The Age Of Embarrassment

Number 12 in a series

Somehow it has come to pass that conservative politics and science don’t fit together in the same sentence. I’m guessing I first noticed this decades ago when scientists connected tobacco use with a big risk for cancer. Conservative politicians, needing to protect their base in tobacco-growing  regions, pushed back mightily. It’s been sort of downhill from there. Additional examples abound.

Sitting in on a television panel discussion I took notice of a panelist from the Cato Institute. Cato attributes to itself a libertarian philosophy, but that’s conservative enough for our purposes. The topic of discussion was a holding by a government agency (could have been the Environmental Protection Agency) that the allowable limit for arsenic in drinking water should be lowered from 50 parts per billion (ppb) to 10. The Cato guy (I do not recall  his name) argued against that. His position was the proposed limit was arbitrary and had no scientific basis. At the time I was inclined to think Mr. Cato’s concern was not so much with what was proper for public health, a subject beyond his area of expertise, but rather a matter of government intrusion. He did not go so far as to say that public health is no business of the government, but conservative thinking has reached into that dark region.

A few decades back some scientists noticed that chlorinated fluorocarbons, produced and used in industry, tend to not break down  until they reach the stratosphere. There ultraviolet radiation breaks down the molecule, releasing atomic chlorine. The free chlorine then proceeds to catalyze the decomposition of ozone in the stratosphere, allowing more ultraviolet radiation to  flood through. The obvious fix was to quit making and using these chemical compounds.

This was an obvious violation of people’s rights and an unwarranted government intrusion. Besides, the science behind it was flawed and also politically motivated. A previous editor of The North Texas Skeptic was Pat Reeder, who professed conservative (and anti-environmentalist) views. He had occasion to comment:

Of course, this could be connected to changing rainfall patterns, etc., but it seems a stretch to blame Chicago’s killer heat wave on that one degree uptick. Having lived for awhile in the northeast, I think I have an idea of why so many people died from the heat in Chicago, and the concerned citizens in the environmental movement have it in their power right now to prevent it from happening again. They don’t even have to lobby Congress or drive one of those dorky electric cars.

Most of the victims of the Chicago heat wave were elderly people in poor health, living alone, without air conditioners or the money to buy them. They weren’t acclimated to the heat, they weren’t able to overcome it, and they had nobody to look in and help them (many of the victims were buried by the city because nobody claimed the bodies). It wasn’t so much ozone breakdown that killed them as it was societal breakdown.

All right. I still have not figured out the ozone connection, but I do recall that Pat came out against it at the time.

Wouldn’t you know it? The scientists who figured out the ozone connection moseyed on up to Stockholm in 1995 and picked up the Nobel Prize for their findings. And that pretty much put the kibosh on claims of flawed science, except (trust me on this) winning a Nobel Prize doesn’t count with most conservatives. Anyhow, the governments of the world squelched CFC production and its use, the presence of these compounds in the stratosphere dwindled, and the ozone layer repaired itself with the production of more ozone up there.

But recall Pat’s remarks concerning heat deaths back in 1995. Anthropogenic global warming (AGW) remains in  dispute by conservative politicians. I will just call it global warming for convenience. It’s science. It has global human impact. The resolution requires drastic action. Therefore it must be politically-motivated and seriously-flawed science. Conservative politicians and conservative pundits have spoken.

Not only that, now that the Republican (conservative) party is in power, they have acted and have plans to continue to do so. Their standard bearer is currently Donald Trump, the Commander-in-Chief. He has the ball, and he is running with it. Things are happening. A bit of history:

The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

Snowing in Texas and Louisiana, record setting freezing temperatures throughout the country and beyond. Global warming is an expensive hoax!

It’s hard to back down from that, not saying that Donald Trump could not do it if he wanted to. He has shown signs of waffling:

WASHINGTON — President Trump announced on Thursday that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord, weakening efforts to combat global warming and embracing isolationist voices in his White House who argued that the agreement was a pernicious threat to the economy and American sovereignty.

In a speech from the Rose Garden, Mr. Trump said the landmark 2015 pact imposed wildly unfair environmental standards on American businesses and workers. He vowed to stand with the people of the United States against what he called a “draconian” international deal.

“I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” the president said, drawing support from members of his Republican Party but widespread condemnation from political leaders, business executives and environmentalists around the globe.

All right. The President missed a beat on that last note. The citizens of Pittsburgh voted predominantly for Hillary Clinton, and the city government has a positive position on combating global warming. But I did mention waffling:

Last week, President Trump announced that the United States wouldwithdraw from the Paris climate agreement. But it will take more than one speech to pull out: Under the rules of the deal, which the White House says it will follow, the earliest any country can leave is Nov. 4, 2020. That means the United States will remain a party to the accord for nearly all of Mr. Trump’s current term, and it could still try to influence the climate talks during that span.

The item appearing in The New York Times back in June has more to say about the matter:

So the next four years will be a busy time for climate policy. Mr. Trump’s aides plan to keep working to dismantle domestic climate programs like the Clean Power Plan. And the world’s nations will meet regularly to hash out details of the Paris agreement, even as the United States’ exit looms. Here is what comes next.

And there is more, obviously. What speaks most loudly is not what the Trump administration is saying but what it is doing. For one, President Trump nominated former Texas Governor Rick Perry to head up the Department of Energy, a department he swore to abolish back when he was running for the Republican nomination. Now that he is Secretary Perry, his words have weight. An opinion piece appearing in The Hill, penned by Ross McKitrick, a noted critic of global warming, has the intent of casting doubt on the science. To wit:

Policy makers and the public need to understand the extent to which major scientific institutions like the American Meteorological Society have become biased and politicized on the climate issue. Convincing them of this becomes much easier when the organizations themselves supply the evidence.

That was the first shot out of the box in a piece titled, “In the fight between Rick Perry and climate scientists, Perry is winning.” Interestingly, McKitrick went on to say:

This happened recently in response to a CNBC interview with Energy Secretary Rick Perry. He was asked “Do you believe CO2 [carbon dioxide] is the primary control knob for the temperature of the Earth and for climate?”

It was an ambiguous question that defies a simple yes or no answer. Perry thought for moment then said, “No, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment we live in.” He then went on to acknowledge the climate is changing and CO2 is having a role, but the issue is how much, and being skeptical about some of these things is “quite all right.”

It is on this point McKitrick appears to have given away the game. First of all, the question is not ambiguous. It is straight-forward. Is our major concern CO2? Yes, or no. I’m going to answer for the Secretary and say it is yes. CO2 is the item people are putting into the atmosphere, it is the constituent within the atmosphere that is rising. It is something that humans have the ability to control.

And Secretary Perry whiffs the ball: “No, most likely the primary control knob is the ocean waters and this environment we live in.” No. The primary control knob is not the ocean waters. Nothing we are doing to the ocean waters is affecting global warming, especially to the extend that CO2 is. And the environment we live in is the thing that we are affecting. It is a symptom, not a cause. Professor McKitrick is not a physical scientist. His area of expertise is “environmental economics and policy analysis.” Tellingly, he is a senior fellow of the Fraser Institute, a conservative think tank, and he is a member of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, of which he is a member of the academic advisory board. From Wikipedia:

The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation is a conservative Christian public policy group that promotes a free-market approach to care for the environment that is critical of much of the current environmental movement. In particular, the Cornwall Alliance rejects claims of detrimental global warming. Originally called the “Interfaith Stewardship Alliance” it was founded in 2005 in reaction to the efforts of evangelical leaders (such as Rick Warren) to fight global warming. The name Cornwall come from the 2000 Cornwall Declaration. The organization’s views on the environment have been strongly influenced by the wise use movement of the 1980s and 1990s.

I don’t want to make a big deal of this, but McKitrick, from all appearances, holds religious commitments that put him in the same boat with those who believe the Earth is 6000 years old, snakes and donkey’s can talk, and people can  come back to life after they have been well and truly killed. He has shed a quantity of intellectual rigor along the way.

But then, his is an opinion piece. No deep, scientific introspection is claimed here. McKitrick’s The Hill piece is significant here because it reflects the thinking of the people making science policy decisions within the Trump administration. Much of this deciding is at odds with government scientists doing the actual work. Some bonds are becoming frayed:

Scientists Fear Trump Will Dismiss Blunt Climate Report

The item appearing in The Times yesterday provides additional analysis of the draft report. Of interest is any perceived connection between global warming (for real) and specific episodes. People should be cautious attempting to attribute specific events to global warming. What is most pertinent are trends directly attributable to increased concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere:

In the United States, the report concludes with “very high” confidence that the number and severity of cool nights have decreased since the 1960s, while the frequency and severity of warm days have increased. Extreme cold waves, it says, are less common since the 1980s, while extreme heat waves are more common.

Water vapor in the atmosphere is a major greenhouse gas. It interacts with infrared radiation, keeping heat from escaping by that route. Go to a place like Tucson, Arizona, where there is little moisture in the air, and when the sun goes down there is a noticeable drop in temperature. If you could remove all the air above you, then you would obtain a more dramatic effect. You would be like an astronaut in space, without the protection of the atmosphere. Heat would be radiated from your body, and if you were shaded from  the sun and other sources of radiation, you would frost up very quickly.

As CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere increase, any specific place on  planet will experience less cooling when the sun goes down. That’s global warming in  action. The long range effects will be profound.

The study examines every corner of the United States and finds that all of it was touched by climate change. The average annual temperature in the United States will continue to rise, the authors write, making recent record-setting years “relatively common” in the near future. It projects increases of 5.0 to 7.5 degrees Fahrenheit (2.8 to 4.8 degrees Celsius) by the late century, depending on the level of future emissions.

The ability of political power to shape the narrative is evident. Some examples:

At the Interior Department, a climate scientist who has shared his thoughts on global warming was recently reassigned — to accountant. At the Agriculture Department, the man Trump has chosen to head science as undersecretary of agriculture for research, education and economics has no formal hard sciences background. At the Environmental Protection Agency, where the administration has successfully delayed a number of regulations drafted under President Barack Obama, Administrator Scott Pruitt is aiming to get more industry voices into the scientific process.

You should read the complete item posted by CNN. Those in power are enlisting the support of global warming opponents to accommodate interests of business groups that will be affected. The idea trotted forth is that these groups have a vested interest in the outcome and must be heard. Apparently the truth is negotiable.

We are presently deep into the Age of Embarrassment, and there will be more. Keep reading.

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