How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Unhealthy Skepticism.
In the context of the federal budget debacle the Republican party is moving aggressively against the environmental regulation of commercial activities by intramurally debating how to legislatively restrict, defund, or even abolish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It is simultaneously attempting to curtail a scientifically informed debate on climate change policy by both defunding climate change research and exploring how to personally intimidate climate scientists through the subpoena process.
These political moves reinforce one another: without a network of satellites making biogeochemical observations, the policy case for the regulation of carbon emissions is significantly weakened as the connection between climatological trends and particular phenomena (eg. blizzards, fires, droughts, hurricanes, etc.) of obvious relevance to the public good is left without an evidentiary defense.
And if the state lacks the ability to regulate carbon emissions, the argument for the public funding of climate research becomes that much weaker, as something as essential to public health as local environmental monitoring (arguably more so) is transformed into a drain on the public purse. Climate change may be global, but it has local ramifications: North Dakota may monitor and regulate toxins in its waterways, but if global efforts to monitor and regulate carbon emissions do not develop, the Red River will become more prone to catastrophic flooding.
For climate data to appear as a public good, one must already accept that environmental regulations are necessary to social well-being. So this logic is particularly problematic:
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich called for replacing the Environmental Protection Agency with an “environmental solutions agency” as part of a broader re-assessment of American energy policy in his address to the Conservative Political Action Conference today in Washington.
In addition to this Orwellian re-branding, six Republican congressmen have written a letter (or at least signed one written by Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, et al.) specifically calling for a reallocation of NASA funds away from climate research and towards human spaceflight R&D (read: Lockheed Martin contracts). Their rhetoric is particularly brazen in light of the future risks of climate change:
We must not put ourselves in the position of watching Chinese astronauts planting their flag on the moon while we sit – earthbound by our own shortsightedness. Future generations of Americans deserve better.
While a federal science policy that defunds climate research represents a long-term security risk for many reasons, a particularly pernicious one is a positive feedback loop it could exacerbate within the policymaking process, in which elected politicians increasingly make claims contradicting the consensus findings of federal science agencies, which attempt to accurately depict the global climate with the public interest in mind. While data is insufficiently persuasive on its own, it would be impossible to rebut the rhetoric Mo Brooks (R-AL) employs in this interview in Science without it:
Q: Is human activity causing global warming?
M.B.: That’s a difficult question to answer because I’ve talked to scientists on both sides of the fence, especially at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Some say yes, and some say no. I’m also old enough to remember when the same left-wing part of our society was creating a global cooling scare in order to generate funds for their pet projects. So 30-some years ago, the big scare was global cooling, and once they drained the government, they shifted to global warming. So I’m approaching the issue with a healthy degree of skepticism. If the evidence is there to prove it, then so be it.
Q: What evidence would be convincing, in your mind?
M.B.: I’m going to leave that up to the proponents. For right now, the fact that there may be some global warming doesn’t necessarily establish that it’s caused by humans. If you look at climatological data going back centuries or millennia, we have periods of cooling, like the Ice Age, and warming. So it’s cyclical. So how are the proponents going to convince us that it’s not just part of a cyclical pattern? After we hold hearings on this subject, I’ll know more. And we’re going to have public hearings on the topic.
Is a policymaker unwilling or unable to articulate evidence that would convince him of anthropogenic climate change seeking to hold an illuminating debate on the matter or an Inquisitive one? Is a potential presidential candidate willing to replace the word “protection” with “solutions” interested in actually coming up with solutions, as his rhetoric is meant to imply in its Orwellian way, or simply in eliminating laws, bureaus, and agencies constraining private corporate interests?
More philosophically, how should we conceive of our (small r) republican duties as citizens and our research as academics in what I suggest is our developing post-enlightenment policy milieu? It seems that inquiry into how these two roles are related would be a fruitful exploration for interdisciplinary research developing new models and metrics of academic social accountability.