Ben Perlmutter Feature Rough Draft: The Politization of Climate Science

This March Republican presidential hopeful Sen. Ted Cruz, audaciously compared global warming activists to people who believe the world is flat.

Cruz could not be further from the truth. It is in fact him and climate deniers like him that are on the wrong side of science.

Since humanity created the scientific method, there have always been doubters of science. From doubters of a heliocentric universe, to creationists, to anti-vaxxers, some people have refused to concede to scientific truth. Today, climate deniers are yet another iteration of these opponents to scientific reality.

Climate deniers are able to perpetuate their false beliefs through a phenomenon known to social scientists as the politicization of science.

Georgia State political science professor Toby Bolsen explained in a phone interview that “politicization occurs when an actor emphasizes the inherent uncertainly in science by casting doubt on the existence of a scientific consensus.”

People who do not like a scientific consensus, for whatever reason, are able to twist facts to make it seem like doubt exists when there is in fact none. Climate change science is particularly vulnerable to politicization because climate change is such a complicated field of study.

Emory University environmental scientist Woody Hickcox explained climate science is a particularly complicated discipline because it takes from so many different fields of study. Climate science needs to take into account meteorology (to see how weather has changed, chemistry (to understand how greenhouse gasses are emitted), astrophysics (to measure climate changes from outerspace), ecology (to study the effect of climate change on life), the list goes on and on.

No single academic paper can prove that human green house gas emissions are causing climate change. Rather a large body of literature proves the influence of human’s on climate change.

This body of literature has many uncertainties because scientists, following the tried and true scientific method, try to falsify conclusions, rather than prove them. Science is designed to be open to critiques in its incessant quest for the truth.

Climate deniers emphasize the inherent uncertainty of science even though this doubt is in reality far overwhelmed by a scientific consensus pointing towards the influence of humans on climate change. Deniers amplify uncertainty not to promote science, but to promote a political agenda.

By casting doubt on climate science, deniers distort public opinion on climate change away from science towards a position politically advantageous to them.

One of the favorite tactics of climate denying politicians is to claim that they are not scientists, and therefore cannot speak on climate change, as the science is unsettled.

President Obama, a staunch climate change advocate, said during the State of the Union address in response to Republican climate deniers: “I’ve heard some folks try to dodge the evidence by saying they’re not scientists – that we don’t have enough information to act. Well, I’m not a scientist, either. But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at [NASA], and [NOAA], and at our major universities.”

While the president is certainly correct to put his trust in scientists, his prestigious endorsement is not nearly enough to counter the vast machinery that supports climate denial.

The fossil fuel industry has been the largest contributor to funding climate denial. Fossil fuels are one of the largest contributors to green house gas emissions, so the industry have a lot to loose if government creates legislation to curb emissions, hurting these companies’ bottom line.

ExxonMobile, the worlds largest oil company, and Koch Industries, a gigantic petrochemical company, are the two greatest contributors to the politicization of climate change.

Earlier this year, Harvard scientist Willie Soon, who had argued that recent climate change could mostly be explained by natural variation in the sun’s energy output, was discovered to have not exposed that he received $1.2 million for his research from Koch Industries and Exxon Mobile. Scientists must disclose conflicts on interest like this. Dr. Soon’s failure to expose his conflict of interest sparked widespread outcry from the international media, climate activist groups, and the scientific community.

Many climate deniers have cited Dr. Soon’s research as justification for their climate denial. Sen. James Inhofe, who claims that climate change is a hoax, has repeatedly cited Dr. Soon to justify his claims.

This recently controversy about Dr. Soon’s research is emblematic of the Politicization of climate change in American politics. Interests with vested interests in climate denial fund a scientist with fringe beliefs. Then politicians who support climate denial cite this fringe scientist to justify their climate skepticism. Thus, doubt in climate change is seeded.

Tales like that of Dr. Soon are all too common. Unfortunately it is impossible to know how much money Exxon, Koch, and other vested interests give to climate denial research because they often fund via the research third-party, “dark money” conservative groups, a 2013 study by Drexel University environmental sociologist Robert Brulle reports.

Greenpeace, an environmentalist group, and other researchers found that Exxon and the Koch-backed charity foundations have funneled money to climate denial research through Donors Trust, a charity that supports ultra-free market ideas. Donors Trust gave $146 million to climate denial groups between 2002 and 2011. Due to lax oversight on donations to charities like Donors Trust, it is impossible to fully ascertain how much of the organization’s money came from the fossil fuel industry.

With all of this doubt being disseminated, the general public has difficulty telling the real science from the fossil fuel funded bunk. This leads to a debate where there should be no debate, yanking discussion away from how to grapple with climate change to whether there is climate change. Reaction to climate change continues at a tepid pace, as fossil fuel companies continue their greenhouse gas emissions unabated.

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