse rantings who need to be resisted. Or, in the best world, tempered by measured responses underscored by nuance, integrity and fierce commitment to the democratic process.

In December 2009 many of the world’s nations assembled in Copenhagen to discuss, among other related things, global warming. I didn’t follow the proceedings too closely, but it was easy to be caught up in the romance of it all, and I wondered if perhaps the end justifies the means sometimes. We need greener economies for a host of reasons. I firmly believe that. But there is something counterproductive and counterintuitive about how we marginalize, hereticize and ignore the countervailing voices within the science community. Too many times the lone voice calling in the wilderness, like Galileo, proved prophetic…to our peril as a community.

Copyright, David G. Pace, 2010