Columnist: Climate — The politicization of science

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 27, 2016

“It will be like weather forecasting on earth … One can’t predict the weather more than a few days in advance.” — Stephan Hawking (1942-), “Information Preservation and Weather Forecasting for Black Holes,” 2014.

“If you don’t like the weather in New England now, just wait a few minutes,” is a saying generally attributed to Mark Twain, a Missouri native, but Hartford resident for 17 years. Having grown up in New Hampshire and having lived my adult life in Connecticut, I can attest to the validity of his observation.

At a time when politicians – and politics – have become more divisive than at any point since the 1960s, few issues generate more hyperbole than “climate change,” or “global warming” as it was called last year. Climate, as those of us from New England well know, is in constant flux and always has been.

Global warming is a phenomenon that appears to be fact – at least in certain parts of the world. Arctic ice caps are shrinking, but those in Antarctica are getting bigger.

During the 1970s, the media was concerned about global cooling. Over millennia, the earth has warmed and cooled thousands of times. Mountains have risen, seas have been altered and deserts and jungles created – all before the advent of man.

William Happer, a physicist at Princeton and former director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Science during the first Bush administration, recently wrote a paper, “Harmful Politicization of Science.” He has been maligned by those who forbid counter-arguments to the narrative that man bears responsibility for climate change.

In the paper, Professor Happer explained he did not see great risk in warming trends, as they have not reached the same intensity as they had from roughly 900 AD to 1250 AD when vikings settled Iceland and Greenland. He wrote: “The current debates about global climate change are complicated by our not understanding the physics of the sun or the earth’s atmosphere and oceans well enough to dismiss them as major causes of climate change on the earth.”

Is his skepticism ill-informed?

The Left’s adamancy assumes that the science of climate change is settled – that all relevant knowledge has been considered, that answers are known. If we reduce our emissions all will be well?

It is an attitude not dissimilar to those who said the earth was flat, or that we were the center of the universe. The truth is that the search for scientific answers is more akin to Stuart Little’s quest for Margalo – we may feel we are on the right path, but the quest continues.

The risks in their simplistic but politically expedient responses are that their focus detracts from could be a real need to adapt, as life has had to do since it first appeared billions of years ago – not to try to change what may not be changeable, but to adapt. It was adaption that caused people to move to low-lying islands a thousand or more years ago. They may have to move again.

While I am a skeptic as to causes, I also believe we have a responsibility to treat the planet with respect and to improve the environment wherever we can. And that is what man has done, especially over the past century.

It is our wealth – ironically, much of it derived from natural resources – that has allowed man to clean up the environment. A hundred years ago, the Connecticut River, in whose valley I reside, was far dirtier than it is today.

Seventy-five years ago, most of New York City’s apartments were heated by coal. Fifty years ago Los Angeles was smog-bound. It is natural for our species to improve our habitats.

But, if one disagrees with the assertion that “climate change” is the greatest risk we face and that man bears principal responsibility, one is labeled a “denier.” End of debate.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) even urged that “deniers” be prosecuted. Such allegations and charges are both asinine and nescient. They are used for political advantage.

“Believers” express opinions as fact, based on observations that accord with a preconceived narrative. They brook no dissension. Whatever happened to scientific inquiry? Whatever happened to free speech?

At some point the earth will end, but probably not for a billion or more years. Whether it explodes because its orbit carries it too close to the sun, or if the sun burns out and the earth becomes nothing more than a frozen planet veering off into space, I don’t know, and I suspect no one else does either. But man will likely not be the cause.

Did man cause the continents to split, or the Sahara Deserts to develop 7 million years ago? Did man cause Vesuvius to erupt 2,000 years ago, or the Rocky Mountains to arise seventy million years ago?

The earth has been around for a few billion years. Was man responsible for the earthquake that devastated Shaanxi, China, in 1556, which killed almost two-thirds of the region’s population, or the heavy rains that flooded the Yangtze River in 1931 that took 3.7 million lives?

Did man cause Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2004, or the earthquake in San Francisco in 1906? How much more time does the earth have? Can anyone answer?

To claim that one can is fatuous. I am not a denier; I am, though, skeptical of those who claim that the science of climate change is settled.

Technology has allowed us to anticipate and to monitor hurricanes like Sandy or typhoons like Haiyan, but we cannot stop them, or even redirect them. We can warn people; but the energy they release is greater than anything man has ever devised.

In a 2006 article written for NASA’s publication Earth Observatory, science writers Steve Graham and Holli Riebeek wrote: “… during its life cycle a hurricane can expend as much energy as 10,000 nuclear bombs.”

Which should we fear most: one of nature’s devastating storms, an unfortunate movement of one of the earth’s tectonic plates, or a coal-fired plant in Kentucky or another in inner Mongolia? While we can do something about coal plants, there is little, at this point, that we can do to subdue nature when she decides to act up.

No one denies the changing climate of our planet. And no one I know denies that man bears some responsibility. The question is how critical has man’s role been? I submit that no one knows.

It has been the politicization of the issue that I find reprehensible. It is offensive when individuals with whom we have entrusted our nation’s highest offices – people like Al Gore – exploit climate change for personal gain. Scientists should be encouraged to continue to seek answers.

Do you truly believe that the science of climate is “settled,” that we know all there is to know, that there is no knowledge yet to be gained? It was once “settled” science that the earth was flat and that our planet was the center of the universe, that man could not fly.

The earth is large and complex, and scientists can only guess at its measurements. Its weight is estimated at 1.3 X 10(25) pounds; yet it “floats” in space. Its land mass – about 30 percent of its surface – covers about 196.9 million square miles.

Its oceans – 97 percent of its water – contain, according to NOAA, 321 million cubic miles of water. The earth’s center – 4,000 miles beneath where you now sit – is composed of molten iron with a temperature estimated at 10,800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Its age, estimated at 4 billion years, is a moving target. The United Nations Environment Program estimates that there are 8.7 million species on earth, “give or take a million.”

Man is but one. And, keep in mind, the earth is but a speck in the universe. We know a lot, but there is much we have to learn.

To claim that the elimination of greenhouse gasses will cause the planet to cool and seas to recede is not only disingenuous, it is dangerous. Doctrinaire advocates of climate change have turned what should be a bi-partisan field of research for the benefit of all into a politicization of science for the gain of a few.

By Sydney M. Williams

Contributing columnist

Sydney Williams, a retired stock broker, writes about politics, the economy, global affairs, education and climate, among other topics. He may be reached at