Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Is it warm in here, or is it only me?

I read recently that leading Australian climate scientists have been moved from place to place to protect them against threats on their lives, so deep is the wrath of climate change deniers.

This sort of extremism always puzzles me, like those opponents of animal research in science who are willing to kill the researchers.

The rights and wrongs of animal research is at least a legitimate moral question, about which reasonable people, including scientists, can disagree. But that's not quite the same thing as the issue of human-induced global warming, which is ultimately a matter of gathering and interpreting data, a process that in the best of all possible worlds can be conducted in an objective manner. Global warming is not a moral issue; it's either happening or it's not.

But don't tell that to the deniers. They are not interested in data. Their bias is anti-science to start with. Indeed, in their view, climate scientists are perpetrating a colossal hoax. Rush Limbaugh says climate-change scientists should be "named and fired, drawn and quartered."

It is reasonable, I suppose, to be a climate change skeptic. Climate is a stupendously complex system, and we surely don't yet fully understand all the ways the Earth has of regulating its average temperature. The human body, for example, has fits of chills and fever, and can bring itself back into equilibrium; why not the Earth?

But we are not talking skepticism, we are talking denial, often by the same people who deny -- against all evidence -- that the universe is more than 10,000 years old or that humans have descended from other species over millions of years.

Why? Partly, I think, it is knee-jerk anti-science, fed by the likes of Limbaugh and his ilk. Partly it is the influence of right-wing think tanks that are ideologically disposed to resist any restraint on free enterprise. Partly it is Tea-Partyish resentment of any institution that would restrict an individual's right to do whatever he damn well pleases. Partly it is the biasing effect of money from the oil companies and other vested interests. Partly it is a natural resistance to be preached at by do-gooders. And partly it is a manifestation of a longstanding antipathy between "tree huggers" and "exploiters."

I have an inside glimpse of the issue. My daughter Maureen is a climatologist who has made important contributions to understanding climate change. I detect no hint of conspiracy or hoax, no cabal, no vested interest. She gathers her data and follows it wherever it leads (I described some of this in posts June3-10). And, as near as I can see, the data leads to conclusions that at the very least should prompt a calm, rational discussion of the wisest political response.

The evidence for human-induced global warming is compelling for the overwhelming majority of scientists. What, pray, do they have to gain one way or the other? Well, never mind. Nature bats last.