Global Warming: Playing Fast and Loose in Policy, Proof and Politics

By Harold Brown

Harold Brown, Senior Fellow, Georgia Public Policy Foundation

Harold Brown 

Global warming (climate change) is not just a scientific subject but also a technical-social-political scramble. Several recent episodes illustrate this; just one has been widely reported.

First, most recent and receiving the greatest media attention: Just days after the appointment of Scott Pruitt as the new administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency came the reports on the court-ordered release this week of thousands of emails between Pruitt and “fossil fuel companies like Koch Industries and Devon Energy” when he was Oklahoma’s attorney general.

The Associated Press, noting Pruitt’s office contacted the lobbyist for his utility (AEP) after his power went out, reported the emails reveal “cozy ties” between Pruitt “and those that profit from burning fossil fuels. AEP generates about 60 percent of its electricity from coal, creating planet-warming carbon emissions that Pruitt is now charged with regulating.” Numerous environmental activist groups are quoted denouncing Pruitt, despite no evidence of wrongdoing.

Second, and highly downplayed, is an accusation of data fudging in a study published in the journal Science. The accusation was made by climatologist John Bates, principal scientist for the past 14 years at the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).  Bates criticized Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s climate data archive, for rushing to publish a study in Science (June 2015) to disprove the levelling of global temperature since the 1990s.

Bates said, “They had good data from buoys. And they threw it out and ‘corrected’ it by using the bad data from ships. You never change good data to agree with bad, but that’s what they did – so as to make it look as if the sea was warmer,” Britain’s Mail on Sunday newspaper reported.

Bates suggested in The Mail on Sunday and the Washington Times that the study’s release was meant to influence deliberations at the U.N. Climate Conference in Paris later that year.

The third incident is related to the second. Georgia Tech climatologist Judith Curry retired in January, in apparent frustration over the global warming controversy. On her website, Climate Etc, she wrote, “A deciding factor was that I no longer know what to say to students and postdocs regarding how to navigate the CRAZINESS in the field of climate science.”

Bates is a longtime friend and collaborator of Curry’s, having served on committees supervising her graduate students. The two began discussing the problems with Karl’s article soon after it was published. Curry connected Bates with a Mail on Sunday reporter visiting Atlanta for another article. Bates, Karl and Curry all retired within the past year.

Finally, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS) has reset its “Doomsday Clock,” which dramatizes the danger of atomic weapons for civilization. In 1947, it was set at 7 minutes to midnight to indicate how close the earth was to destruction. In 1953, when the United States announced its hydrogen bomb project, the hand was moved to 2 minutes to midnight. (Highlighting the guesswork involved, during the 1960s and 1970s nuclear warheads increased from 20,000 to 50,000 globally yet the clock’s setback, ranged from 7 to 12 minutes before midnight.) Doomsday was “delayed” because of the greater contact and treaties among the nuclear powers.

In 1991, the clock was set at its safest (17 minutes to midnight), because the Cold War was officially over – even though 50,000 warheads remained. Almost inexplicably, the minute hand has moved ever closer to midnight since then, despite decreasing nuclear warheads (10,000 in 2013).  

Doomsday apparently doesn’t depend solely on atomic bombs. Doomsday prophets have always fixated on the goal more than the cause. If atomic bombs don’t destroy civilization, they feel that something else will. So in 2007, global warming went “nuclear,” so to speak, and the Doomsday Clock was moved forward from 7 to 5 minutes before midnight.

For the first time, the atomic scientists concluded, “Climate change… presents a dire challenge to humanity. … flooding, destructive storms, increased drought, and polar ice melt are causing loss of life and property.”

Since January, the clock is at 2.5 minutes before midnight, the closest to Doomsday since 1953. The reason: the 2016 elections and what they mean for nuclear security and global warming.

The Science and Security Board of the BAS claimed, “the statements of a single person – particularly one not yet in office – have not historically influenced the board’s decision …”

Then it goes on to mention the incoming Trump administration more than a dozen times in reporting the reasons for moving the clock so close to Doomsday.

Who says politics is not tainting climate science?

University of Georgia Professor Emeritus Harold Brown is a Senior Fellow with the Georgia Public Policy Foundation and author of, “The Greening of Georgia: The Improvement of the Environment in the Twentieth Century.” The Georgia Public Policy Foundation is an independent, nonprofit, state-focused think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (February 24, 2017). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.