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'Global Warming and Political Intimidation'

August 12, 2011

In the late 1990s, Raymond Bradley, a climatologist at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, collaborated with two researchers on a pair of studies that altered the dialogue on climate change. The studies, a collaboration between Bradley, a geophysicist named Michael Mann (then finishing up his Ph.D. at Yale University) and University of Arizona climatologist Malcolm Hughes, presented evidence of global climate change over the past millennium and set off a political firestorm. The work was widely cited by those who (like the vast majority of scientists) take climate change seriously, but was doubted by skeptics of climate.

The study that caused the greatest uproar was a comparison of climate change going back to the year 1000. The results were represented by a line graph shaped like a hockey stick, which has become iconic in the debate over global warming -- even as the scholars noted many limitations in their work.

In a new book, Global Warming and Political Intimidation: How Politicians Cracked Down on Scientists as the Earth Heated Up (University of Massachusetts Press), he describes how his work made him a target for conservative politicians. “The hockey stick scientific debate is over,” he writes, “but government interference in science at the state, local, and national levels remains a contentious issue in the United States and must not be ignored."

Bradley responded via e-mail to questions about the book.

Q: What are some of the lessons other scientists could draw from your experience? Do you think they could do more to engage the public, educate politicians, or be politically active?

A: First, scientists should be aware that they are no longer working in an academic bubble. Regrettably, politics intrudes on almost all aspects of our research nowadays. This has been driven by ideologues on the right and the left, and fueled by the easy access to data and records on the Internet. Of course, this is especially true of issues that may have some economic significance ... but few issues are very far from such considerations anymore. Having said that, scientists should not hesitate to respond to attacks on their credentials if the attacks come from politicians or political organizations.

Scientists can certainly do more to explain their research, by writing articles for popular science magazines and giving lectures to local organizations. And we should all make contact with politicians and their staff, to let them know what we are working on. Most federal politicians have a staff member who is responsible for science and technology matters.

As for combating the pervasive influence of lobbyists and well-funded political action committees, all we can really do is publish our research without exaggerating the implications, but make sure as many people as possible find out about it. Often, university press officers can be helpful in putting out summaries of important research, and making it accessible to the general public. In the end, the public must make decisions about what are the important issues, and make their influence known through the ballot box.

Q: Can graduate programs better prepare scientists for the kinds of political encounters they are likely to have?

A: It would be a good idea for departments to offer a graduate seminar, where issues about how to engage the public, and policy makers could be discussed. It might be enlightening for students to listen to some Congressional hearings and get a sense of how the political system works (or doesn’t work…).

Q: The debate around your study looking at past climate patterns seemed to explode after you extended it to include projections going all the way back to 1000. In hindsight, do you think this was overreaching? From a purely political standpoint, did this hurt the case for climate change?

A: Our reconstruction of temperatures over the last 1000 years was titled, "Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the past millennium: inferences, uncertainties, and limitations" (Geophysical Research Letters 26, 759–762; 1999). In the abstract, we stated: "We focus not just on the reconstructions, but on the uncertainties therein, and important caveats" and noted that "expanded uncertainties prevent decisive conclusions for the period prior to AD 1400." We concluded by stating: "more widespread high-resolution data are needed before more confident conclusions can be reached."

It is hard to imagine how much more explicit we could have been about the uncertainties in the reconstruction; indeed, that was the point of the article! So, the topic of the paper had very little to do with the subsequent furor that surrounded it. One figure from our paper was selected for use in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s "Summary for Policy-Makers." Because it was a rather compelling image (easy to understand) it was reproduced in many magazines and newspapers, and quickly became an icon for the IPCC’s message that human activity was affecting climate. Those opposed to legislation that would set controls on greenhouse gas emissions thus decided to try and destroy the credibility of our research, in order to cast doubt on the entire IPCC report.

The idea that the conclusions of the IPCC rested entirely on our study was absolutely ridiculous, but from a political point of view, they had a good strategy. By creating the impression that there was something bad about our research, they cast a shadow over the entire IPCC Report. In that sense, I don’t think the politicians had any real interest in what our research showed — the attacks on our reputations were just a way to get the media to report on a controversy. This was reinforced by a few trivial errors in the IPCC Report, and the hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia. This all contributed to the overall plan, to cast doubt on the quality of the IPCC Report, and the supposed ulterior motivations of climate scientists, in order to stall policies on controlling greenhouse gas emissions. And it worked very well. In the United States, no legislation has been passed, and currently nothing is even being considered.

Q: How could you have done things differently?

A: I don’t think we could have written the papers any differently; they were peppered with caveats and presented what was essentially a working hypothesis for others to test. And that has been done many times since 1999, with very little that changes our basic conclusions.

Q: How did the hockey stick debate change your attitude about politicians and their role in scientific research?

A: Until this experience, I had not had much interaction with politicians. But this experience opened my eyes to how industry money and extreme political ideology now drive our political system. In fact, I believe there is a fundamental problem with our Congressional system as it now stands. Far too much power is in the hands of a few committee chairs; they have significant budgets, so can hire a large staff, some of whom can be assigned to harass people if that seems to be politically expedient. They can demand records, and even subpoena individuals, or hold that prospect over their heads as a looming threat. Hearings are no longer held to objectively examine and understand an issue; they are political theater, where witnesses are selected to spin the story that those controlling the committees want heard. And committee chairs can simply refuse to consider an issue, if that is politically useful. Needless to say, these individuals attract huge financial support from vested interests. It is not an exaggeration to say that our system has been hijacked by those with specific financial interests, who sponsor key politicians to ensure their interests are promoted.

Q: How much has changed since the beginning of the Obama presidency? How prevalent are some of the problems you mentioned in the book today, with Democrats in control of the executive branch and the Senate?

A: It is astonishing to see how discussion of human-induced climate change has disappeared from the political debate. In fact, for the right wing, the topic has become completely off-limits for aspiring politicians. Those seeking the Republican nomination for president are afraid to address the matter. Meanwhile, Democrats have also dropped the topic, seemingly accepting the notion that we can’t afford to deal with it while the economy is in a mess. Ironically, many studies have shown that taking steps to control greenhouse gases can be very good for economic growth, leading to new industries and job creation. President Obama occasionally alludes to this, in talking about "green jobs," but he almost never ties this to climate change. No doubt this will all change (again) when the next Katrina-size hurricane hits the U.S., or some other climate-related disaster grabs the media's and the public’s attention.

Q: Do you see the same kind of government interference in other scientific fields? What will the next "hockey stick debate" be about?

A: Those who feel that a particular line of research may affect the profitability of a company, and those who have a strong ideological belief that all legislation is unnecessary (free market fundamentalists) have a well-developed strategy: if they don’t like the message of science, they target the messengers. This is happening in many areas of science, and so we have to be aware that intimidation and harassment of scientists is often used for political purposes. It appears that the latest example is the suspension and investigation of a scientist who reported his observations about drowned polar bears north of Alaska. He has had to defend his study in a sworn deposition to investigating attorneys. Now he is being investigated for his handling of government contracts. Could this have anything to do with the oil industry’s push to drill off the north coast of Alaska, versus the proposal to declare polar bears an endangered species? It seems to me that this is a perfect example of another scientist being intimidated and harassed, for (im)purely political reasons.

 

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