Time to quit pretending otherwise
Late last week Chris Mooney had a long and characteristically careful post on HuffPo clarifying the hurricane/climate change connection, exactly what Gore’s said about it, and exactly where Gore can and cannot be legitimately criticized for it. The crucial point in the post, though, is not about hurricanes. It’s this:
Nevertheless, when it comes to the science of global warming and its impacts, there’s a very significant difference between Gore and his would-be detractors. Gore takes the conclusions of the mainstream scientific community on global warming seriously and for the most part describes them very accurately, albeit with perhaps a few small errors of presentation (which are likely inadvertent) and of omission (some of which may arise from the fact that he has a ton of ground to cover). It’s certainly fair to argue that Gore ought to include more nuances and caveats. But for comparison, let’s bear in mind that Gore’s scientific critics (and especially Inhofe) tend to disregard the large body of accepted science entirely — except when they find something they think they can use to make Gore look bad. And even in these cases, they’re usually much more off base, and much more selective, than Gore himself is.
This gets at a point that Gore’s more sympathetic critics (the fabled "centrists") should take more seriously. I’ve made it before, but what the hell, I’ll make it again.
We’re told frequently that small omissions or “visual implications” (to use Broad’s formulation) in Gore’s film “give ammunition” to his critics. To draw this conclusion you have to accept two premises:
- The contest between climate advocates and their critics is primarily a scientific contest — a debate over who has the best science; and thus,
- if Gore’s movie had been scientifically impeccable, with no relevant omissions and every nuance fully explained, his critics would have no ammunition and would fall silent.
Now, it may be that no "centrist" would consciously accept these premises, but nonetheless they frequently write as if they were true.
The important point is not only that both premises are false, but that believing them, and writing as if they were true, is hurting the cause of getting something done on climate change — a cause even the fabled centrists claim to support.
First, good science is not determined by public debate. It’s determined by scientists as they hash things out slowly and incrementally in peer-reviewed journals. The rest of us rely on reviews of the literature to tell us what conclusions they’ve come to, and with what degree of confidence.
The scientific contest — at least as it relates to the basic facts of global warming — is over. There are numerous open questions and interesting research threads in climate science, but none of them are about whether global warming is happening or whether we’re contributing. It is; we are. Nothing you, me, James Inhofe, or that crank in the comments section says bears on the science one whit. We’re just not involved in it. Pretending that scientific questions can be hashed out by anonymous commenters on a blog is completely, surreally false.
Contrariwise, every discussion and debate that takes place outside the scientific journals — even if scientists are involved, even if science is the subject of discussion — is, in the broad sense, political. That means having the best science is an advantage, but only one of many possible advantages, and not necessarily a decisive one (that should be obvious by now).
Remember: the goal of political debate is not to establish scientific truth, or even to establish which side is closer to it, but to triumph in the realm of public opinion and public policy. No matter how much some people wish that having science on their side is an automatic trump card, it just isn’t. The relationship between accuracy and political advantage is tenuous at best.
The most vociferous critics of global warming advocates — far-right conservatives — understand this viscerally, instinctively, if not consciously. (Indeed, you could argue that understanding it consciously would hamper them, but let’s not get too far in the weeds.) In other words, Inhofe et. al do not need Gore to actually slip up in his presentation. They do not need any scientifically valid points to make. They aren’t waiting around for ammunition. They’re more than happy to make shit up. To the extent they use science, or whatever skeptical scientists they can dredge up, they use it as a political weapon.
In short: the far-right is going to wage political war against global warming advocates even if advocates issue a fully footnoted fact sheet, signed by every climate scientist in the country, every time they open their months. It’s a political battle, not a scientific battle, and it’s time we quit pretending otherwise.
One does not win political battles by joining one’s opponents in snipping and pecking at one’s own side.