The art of science bashing

Last week’s IPCC report was supposed to quell uncertainty over global warming, but it ignited a new round of science bashing.

by Holly Lahd

The consensus smoking gun of global warming science came out last Friday in the form of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And it seems one person (or animal, I should say) got a sneak peek.

That’s right, the groundhog Punxsutawney Phil must have read the IPCC report issued last Friday. The famous groundhog predicted that spring will come early since he didn’t see his shadow. Not only that, but an excerpt from Punxsutawney Phil’s official proclamation shows just how much global warming was weighing on the mind of this special groundhog: “Global warming has caused a great debate. This mild winter makes it seem just great.” Perhaps global warming is a welcome effect for weather-predicting groundhogs like Phil, but the rest of us should be a little nervous from this new IPCC report.

In case you missed it, the IPPC report summary for policymakers issued last Friday says it’s “very likely” – with a statistical 90 percent probability – that humans are the cause of global warming. In addition, warming is likely to continue for centuries even if greenhouse gases were stabilized. Andrew Weaver, a Canadian scientist who contributed to the report, went so far as to say that the report “Öisn’t a smoking gun; climate is a battalion of intergalactic smoking missiles.”

With 600 authors from 40 different countries and delegates from 113 governments participating in the review process, this consensus report has been in the works for years. This is the fourth such report from the IPCC since it’s inception in 1988.

United Nations officials made sweeping predictions that this report could once and for all end global warming uncertainties. Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nation’s Environment Programme, said “Feb. 2 will perhaps one day be remembered as the day the question mark was removed.”

Yet what was supposed to be the smoking gun evidence for global warming has been manipulated into another round of uncertainties and science bashing in some circles. The infamous Sen. James Inhofe declared it a “corruption of science,” and the White House reaffirmed its opposition to mandatory caps on greenhouse gases.

Some scientists have raised concerns about the underreporting of sea level rise projections in the report summary by not including potential mainland ice melting. Some other critics have jumped on the debate within the IPCC body on these projections of future sea level changes and other details to continue their rally for persistent uncertainty in the minds of the American public. The conservative nature of science may ensure that there will never be enough certainty for some critics.

Why is it so popular in some circles to bash scientists? Perhaps it pays to discredit scientists. There are entire TV programs on cable that relish the ratings from putting one scientist versus another alleged scientist

and letting them battle with statistics. Or maybe it’s that we just can’t

relate to them. The language of confidence levels of uncertainty and the specific wording of scientific rhetoric can alienate some people. And real consensus doesn’t sell a ton of papers either.

Yes, scientists are people with their own set of opinions, but those who are at the top of their craft are careful not to let those opinions interfere with their research and outcomes. In fact, the IPCC officials were careful to not interject their policy preferences during the report press conference.

When asked what policies she would like to see to deal with global warming, Dr. Susan Solomon articulated her role well: “I believe that is a societal choice. I believe science is one input to that choice, and I also believe science can best serve society by refraining from going beyond its expertise, so I do not feel that it would be in the best interest of society making this decision in the most responsible way for me to push for urgency or action.”

I could speculate further why certain officials and media outlets seem to thrive on the discrediting and bashing of scientists and intergovernmental bodies like the IPCC, but the answer is fairly obvious. The truth may be that those who are successful in perpetuating any level of uncertainty are trying to delay the inevitable – a cap on greenhouse emissions and drastic changes in our energy system.

Can’t we stop bashing the United Nations and dismiss the politicization charges against science and now move forward to do something with this scientific consensus? Or can we just continue this tired debate on the blogosphere while at the same time weaning ourselves off costly carbon-based fuels anyway? Because after all, if a groundhog can get it, I hope our policymakers can too.

Holly Lahd welcomes comments at [email protected].