In the world of climate science, the skeptics are coming in from the cold.
Researchers who see global warming as something less than a planet-ending calamity believe the incoming Trump administration may allow their views to be developed and heard. This didn’t happen under the Obama administration, which denied that a debate even existed. Now, some scientists say, a more inclusive approach – and the billions of federal dollars that might support it – could be in the offing.
“Here’s to hoping the Age of Trump will herald the demise of climate change dogma, and acceptance of a broader range of perspectives in climate science and our policy options,” Georgia Tech scientist Judith Curry wrote this month at her popular Climate Etc. blog.
William Happer, professor emeritus of physics at Princeton University and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is similarly optimistic. “I think we’re making progress,” Happer said. “I see reassuring signs.”
Despite harsh criticism of their contrarian views, a few scientists like Happer and Curry have pointed to evidence that global warming is less pronounced than predicted. They have also argued that this slighter warming would bring positive developments along with problems. For the first time in years, skeptics believe they can find a path out of the wilderness into which they’ve been cast by the “scientific consensus.” As much as they desire a more open-minded reception by their colleagues, they are hoping even more that the spigot of government research funding – which dwarfs all other sources – will trickle their way.
President-elect Donald Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax,” has chosen for key cabinet posts men whom the global warming establishment considers lapdogs of the oil and gas industry: former Texas Gov. Rick Perry to run the Energy Department; Attorney General Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma to run the Environmental Protection Agency; and Exxon chief executive Rex Tillerson as secretary of state.
But while general policy may be set at the cabinet level, significant and concrete changes would likely be spelled out below those three – among the very bureaucrats the Trump transition team might have had in mind when, in a move some saw as intimidation, it sent a questionnaire to the Energy Department this month (later disavowed) trying to determine who worked on global warming.
It isn’t certain that federal employees working in various environmental or energy sector-related agencies would willingly implement rollbacks of regulations, let alone a redirection of scientific climate research, but the latter prospect heartens the skeptical scientists. They cite an adage: You only get answers to the questions you ask.
“In reality, it’s the government, not the scientists, that asks the questions,” said David Wojick, a longtime government consultant who has closely tracked climate research spending since 1992. If a federal agency wants models that focus on potential sea-level rise, for example, it can order them up. But it can also shift the focus to how warming might boost crop yields or improve drought resistance.
While it could take months for such expanded fields of research to emerge, a wider look at the possibilities excites some scientists. Happer, for one, feels emboldened in ways he rarely has throughout his career because, for many years, he knew his iconoclastic climate conclusions would hurt his professional prospects.
When asked if he would voice dissent on climate change if he were a younger, less established physicist, he said: “Oh, no, definitely not. I held my tongue for a long time because friends told me I would not be elected to the National Academy of Sciences if I didn’t toe the alarmists’ company line.”
That sharp disagreements are real in the field may come as a shock to many people, who are regularly informed that climate science is settled and those who question this orthodoxy are akin to Holocaust deniers. Nevertheless, new organizations like the CO2 Coalition, founded in 2015, suggest the debate is more evenly matched intellectually than is commonly portrayed. In addition to Happer, the CO2 Coalition’s initial members include scholars with ties to world-class institutions like MIT, Harvard and Rockefeller University. The coalition also features members of the American Geophysical Union and the American Meteorology Society, along with policy experts from the Manhattan Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute and Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
With such voices joining in, the debate over global warming might shift. Until now, it’s normally portrayed as enlightened scholars vs. anti-science simpletons. A more open debate could shift the discussion to one about global warming’s extent and root causes.
Should a scientific and research funding realignment occur, it could do more than shatter what some see as an orthodoxy stifling free inquiry. Bjorn Lomborg, who has spent years analyzing potential solutions to global warming, believes that a more expansive outlook toward research is necessary because too much government funding has become expensive and ineffective corporate welfare. Although not a natural scientist, the social scientist Lomborg considers climate change real but not cataclysmic.
“Maybe now we’ll have a smarter conversation about what actually works,” Lomborg told RealClearInvestigations. “What has been proposed costs a fortune and does very little. With more space opening up, we can invest more into research and development into green energy. We don’t need subsidies to build something. They’ve been throwing a lot of money at projects that supposedly will cut carbon emissions but actually accomplish very little. That’s not a good idea. The funding should go to universities and research institutions; you don’t need to give it to companies to do it.”
Such new opportunities might, in theory, calm a field tossed by acrimony and signal a détente in climate science. Yet most experts are skeptical that a kumbaya moment is at hand. The mutual bitterness instilled over the years, the research money at stake, and the bristling hostility toward Trump’s appointees could actually exacerbate tensions.
“I think that the vast ‘middle’ will want and seek a more collegial atmosphere,” Georgia Tech’s Curry told RealClearInvestigations. “But there will be some hardcore people (particularly on the alarmed side) whose professional reputation, funding, media exposure, influence etc. depends on cranking up the alarm.”
Michael E. Mann, another climate change veteran, is also doubtful about a rapprochement. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State and author of the “hockey stick” graph, which claims a sharp uptick in global temperatures over the past century, believes ardently that global warming is a dire threat. He concluded a Washington Post op-ed this month with this foreboding thought: “The fate of the planet hangs in the balance.” Mann acknowledges a brutal war of words has engulfed climate science. But in an e-mail exchange with RealClearInvestigations, he blamed opponents led by “the Koch brothers” for the polarization.
Mann did hint, however, there may be some room for discussion.
“In that poisonous environment it is difficult to have the important, more nuanced and worthy debate about what to do about the problem,” he wrote. “There are Republicans like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bob Inglis and George Shultz trying to create space for that discussion, and that gives me hope. But given that Donald Trump is appointing so many outright climate deniers to key posts in this administration, I must confess that I – and many of my fellow scientists – are rather concerned.”
Neither side of the debate has been immune from harsh and sinister attacks. Happer said he stepped down from the active faculty at Princeton in part “to deal with all this craziness.” Happer and Mann, like several other climate scientists, have gotten death threats. They provided RealClearInvestigations with some of the e-mails and voice messages they have received.
“You are an educated Nazi and should hang from the neck,” a critic wrote Happer in October 2014.
“You and your colleagues who have promoted this scandal ought to be shot, quartered and fed to the pigs along with your whole damn families,” one e-mailed Mann in Dec. 2009.
Similar threats have bedeviled scientists and writers across the climate research spectrum, from Patrick Michaels, a self-described “lukewarmer” who dealt with death threats at the University of Virginia before moving to the Cato Institute, to Rajendra Pachauri, who protested anonymous death threats while heading the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Putting such ugliness aside, some experts doubt that the science will improve even if the Trump administration asks new research questions and funding spreads to myriad proposals. Richard Lindzen, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Meteorology at MIT and a member of the National Academy of Sciences who has long questioned climate change orthodoxy, is skeptical that a sunnier outlook is upon us.
“I actually doubt that,” he said. Even if some of the roughly $2.5 billion in taxpayer dollars currently spent on climate research across 13 different federal agencies now shifts to scientists less invested in the calamitous narrative, Lindzen believes groupthink has so corrupted the field that funding should be sharply curtailed rather than redirected.
“They should probably cut the funding by 80 to 90 percent until the field cleans up,” he said. “Climate science has been set back two generations, and they have destroyed its intellectual foundations.”
The field is cluttered with entrenched figures who must toe the established line, he said, pointing to a recent congressional report that found the Obama administration got a top Department of Energy scientist fired and generally intimidated the staff to conform with its politicized position on climate change.
“Remember this was a tiny field, a backwater, and then suddenly you increased the funding to billions and everyone got into it,” Lindzen said. “Even in 1990 no one at MIT called themselves a ‘climate scientist,’ and then all of a sudden everyone was. They only entered it because of the bucks; they realized it was a gravy train. You have to get it back to the people who only care about the science.”