Climate Scientists’ Biggest Challenge Isn’t Scientific

On Tuesday, I asked why Republicans are so much less likely than Democrats to worry about climate change, and wondered if the answer wasn’t an aversion to more government spending and regulation.

Readers, or at least those who wrote the 1,800 or so comments on the piece, felt differently. The argument that many of them offered — that man-made climate change is some sort of hoax, perpetuated by scientists looking for research money — deserves consideration, because it underlines what makes the U.S. climate debate so divisive and protracted. It also demonstrates why that debate seems to be immune from scientific resolution.

Maybe the most common response was that the climate is always changing, which has nothing to do with human activity. Here’s how the reader Harlan Roberts put it:

There is a 1,500 year climate cycle that has been going on here on Earth for at least 400K years. That was proven with data from the Antarctic ice core sample. The ice core sample from Greenland was smaller so we could only go back 250K years for the Northern Hemisphere. This cycle is not driven by humans. It’s the Sun.

According to a report this week by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, that view is bunk. “Based on well-established evidence, about 97 percent of climate scientists conclude humans are changing the climate,” the report says.

Here’s the problem: Most readers who commented say climate scientists can’t be trusted. Mike Turn put it this way:

Lots of money from government and leftist agencies and groups can sway many scientists. There’s also lots of pressure to conform in many university settings to the overarching political philosophies. … Scientists who aren’t trying to make waves feel it’s better to get along than go against the grain.

Shannon Miller, from Monroe, Iowa, made the same point:

The fact is, most of the scientists who say global warming is happening are getting paid to say so, whether directly or through research grants, etc. If climate change “didn’t exist” they would not have a job. If someone was paying me to make up stuff, I would do it too. Hence the reason they have found falsified and manipulated records and emails regarding the need to make the change to the records in the past. The scientists who don’t believe in climate change are the ones who study it on their own time and dime.

A variation on the idea that scientists are wrong is that it’s too soon for them to be drawing conclusions. “Most of us skeptics have looked at both sides and lean towards not buying into it until there is hard proof,” wrote Fred Raviol of La Crescenta, California. “At this time there’s doesn’t appear to be.”

Reader Trevor DeMont made a similar argument, comparing climate change to anthropology:

A few years ago, the overwhelming consensus among anthropologists and paleontologists was that modern man (Homo Sapiens) was not descended from Neanderthals. …. About 3-4 years ago, when Svante Pääbo and his team at the Max Plank Institute decoded Neanderthal DNA, and saw clearly (when comparing it modern human DNA) that modern man has unique Neanderthal DNA in our genome, and that we are descended from him. The discovery turned consensus completely on its head. What I’m saying is, today’s consensus is often debunked with a new discovery.

This week’s report tackles the argument that it’s too soon to conclude that climate change is man-made and real by summarizing the evidence that climate change is real. If you’re reading this, and you doubt the veracity of that conclusion, I hope you’ll go read the report, which is available here.

But the report is silent on the criticism of scientists themselves. A spokeswoman for the association, Ginger Pinholster, told me that combating skepticism about scientists’ integrity was beyond the scope of the report. Maybe the authors decided that it wouldn’t do any good for scientists to defend themselves against people who already don’t trust what they have to say.

That raises two challenges for people trying to deal with climate change. First, if a sizable portion of Americans decide not to trust the view of climate experts, what’s left to guide their decisions about different policy options when it comes time to vote?

Second, if scientists won’t or can’t counter the view that their work is a sham, who can? Republicans and conservative news outlets have sided aggressively against the view that expertise matters. It’s not clear who that leaves to convey the message that the planet is at risk.

There’s something charming and roguish about some Americans’ antipathy to authority and refusal to defer to experts. But that means the biggest challenge associated with climate change may not be technological, economic or even political, but cultural. That’s a puzzle even the smartest scientists haven’t been able to crack.

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, economics and taxation. He was previously a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government. He also covered the 2009 stimulus package for ProPublica.

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