March 5, 2017

A March for Science Is Actually Long Overdue

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 2:08 pm

The scientific community is divided about the planned March for Science.  Adherents say that it is necessary to direct the public eye to the plight of scientific enterprise in an administration that apparently (and as many of us predicted) does not value scientific expertise.  Detractors argue that the march would serve to politicize science and “turn scientists into another interest group.”

With all due respect to these views, I submit that science has already been politicized, and it was not the doing of the scientific community.

I’ve had this debate before.  Some on social media like to argue that “advocacy” undermines scientific integrity somehow, or that stating an opinion about policies that are relevant to one’s research is a conflict of interest.  I deeply disagree with both positions, and in fact, I think that the scientific community’s rigid adherence to the idea that “scientists don’t have political opinions” is a part of why we’re in the situation that we’re in.

You see, those in politics who have a problem with science—climate-change deniers, anti-vaccination activists, evolution deniers, anti-NASA advocates, whatever they may be—know very well that science and policy are intertwined.  Scientists who assert that their research into climate change, medicine, etc., has no social policy dimension are saying something that, quite frankly, nobody else finds credible.  It comes across as an attempt at deception, whether of oneself or of the general public, and it does not help the scientist’s case.

I’m going to propose that something like the following is what a layperson hears instead:

“My climate research has found a link between severe drought and global change, but don’t get me wrong—that’s not political!  It’s just pure science.  I’m not saying that any government should attempt to do anything about drought mitigation or emissions reduction; I’m just stating a fact!  Now, more research money from the taxpayers, please?”

Yeah, I wouldn’t be convinced either.

It is true that it does not logically follow that a climate realist must support any given policy prescription.  I’ve argued this before too:  Accepting climate research does not mean that one must accept the entire “green” policy package.  However, it is morally difficult to accept the reality of climate change and not think that something should be done about it.  We can have differences of opinion as to what should be done, or who should do it, but inaction does not really seem morally defensible here (and in fact, some moderate-conservative Republicans are coming around to support carbon taxes, state-level action, and market forces in curbing emissions, such as the “Green Tea Coalition” that is pro-solar).

The layperson knows this.  The (in this case) climate skeptic knows it too.  Inaction is morally indefensible, so a person whofor whatever reason, be it financial conflict of interest, tribal partisan identity, or simple fear of personal disruption such as a coal miner might feeldoesn’t want to act can justify that decision only by denying the science itself.  This particular field of scientific research (and many others) cannot be wholly decoupled from the political dimension, and it is a fruitless effort to attempt to do so.  I don’t think we even convince ourselves of that, let alone anyone else, and as I said, I think we come across as dishonest when we try.

In the absolute best case, asserting that “scientists aren’t political” results in the removal of our voices from the debate about our research, our profession, and our integrity.  If we take our speech out of the picture (and even attack those in our community who do speak out), the opponents of science are the only ones talking.  The public doesn’t note our absence and think, “Oh, the scientific community isn’t speaking, so therefore the interests of scientists aren’t political.”  They just don’t hear our side at all.  It doesn’t take two sides to an issue for that issue to be “politicized.”  It only takes one, and that one has already made scientists’ interests a political issue.  The March for Science won’t do that; it’s already been done to us.  We’ve been paying the price for our own timidity, and the march is a way to change that.

Let’s be perfectly clear about this:  Federal research funding is under grave threat.  Federal researchers fear a chilling of free scientific inquiry in the government.  Young scientists and new graduates are afraid that they won’t even have jobs in the field that they just dedicated years of their lives to studying, and that they’ll be considered “overqualified” to do much of anything else.  This is not “business as usual.”  This is not the normal ebb and flow of policy, Democrat vs. Republican.  This is a profoundly anti-intellectual populist movement that has scientists of all partisan leanings in its crosshairs, Republican scientists not excepted.

Further, I hold a position that the anti-marchers probably won’t like one bit:  Scientists are an interest group.  It’s time we started to act like one.

I don’t think the term “interest group” should be a “dirty word.”  It’s simply an acknowledgment of an important fact in a pluralistic society:  People are different and have different, occasionally competing needs.  Policymaking is partly about balancing the needs of each “interest group” for the common good.  You show me someone who isn’t part of an interest group, and I’ll show you a vacuum.

Populist movements like to use “interest groups” and “special interests” as bogeymen, turning them into tyrannical minorities and making them “the other” to the group of people that they are inciting to anger, but in reality everyone is part of an “interest group,” usually more than one.  The “white working class” is an interest group.  Fossil fuel labor is an interest group.  Rural voters are an interest group (and all of the above are minorities of the United States population, in fact).  The scientific community shouldn’t buy into the populist idea that being part of an interest group is bad, but instead, should embrace it as a stance against anti-democratic populism.  American policy is at its best when it respectfully considers the interests and rights of all affected groups, instead of playing the deceitful, divisive game of pitting one minority population against another as “enemies.”  (I don’t want to cast stones here, but I’d like to point out that both the Trumpian right and the identity-politics left do this, and it has been very harmful.)

Furthermore, interest groups that acknowledge their situation have done pretty well in policy, on both liberal and conservative sides.  The civil rights movement wouldn’t have gotten too far if it had ignored the racial minority aspect.  Same for the LGBT community.  Religious groups acknowledge their distinguishing characteristic and openly lobby for favorable policies.  Most recently, and perhaps most applicably to scientists (since it is a career), law enforcement lobbies have gotten legislatures in several states to pass “Blue Lives Matter” bills.  Recognizing and uniting around a dimension of one’s identity turns a collection of disparate voices into a powerful force.

From a pragmatic standpoint, it’s in scientists’ best interest to band together around policy issues that concern them, get involved more (especially scientists who are Republicansyour voices are sorely needed!), speak out, and support science advocacy groups.  Perhaps some do not want to participate in a March for Science for personal reasons.  That’s fine.  But let’s all recognize certain realities, includingespeciallythe reality that the status quo of scientists’ near non-involvement in policy discussion has materially hurt our profession, while doing nothing to prevent the “politicization” of science in the public mind.  We are an interest group.  Our research is frequently supported with taxpayer monies, and many of us conduct research that has policy implications (or connections, at a minimum).  Like it or not, we’re part of policy and politics.  Pretending these things are not so will not convince anyone to support science.

October 22, 2016

A Trump Presidency Would Be Devastating to Geoscience

Filed under: Politics,Science,Uncategorized — PolitiCalypso @ 6:04 pm

This election campaign has been so disheartening to me as a woman, as a climate scientist, and as a former member of the so-called and much-maligned “political class” that I haven’t even wanted to write about it.  I’ve felt personally targeted by Trump’s misogynistic, anti-intellectual rhetoric, in a way that I never have by previous Republican nominees for president, so I can only imagine what ethnic and religious minorities are feeling.  This campaign has also all but spoiled the satisfaction I would have otherwise felt at casting my first vote for a woman for President of the United States, by infusing that moment of pride and pleasure with a fog of crippling fear and disgust for the alternative, and that is something I find very difficult to forgive.

I’m also not happy in the least that everything I’ve been predicting about this brand of populism for the past 2 years has been proven correct.

That said, I’ve decided to swallow my profound loathing of this campaign to write about something that I haven’t seen in any mainstream outlet thus far:  the effect of a Trump presidency on geosciences, specifically atmospheric science, in the United States.  I do not exaggerate in the slightest when I say that the impacts would be truly catastrophic to this field.

This is not a long post, because it doesn’t need to be.  The facts are out there.  I’m just tying them together.  And my conclusion is that there is no reason for any atmospheric scientist or even amateur weather nerd to vote for this person.  Not even climate-change denier scientists.

Decimating Government Research Jobs and Grants

Trump may or may not be a “drown the government in the bathtub” Republican in his core, but there’s little doubt that he would gladly do the bidding of the Tea Party Republicans in Congress.  The Republican Chair of the House Science Committee is a radical named Lamar Smith, who not only is a climate change denier, but who has abused his power to harass climatologists in NOAA—and in the private nonprofit sector!—and accuse them of committing mass research fraud.  He’s basically been conducting a McCarthy-esque witch hunt against the atmospheric science community because he doesn’t want to believe that climate change is real.

But he isn’t the only danger in Congress.  Every few years since the early 1980s, with the exception of the Clinton years, the far right in Congress has pushed some sort of bill that would privatize the National Weather Service or massively reduce funding for NOAA, NASA, or the National Science Foundation.  In addition to employing research scientists in the government sector, these divisions are the primary source of public grant money for academics.  The privatization bills have so far always been blocked by a president in opposition or (in the case of former Senator Rick Santorum’s 2005 attempt to cripple the NWS) massive organizing on the part of the atmospheric science community.  But in the event of a Trump presidency, the stability of these science agencies would be wholly dependent on the ability of Democrats to keep such bills from reaching the floor and on decent, moderate Republicans to not vote for them.  (It is exceedingly unlikely at the time of this writing, with the orangeman having less than a 10% chance of being elected, but if that should happen, Republicans would hold Congress.)

On Oct. 22, Trump, who has infamously tweeted that he thinks climate change is a Chinese hoax, also announced that he would freeze federal hiring across the board.  This would affect young scientists the most of anyone.  Postdoctoral scientists typically are not federal employees, but are instead funded by research grants that pay for their salaries—but most of the time, after completing a postdoctoral fellowship, a scientist will seek to be fully and officially employed at the agency that sponsored them or a closely collaborating one.  That wouldn’t happen with Trump’s plan.  This would mean that these postdocs would either “age out” of their jobs, or that the sponsoring agencies would avoid taking on new postdocs because they were loyal to their current ones and did not want to throw them to the wolves.  The next generation of science graduates, people with Ph. D.s, the most highly educated workers in the country, would find themselves unemployed and with limited opportunities in their field.  So much for job creation and America as a global leader.  This might even make part of Trump’s ignorant tweet about China true:  If American climate science is decimated, as it would be, somebody would fill the void.

The War on Advocacy and Policy Wonkery

Trump also proposed “reforming” lobbying, redefining it to include many activities that are currently not defined as such, and imposing an even longer ban on former members of Congress and Congressional staff from engaging in it.  This is the clearest shot yet in the ongoing anti-intellectual war on policy experts.  This sort of proposal would disproportionately hurt the nonprofit sector and issue advocacy, because corporate lobbyists can always come from within corporations.  It is incomprehensible to me why so many people want to prevent the most knowledgeable and informed people in a subject—legislation and advocacy, in this case—from doing it.  The reason we’re in this state is because of a glaring disregard for knowledgeable people.

Trump has also displayed a tendency to want to sue anyone who criticizes him, and the aforementioned Rep. Lamar Smith has abused his power in the House of Representatives to issue subpoenas to environmental advocacy groups with whom he has political disagreements.  Taken as a whole, this sort of climate would be profoundly chilling to scientists who wish to be involved in policy.  I think there should be more scientists involved in policy, not fewer, and a Trump administration would take us back even further.  This would be far worse than the days of the Bush administration in which scientists were pressured politically on climate change research.

You Don’t Have To Like Her

Many environmentalists, I’ve learned, have a profound dislike and distrust of Hillary Clinton for her comparatively moderate-liberal positions, a distrust which has only been reinforced by WikiLeaks documents.  Honestly, I’m more inclined toward Hillary’s moderate pragmatic liberalism myself than I am towards more leftist approaches to policy problems, so I may not be the best person to speak about this.  However, that said, there can be no choice for climate scientists and geoscientists in general this election.  One major party candidate would decimate the field.  The other, you might not agree with or trust on some environmental causes, but she won’t put you out of a job.  She might consider some environmentalists counterproductive radicals, but she won’t harass anyone over the content of their research.

This election is not a choice between the lesser of two evils, because Hillary Clinton is not evil, and it baffles me that anyone on the left side of center could think she is.  You don’t have to agree with her on everything, and no one with a mic is saying that you should.  But disagreement on policy details or tactics does not make her evil.  Hillary Clinton probably isn’t going to be your personal friend, either, but that is also beside the point:  Most of us can be friends with people and still not agree with them about every single detail of politics.  (And if you really think you can’t be friends with someone unless you and that person agree 100% about everything, then the problem is you, not them.) The bottom line is that of the major party candidates in this election, the people who stand a measurable chance of becoming president, one of them is a declared enemy of atmospheric science who would set this country’s research leadership back immeasurably, and the other is a friend (or at a bare minimum, an ally) who would Keep American Science Great.  There is no choice here.

June 7, 2016

The Conduct of the House Science Committee Chair Should Horrify Climate Scientists

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 5:25 pm

It should be apparent that I’m an independent thinker and that, as a scientist, I stick up for the interests of scientists when they are being shamed and harassed by political leaders and activists.  That is why I called out progressive groups that are uninvolved in (and, I suspect, uninformed of) the extreme difficulties of acquiring funding for research and conferences when they attacked the American Geophysical Union for accepting a small amount of ExxonMobil money to help pay for its annual conference.  There undoubtedly are instances for which ExxonMobil, and others in the fossil fuel industry, can be attacked—for actually influencing research in an improper fashion—but that is not one of them.

That said, I also have mixed feelings about the large legal case that involves ExxonMobil potentially defrauding its investors and the public about climate change, because it also involves atmospheric scientists at certain institutions who are climate skeptics and have apparently been funded by the fossil fuel industry.  In the first place, as a scientist, there’s a part of me that is troubled by the thought of the legal system being involved in matters of scientific misconduct rather than the scientific peer process.  I realize that this case involves much more than that, and that ExxonMobil is the party actually in the hot seat, but this is a visceral “do not like” moment nonetheless.

I also don’t like the implication that any scientific researcher who takes money from certain industry sources is automatically suspect.  I was funded by the fossil fuel industry.  While working on my Master’s degree, I did a side project that was funded by money from BP in the Gulf oil spill aftermath.  The purpose was to determine the atmospheric impact, if any, of the oil spill along the coastal wetlands.  I was unable to find an effect.  I suspect now that the reason for this is that the dataset we had available was grossly insufficient for the purpose, and that we simply didn’t have enough money to set up a new, high-resolution network of sensors along the wetland areas.  Detecting atmospheric boundary layer changes in a small area is virtually impossible without a high-resolution sensor network, not that I knew that as a beginning Master’s student.  The work was “put in the file drawer.”  Is it possible that BP knew that we wouldn’t be able to find anything without that superior sensor network that we didn’t have?  I suppose it is, in retrospect.  However, if such a thing is the case, that does not implicate me or any other person working on the project.  I had no correspondence from anyone in BP and no pressure from anybody to find a negative result.  It is possible for someone to have funding from a “suspect” source and come up with negative outcomes and yet for no research fraud whatsoever to have taken place.

If I hadn’t had the BP money, I wouldn’t have been able to get my Master’s degree—or begin a doctorate.  (Although it didn’t fund any part of my doctoral research, without an existing degree, I wouldn’t have been eligible for the Ph. D. program.)  This is the part that, I think, many political activists don’t get.  Funding is hard to come by and we take it where it is to be found.  The overwhelming majority of atmospheric scientists do not allow their funding source to hurt their integrity.

So this is why I have misgivings about political figures questioning scientists about scientific research outcomes that they don’t care for, even when the scientists being questioned are diametrically opposed to me on an important research and policy issue.  I’m not going to comment on the substance of this court case, because I trust that the court can handle it, but if I didn’t have a visceral concern about a court case that involves climate-skeptic atmospheric scientists, I would have to consider myself the worst sort of hypocrite to object to what is being done to non-skeptic climate scientists by the Republican majority of the House Subcommittee on Science.

And that is the actual topic of this piece.

Atmospheric scientists who are not aware of what is going on should be, because it is chilling and could very easily involve them at some point.  There aren’t that many places that will employ atmospheric scientists to work in their actual field of study, but NOAA is one of them.  And the Chairman of the House Committee, Lamar Smith (R-TX), has been doing nothing short of libeling the agency, threatening its employees, and impugning the scientific integrity of every climate scientist who works for it.  That is not an exaggeration.

Last year, Smith sent threatening letters to NOAA Administrator Dr. Kathryn Sullivan.  He has also gone to right-wing media outlets such as Breitbart and claimed that NOAA climatologists tampered with temperature data, presumably at Dr. Sullivan’s behest, to advance the Obama administration’s, quote, “extreme climate agenda” (his words).  Scientists have all sorts of valid reasons to revise early data, especially from sources such as satellites.  Satellite data calibration is literally an entire sub-field of meteorology, not that Smith understands or cares to understand that.  Needless to say, this despicable assertion places him in the category of climate skeptic that I can have no respect for whatever:  those who think that scientists are engaged in a conspiracy to commit research fraud.  Like most making this baseless, slanderous assertion, Smith seems to either have no concept of the gravity of his accusation (proven research fraud is a career-ender in science), or he simply doesn’t care.

I suspect it’s the latter.  Extreme climate-change deniers actually do want to put every scientist who disagrees with them out of a job and destroy them personally.  It’s gotten to that point.

Smith has also seen fit to insert himself into the aforementioned court case involving ExxonMobil, which is a state-level matter and over which the House has no jurisdiction.  He has demanded communications from state attorneys general that consulted with environmental and climate-realist nonprofit organizations (as if it’s somehow unusual or corrupt for political figures to talk to nonprofits), as well as from employees at the nonprofits themselves.  He has demanded communication from climate scientists.  For two years he has been conducting his own little version of the Benghazi Committee’s unending witch-hunt, but instead of it being about an event in which a United States ambassador was killed, he has been abusing his position to harass climate scientists—most of whom have had no involvement whatever in policymaking (not that that is an indicator of lack of integrity)—who produced research that has a conclusion he and some of his Committee majority don’t care for.

Think about that.  A Member of Congress who heads up a committee has been summoning scientists to testify and provide him with e-mail correspondence, simply because his committee oversees NOAA and he doesn’t like the conclusions that researchers within NOAA have been finding.  He apparently believes that his role includes making sure that NOAA produces data that the current Congressional majority likes.

If that doesn’t horrify you, it should.  And he is not the only politician to conduct himself like this and abuse his authority.  The former Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, did the same thing to climatologists at the University of Virginia while he was in office.

It’s pretty apparent why climate-change deniers don’t talk about the sun anymore, and don’t usually talk much about nebulous and undefined “natural cycles,” but instead accuse climatologists of producing fraudulent data to further a political agenda.  The thought process, such as it is, seems to go like this:

  1. Scientists receive salary and/or research funding from the government.
  2. NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, which is in the executive branch.
  3. The President accepts the science of climate change and has promoted emissions reduction and clean energy throughout his term of office.
  4. Therefore, all climate science conducted by governmental agencies must be done expressly and exclusively to promote the President’s policy agenda.
    1. Corollary: Therefore, the only reason the scientists could possibly have to revise early data must be political pressure.

Obviously, the fallacy is in drawing a link between a source of funding and the outcome of a scientific research project (or, for that matter, its purpose).  This is why I don’t like it when activists from any side go after scientists’ integrity because of who pays their expenses.  If it seems that I go after my own side harder than I do my opponents, that is because I am more disappointed when my own side engages in shaming, and also because I know that people who already think my field is fraudulent aren’t going to listen to anything I say in defense of it.  Those who are indeed defending scientists from people like Lamar Smith might be willing to hear a scientist’s perspective.

Not all scientists are going to have the stomach for jumping into the maelstrom of politics.  I get that.  I get that viscerally.  It’s actually been a source of—not alienation, exactly, but something close to it, between me and many fellow doctoral students in my department.  They’re pure researchers who don’t want anything to do with politics or policy, while I am not.  But there is another class of scientists out there, scientists who do have an interest in the policy implications of their work, but who think that somehow it undermines their integrity as scientists—or that it presents a conflict of interest—to jump into the fray.

It doesn’t.  An opinion is not a conflict of interest (or if it is, then everyone has one), and an actual conflict of interest does not mean fraud.  Climate scientists who do want to have a say in this sort of thing need to stand up and be heard.  Their 3% of colleagues who are climate-change skeptics may largely be polite and respectful (or passive-aggressive, at worst—and scientists of all stripes have refined that into a fine art).  They may propose some combination of natural climatic cycles that partially account for one source of temperature data, while not really attempting to challenge the enormous mass of data supporting anthropogenic climate change.  But their adversaries in politics are not going to play nice.

They are going to disgrace the dignity of their offices by going to racist conspiracy-theorist media outlets, and baselessly accuse entire governmental agencies—and every scientist in them—of making up data, the very worst thing one could say about a scientist in the professional sphere.

They are going to demand private correspondence from government scientists for open-ended witch-hunts.

They are going to inject themselves into legal cases over which they have no jurisdiction and demand private correspondence from attorneys general and nonprofit organizations.

They are going to call scientists up to Congress and harass them for hours about their research findings.

And sitting back and hoping that they won’t touch you because you’re a pure researcher, not involved in policy, no “conflict of interest”—so very good—won’t stop them from doing it.  It just tells them you won’t fight back.

September 8, 2015

Decoupling Climate Science Acceptance from Political Beliefs

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 6:30 pm

As readers of this blog are very aware, the radicalization of American politics is one of my personal pet issues.  Social scientists and other observers have studied it in greater detail by far than I have, and their findings bear out my own anecdotal observations.  Increasingly, self-identified conservatives and progressives do not only hold diametrical political opinions, but they also identify with diametrically opposite non-political positions and make opposite lifestyle choices because they believe that is what good conservatives/progressives ought to do.  The rural/conservative-urban/liberal association is only becoming stronger, for instance, and part of that is that there is increasing migration to communities for political reasons.  This particular phenomenon is, I think, creating myopia on both sides about how to deal with large-scale problems, because what works for one type of community might not do at all for another.  More on this later.

It goes deeper.  Rigid conservatives and rigid progressives enjoy different types of entertainment:  The progressives want to feel “global” and “multicultural” and so they partake of foreign art films; the conservatives want to feel “patriotic” and seek out military-themed movies; neither side wants to watch what the other side likes.  They make certain dietary choices based on what “their people” are “supposed” to eat.  They engage in different hobbies.  And they do it on purpose, for reasons of political identity, rather than because of natural preferences.  It’s “the personal is political” taken to the nth degree.  If that sounds like cliques and social interaction in junior high (“cool kids don’t like X; they like Y”), well, that’s because it pretty much is the same thing.  It’s incredibly toxic, and it has expanded to many other aspects of life.  What I’m going to discuss here in depth, however, are climate science acceptance/denial and opinions on climate change mitigation policies.

I’m an atmospheric scientist.  I have written on many occasions about how it feels like a personal attack for someone to deny that anthropogenic climate change is taking place, because in almost every instance now, the claim is not that something else is causing climate change, but that climatologists are engaging in mass data forgery.  Accusing a scientist of research fraud is character defamation of a very serious degree.  Those few (but loud) skeptical climatologists also like to beat the drum of “advocacy” every time one of their non-skeptical colleagues expresses a political opinion about what should be done.  This is a less overt, non-explicit insinuation of misconduct, because it is empirically irrelevant if a scientist holds a given opinion about their research as long as the methodology of that research is sound.

The skeptics’ shift in recent years from proposing alternate testable hypotheses (the sun’s causing it all, interactions of atmospheric-oceanic teleconnection patterns are doing it, etc.) to accusing 97% of climatologists of research fraud is, I think, yet another manifestation of ideological polarization.  No longer is it okay on the hard right to accept that the climate could be changing, even if one doesn’t accept that we are causing the greatest part of it.  And it is certainly not okay to accept that we are changing it.

Why is that?  I think that for many people, unfortunately, it’s just an emotional reaction to side with their “team” in any circumstances.  But for some, probably especially those who are the most articulate and influential on their side, I think there’s something else going on.  After all, if we accept that the climate is changing, then at a bare minimum that calls for community resilience measures.  If we accept that we are doing it, that calls for us to cut back on what we’re doing.  Hardening and mitigation call for the government to regulate private-sector activity.  The concepts are linked and can’t be taken apart.  Right?

Actually… wrong.

Accepting a scientific finding does not logically require accepting a policy prescription.

It is absolutely possible to believe that the climate is changing due to human activity and also to hold the political opinion that we shouldn’t regulate anything relating to that change.  “Freely choose to adapt or die” is a position I have seen at least one very politically conservative meteorologist advocate.  This is not my own position, of course, but it is one I can at least respect, because it accepts empirical scientific data.  This scientist correctly recognizes that he can hold his chosen political ideology without believing that his colleagues in climatology are engaged in mass scientific misconduct.

Accepting a scientific finding does not logically require accepting a policy prescription.  That does not just go for general policy prescriptions, or (in the above example) the political opinion regarding whether anything at all should be done as a matter of regulation.  It also goes for specific policy prescriptions.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive taxes on the purchase of animal products (food or otherwise).

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive taxes on home energy consumption.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating punitive emissions penalties for cars.

Accepting anthropogenic climate change does not require advocating “smart fuel pumps” that read one’s odometer, check it against a database, and assess a tax based on miles traveled.

There is a reason I have mentioned those four policy ideas, by the way.  It is because I am an atmospheric scientist who accepts anthropogenic climate change and I am against every single one of them.  A couple of them I’m against in any circumstance, and the other two, I’m against as one-size-fits-all national policies.  I generally do not favor using the heavy hand of government on private individuals in this situation, for a variety of reasons.

First, it’s not politically pragmatic.  It is arguably counterproductive, in fact.  People respond much better to the carrot than to the stick, and I do support measures such as tax credits for making the choice to get a green car or to upgrade one’s home.

Second, it is large-scale industrial operations that have a greater effect on the global carbon dioxide balance, and private citizens do not often have much say-so in broad corporate policy.  Not even through their buying choices, at least when we are talking about the power sector or the automobile industry, which are almost impossible for new competitors to enter that are not already very well-funded (and even then face difficulties, such as the determination of some states to lock out Tesla Motors from selling to people because they do not use a dealership model, but sell directly to drivers).

Third, consumers often have limited choices, especially for big expenditures.  Not everyone can afford a new, highly efficient car.  Prior to the new standards requiring 35 mpg, not that many cars even were highly efficient, let alone affordable ones.  Not everyone can afford a home renovation to become greener.  Not everyone has access to public transportation or carpooling options, and not everyone can afford to move closer to work.

And finally, the fourth reason I’m against the broad application of this sort of regulation is that it is a one-size-fits-all approach that is utterly inappropriate in some situations.  For instance, on the subject of personal energy consumption, it is not even safe to forego heating or cooling in some regions during winter or summer.  A limited-AC-usage efficiency prescription that isn’t that onerous for San Francisco would be a major public safety hazard in Atlanta in the summer.  (Heat is the leading weather-related killer in the US.)  The same thing is true for car usage:  If a municipality wants to have strict emissions standards for privately owned vehicles, that is defensible when reliable public transportation is available in the area and perhaps they want to discourage driving when other options exist.  It is potentially quite onerous in areas where your options are generally to drive to work or not work at all.  And even in those cities where it is defensible, it makes sense to offer exemptions in cases where people cannot afford new vehicles or vehicle modifications.  We were able to implement mandatory health insurance coverage without imposing a harsh burden on people who can’t afford it, after all.  Even in large cities with good public transit, there are some situations when people need to use a car instead.  Public transit may take you to work, but it generally can’t take you everywhere you need to go unless you happen to live in a place like New York City.

Sustainability must be fine-tuned to localities, in fact, because areas will have different needs.  In fairness to right-wingers who complain that “liberals” always think in terms of how things are in “liberal cities” (San Francisco, Portland, New York, etc.), I’ll even grant that some of these suggestions, when considered for the entire country, do appear that way, since they work so poorly outside of such areas.  But this cuts both ways.  For instance, I will argue down anyone who is against any emissions testing at all in large cities.  I have been in East Coast cities where, even leaving aside carbon dioxide emissions, particle matter and ozone can create truly oppressive—and hazardous—health conditions.  I have felt my chest constricting on “code orange” ozone days.  I’ve coughed up blood on high particle matter days.  If your own experience is limited to medium-sized towns and suburban communities where this does not happen, then you too should remember that other types of environments have different needs, and your community’s situation shouldn’t be the blueprint for policies everywhere any more than the communities that your political adversaries often live in.

I know that it may be difficult for people accustomed to thinking in terms of “us versus them” politics to consider that “mixing it up” is even possible, but it is.  It is possible to accept climate change science without supporting the entire hard-left policy package… or even any of it.  It is possible to think that some things should be done without believing that they should all be done exactly the same way everywhere.  From my own admittedly biased perspective, I think it’s not just possible, but preferable to think that.  This us-versus-them, with-us-or-against-us, no-gray-area form of politicking benefits nobody, not even those who do it, except in the very cynical way of perpetuating their own existence by always having an “enemy” with whom common cause is impossible.  It certainly doesn’t achieve anything concrete for the issues themselves.

July 30, 2015

Yes, It’s Advocacy. So?

Filed under: Politics,Science — PolitiCalypso @ 2:34 pm

I follow a number of television meteorologists on social media.  I’m not a broadcaster myself and have never had the slightest interest in undertaking that career path, but I’ve found that they are good sources for up-to-the-minute information about ongoing weather events and disasters.  On Twitter, for instance, they will tend to retweet any report from a person who is in a town that has been hit by a tornado.  Other than chaser accounts (which I also follow), it’s really the best source of information about what is going on in such events immediately after the disaster has occurred and before the major news reporters pick it up.

As one would expect, I also receive retweets and shares from them in my feeds that are not about disaster updates.  Like anyone else, they’ll share pieces they find interesting or agree with.  And, given that I primarily subscribe to TV meteorologists in the Southeast, and that (for some reason that hasn’t been fully explained—perhaps a good background in weather but limited education in climatology?) broadcast meteorologists are climate change skeptics in the majority, one would also expect some of these “general” shares to be about climate change.  Many of the shares, in fact, are not even originally from other broadcast meteorologists, who perhaps realize that it’s less credible for the “TV weatherman” to go on about the subject than for a researcher to do so, but instead are from research meteorologists and the occasional skeptic climatologist.  These people do indeed exist.  No scientific hypothesis has 100% agreement, not even gravity (but don’t take my word for it; look up the controversy in physics about the existence of the hypothetical graviton particle).  There are approximately 3% of climatologists and climate-specializing atmospheric scientists who deny anthropogenic climate change.  They seem to have quite a loud mic for their numbers, with the same three or four people always being cited as “climatologists who deny climate change,” but when a scientific topic becomes political, the media will want to find “balance for both sides.”

There is a hashtag that has become increasingly common for these people and their supporters regarding the 97% of climatologists who do accept the hypothesis of anthropogenic climate change:  #Advocacy.  It is the snarky, disdainful sort of hashtag rather than a purely descriptive one, posted at the end of a link in which a research scientist who studies the topic is also quoted as making policy suggestions for reducing greenhouse gas emissions—or if a research study about it is being supported by a think tank.

When I first started seeing this on social media, it irritated me deeply.  Attempts to discredit scientists who study this subject are extremely personal to me, one of the most guaranteed ways of irking me.  I tried to think of a defense and comeback, an explanation of how the “objectionable” statements are not advocacy.  And then I realized:  You know what, they’re right.  It is advocacy.  But that doesn’t discredit anything.

The #Advocacy hashtag—used in this context—is indeed an attempt to discredit the work of climate scientists.  It does need to be countered, but not by a denial that advocacy is taking place, because obviously it is.  It’s not even the most effective counter to mention that, by this same standard, climate-change-denier atmospheric scientists who speak to the media (or work with right-leaning think tanks) are also “advocates” and that it is therefore hypocritical for them to object to the other side doing it.  It’s certainly worth pointing out the hypocrisy from a narrative-control perspective, but I cannot support implicitly agreeing with this notion that it is somehow a bad thing for scientists to engage in “advocacy” because it “contaminates their research.”  The fact is, it doesn’t.

What is needed is an education campaign about the scientific method.  The sneering hashtag is another instance of a profoundly anti-scientific populist political trend of claiming conflict of interest about research when the researchers have political opinions on the policy implications of the study.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it now:  Wanting research to have certain results does not discredit it.  Having research funded by an organization wanting certain results does not discredit it.  The only thing that can discredit research is its methodology.  It doesn’t matter who does the project, merely how it is done.  That’s how the scientific method works.  If you want to criticize or attack scientific research with which you disagree, you have two options:  Find a flaw in the methodology that undermines the claimed conclusions, or prove fraud.  That’s it.

Yes, it’s advocacy when a climatologist in “the 97%” is quoted in the media as offering policy suggestions.  It’s advocacy when a think tank commissions a study about climate change or hires its own in-house scientists to do it.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

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