President Obama came to California. He saw a drought. He announced the cause to be global warming and left. How accurate was the president’s diagnosis of harmful, man-made climate change in stopping rain and snow? First, a bit of a reminder about what the president has called “settled science.”
Until 1982 “settled science” decreed that stomach ulcers were a result of bad diet, too much gastric acid, or undue stress. Then Australian scientists Barry Marshall and Robin Warren shocked the medical community with an unlikely thesis: The real culprit for peptic ulcers more often was infection by the Gram-negative bacterium H. pylori, a common but sometimes dangerous agent in the gut that could be treated with antibiotics. The practice of gastroenterology was turned upside down.
Settled science insisted that annual mammograms were necessary to reduce the morbidity from breast cancer, on the logical hypothesis that only early detection could allow successful treatment of a disease whose contours were so poorly understood. Now, a new comprehensive Canadian study finds that there is no statistical evidence that a breast scan every year is any more efficacious in preventing morbidity than more sporadic testing.
In other words, nothing scientific is ever quite settled. Scientists debate the proper protocols through still more study and investigation in the arena of empirical give-and-take.
In similar fashion, the vast majority of the 19th-century medical community insisted that postoperative infections were due to bad air. Surgeons once prided themselves on their filthy bloody gowns as proof of their industriousness, convinced that airing out hospital miasmas would alone stop gangrene and other wound-related diseases. Then the surgeon Joseph Lister proved that Louis Pasteur’s theories of micro-organisms causing disease also applied to wounds — and that the use of antiseptics amid sterile conditions in the operating room and in hospitals generally could vastly curtail postoperative deaths. Soondek hospital whites, bleaches, and chronic washing became the new orthodox protocols, and Lister became canonized whereas he had formerly been dismissed as eccentric.
There is a long tradition dating back to Galileo — and beyond, to Democritus — of scientific heresy suddenly becoming orthodoxy, as “settled” doctrines cannot stand the light of free discussion, critique, and investigation.
Despite the Western inductive method and freedom of expression, however, human nature remains tribal. Scientists, like everyone else, find comfort in what is familiar, orthodox, and shared by their peers. Often they have invested lives and careers in ensuring that status-quo theories become unquestioned. They can be deeply suspicious of what is not institutionalized, and on occasion wildly intolerant of the nonconventional.
Such homogeneity also becomes wrapped up in religion, government, and culture. Skeptics like Galileo or Lister are often hounded, censored, and ridiculed. Plato so disliked the unorthodox, but prescient, atomic theory of Democritus that he dreamed of having his written work burned.
Just as, in the distant past, the dissident scientist was often dubbed atheistic or subversive, today the skeptic of man-caused global warming is dismissed as fundamentalist, illiberal, or anti-democratic. For many elite critics of Western culture and society, global warming has become central to a larger critique about the frenzied pace of capitalistic production, wealth creation, and consumption. Or rather, global-warming orthodoxy has become a partisan tool to stop things deemed bad, like fracking, horizontal drilling, or the Keystone Pipeline.
Often there is the flavor of elitism, as those with capital, secure jobs, and good salaries are less likely to suffer from the very real consequences of their own ideologies. A tenured climatologist, a Hollywood star, or a government bureaucrat, for example, is certainly not so immediately vulnerable to radical shifts away from a carbon-based economy as are truckers, well drillers, or construction workers. In the case of the now-billionaire Secretary of State John Kerry, who has a propensity for collecting carbon-spewing recreational vehicles and luxury boats, his lecturing poor Indonesians on limiting carbon use seems especially galling.
I do not know whether there is such a thing as deleterious man-made global warming, but I do know that it has become the new orthodoxy to such a degree that its adherents are now trying to silence their critics and would make the grand inquisitors of the past proud. Recent examples include a campaign to censor a Washington Post column by Dr. Charles Krauthammer, a Los Angeles Times protocol of not publishing letters skeptical of global warming, and a lawsuit to discredit the brilliant satirist Mark Steyn, who, as humorists are wont to do, mocked a pompous proponent of global warming.
But, as in the heterodox examples of H. pylori and antiseptics, critics of the theory of man-caused global warming point to a number of inconsistencies with the new climate-change orthodoxy. Some question the basic assertion that the planet itself has been recently warming up. They cite the incongruity of record-high carbon emissions over the last 17 years, accompanied by no evidence of increased global temperatures. And they point out that accurate weather record keeping is such a relatively recent phenomenon that there are not enough precise data to monitor long-term trends. Indeed, just four decades ago, the consensus of climatology was fears of a new little Ice Age, not of melting polar ice caps.
Other skeptics accept global warming but are not convinced that it is necessarily man-caused. In theory, it could be attributed to natural phenomena, such as changing solar conditions, that are beyond human agency — and that are consonant with the cycles of global warming and cooling throughout the planet’s history.
Still other doubters argue that, even if man-made global warming is a fact, the ensuing increases in temperatures appear to be relatively modest, with bad and good consequences balancing out, and in any case are not necessarily as dangerous to the human condition as are the massive remedies proposed by global-warming adherents, which will fall inordinately upon the poor.
All three groups of skeptics also are worried about the changes in nomenclature and in the logic of the debate. Global warming has lost currency to “climate change” and, on occasion, to “climate catastrophe” — the reasoning being that increased carbon emissions not only heat up the planet, but also cause violent changes in the weather. The problem is not that such a hypothesis is necessarily flawed, but that the new vocabulary replaces empiricism with theory: If much of the U.S. is experiencing near-record cold with unusually heavy snow, then carbon emissions are to blame. But if it were experiencing the exact opposite — near-record heat without any snow at all — carbon emissions would still be to blame.
The result is that normally variable weather — occasionally too few or too many storms — is always seen as permanently aberrant, and becomes a de facto argument for man-induced global warming under the new rubric of climate change. One cannot refute such a circular hypothesis.
Examine again California, which has been facing a near-record drought (I say “near-record,” because accurate data for our weather are not much more than a century and a half old) that is wreaking havoc with the state’s economy. Despite the president’s diagnosis, there is no scientific evidence that global warming is necessarily the culprit. From what we know of past severe droughts, barriers of high pressure occasionally become entrenched in the Pacific Northwest, deflecting storms to the north and east — as was true, for example, in 1976–77.
Moreover, in recent memory, these are not necessarily decade-long, much less permanent, conditions, but seem to be ephemeral. Atmospheric pressures change, and often quite suddenly. In contrast, there is some scientific evidence from tree rings and stumps that well before the wide-scale use of carbon fuel, a mostly uninhabited California once experienced variable conditions of drought that went on for years.
And suddenly, California is enjoying some rare and much-needed rain. A few storms have broken through the high-pressure ridges and have made their way south into the state’s interior. If such wet weather were to continue, however, would the president then declare the threat of global warming to be over? Or would he return to the state and declare that the rain was also a result of global warming? And if it poured through all of March, would that become further proof of climate change?
There are additional paradoxes. Citing carbon emissions as the sole cause of California’s drought excuses much more scientifically likely factors from culpability and reinforces the idea of the politicization of empirical inquiry. The reason why the 2013–14 drought is much more dangerous than its predecessor of 1976–77 is threefold and has nothing to do with carbon releases into the atmosphere.
At nearly 40 million people, California now has almost twice the number of residents that it did 38 years ago. Yet, despite the efforts of some Los Angeles–area municipal districts, there has not been a major new dam constructed in the Sierra Nevada in three decades. Double the population, while the amount of winter runoff the state can store remains fixed, is a prescription for disaster.
And it gets worse. Several million acre-feet of stored fresh water have been diverted from municipalities and farms, and released from mountain reservoirs to the sea — largely on scientifically unproven claims that a three-inch Delta smelt suffers from an inadequate flow of fresh river water (as opposed to too heavy Bay Area releases of treated sewage water) or that in the old days salmon always were able to swim up California’s inland rivers to the Sierras.
In sum, if the president were truly devoted to science, he woud have cited the need for California to increase its storage capacity, factor in its growing population in all questions of water use, and accept that public policy must give food production priority over returning the natural landscape to conditions that obtained when just a few million people inhabited the state. Instead, he abides by faith-based theories, in deductive fashion.
Just as the Church became invested in refuting Galileo for obvious reasons — a cosmos not revolving around a human-inhabited earth might lessen the majesty of our own creator and, by extension, the Church hierarchy — so too global warming is caught up in political orthodoxy. And it involves billions of dollars in research moneys, careers in academia and government, and lucrative advocacy of the sort engaged in by Al Gore, who has had an unfortunate tendency first to alarm us about global warming and then to step in to offer his profit-making remedies to avert it.
There is a great deal of irony in these recent debates over science. Barack Obama came into office blasting faith-based thinking and promising to restore the primacy of scientific inquiry. But he and the other supporters of global warming do not welcome vigorous debate, and they cite as proven fact theories that have a disturbing tendency to advance both political agendas and lucrative careers.
In sum, the exalted end of reducing the human imprint on the planet requires any means necessary to achieve it.