08 October 2010

Willing Accomplices in the Hyper-Politicization of Climate Science

[UPDATE 10/10: Here is an example of a much better approach by a scientist to explaining why Cuccinelli's fishing expedition is a bad idea.]

There is an old saying in politics that the public gets the politicians that it deserves.  This of course is simply a reflection of the nature of democracy in which public views are in some sense supposed to be represented by the politicians that they elect.

A colleague has shared with me a fascinating story in the National Journal on the slate of Republican candidates for Senate.  He highlights this passage:
Nineteen of the 20 Republican Senate nominees who have expressed an opinion on the widespread scientific consensus that greenhouse gases are altering the world's climate have declared the science either inconclusive or dead wrong, often in vitriolic terms. (Kirk is the only exception.) Ron Johnson, a business owner who won his party's nomination in Wisconsin, says that accumulating carbon dioxide emissions are a less likely cause of any climate change than "sunspot activity or something just in the geologic eons of time where we have changes in the climate.
What explains this dynamic?  Politics of course.

The National Journal has tracked 23 issues on which (most off) these candidates have expressed views (a thumbnail image is shown above this post), and they find a remarkable conformity of opinion across issues among these Senate candidates.  The National Journal writes:
From repealing health care reform to extending the George W. Bush tax cuts, the leading Republican Senate candidates have displayed a remarkable convergence around deeply conservative positions. To assess the policy agenda of the 21 GOP Senate challengers with the best chance of winning in November, National Journal examined their websites and public statements and spoke with their campaigns. The results, displayed in the attached chart, show a potential GOP class of 2010 that is, as one veteran conservative activist put it, "more uniform in their philosophy, more populist and more anti-Washington" than even the landmark groups of Republican senators who flooded Washington after the party's landslide victories in 1980 and 1994.

The 2010 class's most aggressive members may envision a greater long-term rollback of Washington's role than many Republicans already in Congress. But on the most immediate issues facing Washington next year--from taxes and spending to immigration, health care, and energy--the class of 2010 has coalesced with lockstep consistency behind positions that promise repeated collisions with President Obama.
The reason for Republican uniformity of views on climate change in opposition to most scientists is thus not something intrinsic about the climate issue, or intrinsic to their Republican-ness.  Rather, it is an inevitable consequence of the politicization of the issue at the highest levels, meaning that opposition to action on climate (and to the justifications for that action) have come to be seen as part of what it means to be an American conservative.  This identity has been created and reinforced by those on the right and the left.

It is important to recognize that it didn't have to be this way.  As the National Journal notes on other environmental issues, which have traditionally had republican support:
All 18 GOP candidates who have taken a position support expanded drilling for oil and gas on public lands. All 19 who have taken a position want to expand construction of nuclear power plants. In each case, these positions represent a nearly complete rejection of the views of the leading environmental groups -- many of which worked closely with significant numbers of congressional Republicans in earlier decades.
The extreme politicization of policy that has come to characterize American politics has been a long time in developing.  I have no idea as to how that circumstance may have evolved differently.  But there are some issues that are at the center of that intense politicization (represented  by the list of 23 topics in the image above), but many others that are not so intensely contested.

It is worth asking whether the climate issue might have evolved differently such that it did not become so hyper-politicized. I think that to some degree the politicization could have been reduced, rather than exploited.

One thing is clear, however.  The issue of climate change will continue to remain hyper-politicized so long as the nation's most visible scientists continue to characterize the scientific issues in stark left-right terms as Penn State's Michael Mann does today in the Washington Post:
As a scientist, I shouldn't have a stake in the upcoming midterm elections, but unfortunately, it seems that I -- and indeed all my fellow climate scientists -- do.
Do Mann and the climate science community actually think that directly linking battles over climate science to upcoming national elections will depoliticize climate science?!

Not only does the public get the politicians that it deserves, but it seems that climate scientists get the politics that they deserve as well.  Until the scientific community shows some willingness to take actions that reduce rather than reinforce the political intensity of the climate debate, they are acting as willing accomplices in its hyper-politicization.