Enviros are in a fairly massive worldwide fight right now, trying to convince governments and average citizens alike that global warming is real and that its effects could be devastating. Vested interests of various sorts are trying to paint this as alarmism and hype.
That picture is flattering to enviros, but of course there’s more to it than thatIt is also the case that billions and billions of dollars are being funneled into climate change research. This same money could be spent to save millions of lives if directed to curing AIDS or ending poverty, with a much higher degree of confidence in short-term results.
Now, there’s a legitimate public policy question here: To what extent should public resources go to urgent, solvable health and economic crises, and to what extent should they be directed toward research on long-term, slow-growing problems that could ultimately have an even greater human toll? The picture is further complicated by the fact that there’s not a finite pot of public resources waiting to be divvied up. It’s not certain that money moved out of climate change programs would go to something equally worthwhile. It’s complicated.
It’s too much to hope that the debate will be entirely rational — after all, we’re talking about interested parties all over the globe, with various parochial interests, coordinating the movement of huge amounts of money, time, and media attention. Enviros should not pretend that their side is without parochial interests of its own. Like it or not, the fact is that there’s immense pressure on global warming scientists and activists to justify the resources spent on and attention paid to their problem.
There is considerable temptation, when faced with sheer inertia, aggressive opponents in industry and elsewhere, and the pressure to justify and seek more funding, to exaggerate the extent and certainty of the science. But doing so is inevitably counter-productive.
So it’s been with some irritation that I’ve read the saga of Dr. Christopher Landsea. Landsea is one of the world’s foremost experts on hurricanes, working at the Hurricane Research Division of the U.S. Department of Commerce. He worked with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since 1995, and it frequently cited his work.
He was working on the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. Then he saw the lead author of his chapter, Dr. Kevin Trenberth, at a high-profile press conference stating that global warming is behind the intense Atlantic hurricane season of 2004, and that global warming is likely to spur more intense hurricane activity, positions for which there is still very little solid scientific evidence. Landsea felt this to be completely outside the scientific consensus, and he felt that it politicized what should be a strictly scientific body. He complained to the leadership of the IPCC. They blew him off.
So, after writing an open letter to his colleagues, he resigned from the IPCC. Roger Pielke Jr. writes that while Trenberth refuses to back away from his claims, he can’t cite — or at least hasn’t cited — a single peer-reviewed paper that supports them, and says the head of IPCC, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, has joined with Trenberth in making highly inflammatory political statements. Naturally, this provided ammunition for climate change skeptics to crow that IPCC is a political and not a scientific body, although Chris Mooney points out that Trenberth couldn’t really, in the end, have imposed his views on the IPCC’s report, since each chapter must have the unanimous support of the scientists involved.
It’s a circus sideshow.
The science here about whether and how much global warming will affect hurricanes, and extreme weather generally, is still developing. (Read this unusually good — for the mainstream media anyway — piece on global warming and wacky weather from the reliable Joan Lowy.) Let’s let it develop.
There are plenty of other reasons to do the kind of things we need to do to reduce pollution and CO2 emissions and build a generally healthier world. We don’t need to hype the science beyond what it can bear, and doing so only creates diversions like this, offers the enemies of progress fuel for their fire, and gives the entire environmental movement a bad rep. Cut it out.