Global warming is the subject of intense debate. But if ideology is getting in the way of science, maybe both sides of the debate are letting that happen.
While the evidence of global climate change is overwhelming, there are skeptics who challenge the consensus view that warming is caused by human activity. These individuals are routinely accused of being in the pocket of big corporations that would be hurt by aggressive measures to curb carbon emissions. (And, in fact, many of them work for groups that receive funding from such sources as ExxonMobil). Chris Mooney, author of The Republican War on Science, has argued that treating the issue as a legitimate debate is misleading because it bestows legitimacy on pseudoscientific propaganda.
But is everyone on the other side disinterested? On his blog, Mooney notes that sometimes "environmental groups and their ilk oversell the science." On the issue of whether global warming is to blame for hurricanes, he says, "it's clear the science has been abused on both sides."
People can easily see economic motives to bend the facts and abuse the science. Ideological motives are less readily apparent, but no less real; and, for quite a few people, environmentalism has become a matter of not just ideology but quasi-religious zealotry.
Mark Kleiman, a professor of public policy studies at UCLA and a self-identified liberal, noted this recently on his blog. Writes Kleiman, "To those who dislike a social system based on high and growing consumption and the economic activity that supports high and growing consumption and maintains high and growing demand (a dislike with which I have considerable sympathy), to those who think that the market needs more regulation by the state, to those who think that international institutions ought to be strengthened . . . global warming is a Gaia-send"—since it justifies drastic worldwide public action to curb production and consumption. (Gaia, the ancient Greek goddess of the earth, is a term used by many ecologists to refer to the earth as a living entity.) While Kleiman sympathizes with environmentalists, he notes that "their eagerness to believe the worst"—for instance, in Al Gore's documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth"—"is just as evident as the right wing's denialism."
As an analogy, Kleiman cites many social conservatives' attitude toward the AIDS epidemic, which has been used to portray sex outside monogamous heterosexual marriage as fraught with deadly peril and to preach the message of premarital abstinence. (Kleiman doesn't explicitly say this, but his comments hint at another abuse of science: Many conservatives and gay rights activists, for different motives, have exaggerated the fairly tiny risk of HIV infection from heterosexual sex.)
The analogy between AIDS and global warming also extends to attitudes toward ways to remedy the problem. The religious right, Kleiman points out, pooh-poohs condoms as a way to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted diseases because the effectiveness of such a remedy would undermine the abstinence message. Similarly, those on the left who embrace environmentalism as their substitute religion don't want to hear about scientific and technological solutions to climate change—from nuclear power to geoengineering, the artificial manipulation of the global environment—that do not include stepping up regulation and curbing consumption.
There is a growing number of voices in the scientific community that reject both denialism and alarmism on global warming. Roger Pielke, an environmental science professor at the University of Colorado, calls such people "nonskeptical heretics"—those who believe that human-caused global warming is a real problem, but one that can be met in part with technological management and adaptation. Mooney has come to embrace such a viewpoint as well.
Pielke has pointed out an unfortunate tendency toward political polarization within the scientific community. Last year, Tech Central Station, a website that supports the free-market system, promoted a statement by several scientists who dismissed any connection between hurricanes and global warming—while environmental activists promoted the views of other scientists who argued that such a connection exists.
Most journalists and pundits have limited knowledge of science; as a result, they tend to pick whichever science best suits their political prejudices. Both science and journalism deserve better. Perhaps we can start by remembering that an ideological crusade can be as strong an inducement to bend the truth as the profit motive.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.