Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Spanish Inquisition

Yesterday I read an op-ed in a local "throw-away" paper that sent me chasing for more mainstream sources to confirm its allegations. It concerned a surprising development in the debate over climate change in California, suggesting that the state's attorney general, Bill Lockyer, is using his office to uncover the sources of "disinformation" spread by "climate skeptics." He has apparently singled out several well-known--and impressively credentialed--opponents of the scientific consensus for this treatment. This can only undermine the public perception of the positive actions on climate change that I highlighted two weeks ago. Whatever the role of states' attorneys general in this issue, turning the climate critics into persecuted dissidents cannot advance the response to climate change in any useful way.

Regular readers of this blog know that my own views on climate change are probably closer to Mr. Lockyer's than to those of the skeptics he is trying to expose. But we part company on how to convince our leaders and the general public that this is a serious problem that must be addressed. To the degree that will depend on scientific inquiry and findings, then we must let the processes of science sort out what is correct and what is mistaken. Science does this through debate and peer review, not through clumsy efforts reminiscent of the "Spanish Inquisition" skit from Monty Python. If, as I expect, the scientific consensus on climate change is ultimately borne out by the accumulation of evidence and validation of models against actual climate data, then skeptics will gradually become marginalized and lose their support, including their financial backing. We also need to remember that, while the consensus that the planet is warming and that humans are at least partially to blame is strong, the consensus on appropriate responses is rather less clear.

The case in question transcends scientific freedom, however. Should corporations be free to consult whichever experts they wish, irrespective of the externally-deemed "correctness" of their positions? Having dealt with this issue from the inside, when I was at Texaco, I would argue strenuously that as long as those advisers aren't breaking the law, this is a matter for the management and shareholders of the corporations in question to resolve. While I might offer them different advice than they presumably receive from the individuals and organizations at issue in Mr. Lockyer's investigation, I cannot see that they are any less entitled to their freedom of association than are the environmental organizations backing Mr. Lockyer.

Climate change is becoming an intensely political issue, and Mr. Lockyer's tactics represent the sharp end of the political spear. But rather than turning climate skeptics into a cause celebre--reinforcing notions that those seeking action on climate change behave as a dissent-crushing conspiracy, a la Mr. Crichton's latest novel--environmentalists ought to spend less time ascribing disproportionate powers of persuasion and delay to their opponents, and more time examining the failings of their own arguments.

The reasons why the public has not responded to the urgings on environmentalists are complex and may have more to do with the contradictions inherent in our lifestyles and preferences, than with the work of a few well-connected doubters, however clever and effective. With the Supreme Court considering whether the federal government should regulate greenhouse gas emissions as pollutants, we ought to have the benefit of a broad debate on this subject, rather than turning it into the next form of political correctness.

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