By Joel Stronberg
Wisconsin — the home of House Speaker Paul Ryan, Governor Scott Walker, and Senator Ron Johnson — is having second thoughts about the cause of climate change.
Once convinced human activity had something to do with global warming, the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has now decided … maybe not.
The department was confident up until December 20, 2016, that:
Earth’s climate is changing. Human activities that increase heat-trapping (greenhouse) gases are the main cause.
Then, on the 21st of December, the DNR changed both its mind and its webpage to read:
“As it has done throughout the centuries, the earth is going through a change. The reasons for this change at this particular time in the earth’s long history are being debated and researched by academic entities outside the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The effects of such a change are also being debated …”
The DNR has yet to identify with any specificity just what those reasons for its change of heart might be. I rather suspect it had more to do with politics than science; and, perhaps the “outside academic entity” it referred to was a certain Washington-based organization, under the leadership of Myron Ebell?
Ebell is “director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) and chairs the Cooler Heads Coalition (CHC), which comprises representatives from more than two dozen non-profit organizations based in the United States and abroad that challenge global warming alarmism and oppose energy rationing policies,” according to CEI‘s website. Many Cooler Heads Coalition members are supported by the Koch brothers and other climate deniers.
CEI and the Cooler Heads Coalition are allied with the obscure Washington policy group, the American Energy Alliance, founded by a former Enron executive and captained by Thomas Pyle. Pyle also leads the Trump energy transition team and is a favored advisor of Speaker Ryan’s.
Ebell, the doyen of deniers, has been tasked to lead the President-elect’s EPA transition team.
According to Ebell’s CEI blog:
…global warming could pose challenges over the long term. But there is much evidence that the mild global warming that has occurred since the end of the Little Ice Age in the mid-nineteenth century has been largely beneficial for humanity and the biosphere. Earth is greening, food production has soared, and human longevity has increased dramatically.
Why a Canary in the Coal Mine?
I’m calling Wisconsin’s action a canary in the coal mine not for the scientific fallacy I believe it is based on, but for the actions it could portend in other states and at the federal level — revanchist rewrites of science. That is: replacing credible conclusions flowing from a preponderance of evidence with those based on a much smaller series of suspect studies, conducted by a fringe element of the scientific community.
I can accept that 99 people out of a 100 believing something is true — when it is false — doesn’t make it true. I can even accept that there are legitimate questions concerning some of the conclusions of a large majority of scientists still to be answered.
What I have trouble accepting — in fact and principle — is DNR’s retraction of a sound conclusion and legitimatization of the bantering between climate deniers and defenders, as an honest scientific debate. It’s not — at least as currently constituted by deniers.
The reason climate change is an issue at all is because of the epochal nature of the threat it poses to the health, safety, and welfare not just to the nation but to the world. Governments are routinely expected to respond appropriately to such threats. Climate change is no different in kind than terrorism or great recessions.
Why then do some deniers claim to want to wait until all evidence — of the cause of pending climate calamity — is in to act? I can’t say for sure. I think, however, that it is not the shadiness of the science but the motives of the messengers.
As defined by the deniers, the debate is rigged to insure protection of the status quo, not to guide constructive action. Society acts every day on the basis of incomplete knowledge and understanding. It must, to operate.
Guiding actions are acceptable decision frameworks. Coming from a legal background, I see this in how justice is dispensed every time I go to court. The law doesn’t demand certainty, it sets reasonable standards. In capital criminal cases a jury is asked to determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In civil and lesser criminal cases, the measure is a preponderance of the evidence.
Are these measures of culpability foolproof? Of course, not. They do, however, allow the system to work. I would credit the denier’s arguments if accompanied by some rational decision criteria. Would they accept a conclusion based on a preponderance of evidence or even beyond a reasonable doubt, the debate would prove constructive.
As it is, it is not even a debate. It’s an endless dialogue that supports stasis and quite possibly could threaten life on Earth as we know it. At best, it denigrates ongoing scientific discoveries and hamstrings preventive government actions.
Climate change cannot be responded to in the 11th hour. Simple prudence requires a response to the ravages that are increasingly being documented. Even the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is hedging its bet. The rest of the paragraph quoted above clearly qualified the department’s position:
“…but whatever the causes and effects, the DNR’s responsibility is to manage our state’s natural resources through whatever event presents itself; flood, drought, tornadoes, ice/snow or severe heat. The DNR stands ready to adapt our management strategies.”
Having once caved to the “science” of politics, the DNR is unlikely to receive the resources needed to make good on its promise of readiness. I may be missing something, but all I see having changed between the time the DNR believed in and then questioned anthropogenic climate change was the emergence of President-elect Donald Trump and Republican Congressional majorities.
If anything, the preponderance of evidence in support of anthropogenic climate change is greater with each passing day. Recent release of new research results has indeed cast doubt on earlier conclusions — not about the fact of warming but the rate at which it is occurring.
Analysis in the journal Science Advances concluded that scientists under-estimated ocean temperatures over the past two decades. This latest report confirmed earlier findings by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published last year in the journal Science and counters a theory that, until recently, was held by the IPCC.
Efforts to censor sound scientific statements from the pages of government documents — both educational and decisional — have been made before. All that was accomplished was slowing the government’s response to a recognizable threat, jamming up of judicial dockets, and the need to make up lost ground.
The danger lurking in the DNR’s revanchist rewriting is that other governments will point to it as evidence of growing scientific uncertainty. It is not. The decision likely reflects the opinion of politicians — not credible conclusions reached by scientists.
Climate defenders are not opposed to honest and open debate. Reasonable decision criteria will lead to rational proactive responses by government. I urge all to follow the advice of the President-elect of the United States:
“Now, to solve a problem, you have to be able to state what the problem is or at least say the name.”
Joel Stronberg, Esq., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC. A version of this article was originally published on his blog Civil Notion. Read the original.