CLIMATE OF DISBELIEF

I have a dear friend who I know is more politically conservative than I. However, I respect his intelligence and have always been impressed by his sharp humor, his professional success and his love of family. In short, he is a “mensch” and, accordingly, I try not to allow honest disagreements over things like tax policy and foreign affairs to interfere with our friendship.
My friend often forwards e-mail attachments containing jokes or links to interesting or touching stories. Rarely does he venture into politics and, when he does, the subjects are largely non-controversial. In face-to-face discussions, we have found common ground on such subjects as crime, American intervention in foreign wars and baseball (both our preferred teams stink). I was surprised, therefore, when he recently sent me a link to a purported “finding” that global warming is a hoax.
Several earlier posts touting solar power reveal my lack of objectivity on this subject. I am a believer that there is no more important issue in the world than the environment. Polls show me to be among only 2% of respondents who feel that way. I understand that most of the other 98% feel there are other priorities, but I’d never thought I would encounter a person in my milieu, who is an actual “denier.” Those people are lumped in my mind with the lunatic fringe, along with folks who deny the Holocaust, evolution, the dangers of smoking, and who agree with Sarah Palin on any subject.
“You’re kidding, right?” I wrote back.
“No, I’m really interested to see how you would debate this,” he responded.
“I won’t waste my time ‘debating’ something that is beyond debate,” I wrote. “This is settled science.”
I hoped the subject was forgotten when another e-mail arrived the next day attaching an alleged study conducted by three PhD’s. “You’ve gotta admit it’s just possible you’re wrong.” he tweaked. “This paper is convincing. The planet is actually cooling.”
Unhappily, I spent an hour wading through the turgid prose of the three professors. Most of their arguments consisted of picking apart the methodology of various climate studies, the format of their statistics, and offering alternative interpretations of data. For instance, if one examines several particular five year periods in the last century, one can find what appears to be a cooling trend. Most of what I felt, however, was confusion. It was as though a shotgun of arguments was being indiscriminately fired at the solid wall of climate research in the expectation that several pellets would find an opening. As intended by the authors, I imagined, when I finished reading, I felt confused.
“If real PhD’s see so many holes in the argument,” I thought to myself, “perhaps it has been a little hyped. Heaven knows, Al Gore is not above self-promotion.”
I decided to check out the three professors on the internet. The first turned out to be a marketing professor at a college in Australia. Her research was funded by the mining industry. The second was a business professor in Pennsylvania. He was a paid spokesperson for the coal industry and supplemented his income by lobbying in favor of the construction of coal-powered electricity plants. The third author was a medical doctor, also unrelated in any way to climate science, who has been reliant upon Exxon and/or the Petroleum Institute since at least 1994. Whenever there was a conference or debate regarding climate science, he was paid to appear on behalf of industry and present their talking points.
“The authors are charlatans,” I wrote to my friend. “You should check their credentials before sending me this garbage. They are not even remotely scientists. One must ‘consider the source’ when viewing papers that happen to support the interests of rich and powerful industries.”
I was certain my friend would regret having misled me. I expected him to thank me for setting him straight, for introducing to him a minimal level of skepticism. I could not imagine he would lend credence to Donald Trump with regards to someone’s birthplace, for instance.
“Okay,” he responded. “Check out this one.”
A link was attached to a 2009 study indicating that thousands of scientists have been organized to oppose the ‘consensus’ on global warming by a “noted physicist, Frederick Seitz, a recipient of the National Science Award.”
With no small degree of trepidation, I researched Dr. Seitz. On the face of it, he was a significant thinker. For forty years, starting in 1939, Dr. Seitz was a brilliant innovator and academician. Late in his career as a physicist, however, he became aligned with cigarette manufacturers and used his status as a noted “scientist” for their benefit. It is not clear what, but something happened in his life that made him go over to “the dark side.” Some have speculated he needed money. Others suggest he felt marginalized in mainstream science by the 1970’s and was looking for a way to “fight back.”
Dr. Seitz was not merely a skeptic that nicotine was addictive and harmful; he was the leader of the pack. He organized a campaign that churned out a blizzard of “pseudo-scientific” doubt about nicotine addiction. He reaped massive monetary rewards for his efforts. Partially as a result, it took over twenty years from the time of the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on its dangers for meaningful efforts to curb smoking to be implemented. In the meantime, how many additional millions of people suffered the effects of addiction? How many billions of dollars were earned by the cigarette industry?
As older readers may recall, and younger readers may be surprised to learn, Richard Nixon was the president who established the EPA and signed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of 1969. Protection of the environment was a bipartisan concern. After all, Democrats and Republicans breathe the same air and drink the same water. How did Fred Seitz come to be connected to the climate issue? To make a story that is the subject of entire books extremely short, (See “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes and Conway, 2010, if you want the LONG version) it happened like this:
Led by Exxon, the oil industry perceived their long-term profitability could be threatened if carbon-based industries were limited. In the early 1980’s, they turned to the same “scientists” who obfuscated the tobacco issue for so long – not just FIGURATIVELY the same, but LITERALLY. Fred Seitz had done so well on behalf of cigarette manufacturers he was enlisted to plant seeds of doubt regarding climate change, to contest the uncontestable, to poison the well, so to speak. He reassembled his “dream team” of obfuscators, once again, to run roughshod over consensus scientific conclusions and plant their writings in sympathetic journals. In a stroke of evil genius, he recognized that the issue could be couched as part of “The Liberal Agenda.” Thus, news outlets (everyone knows which ones) that reflexively make light of issues supported by progressives became free, twenty-four hour-a-day doubt-sowing machines. The urgency to combat the problem of carbon-fuels addiction has been effectively muted by the resistance of half our political representatives in the thrall of industry contributions.
“How could I make my friend see the light?” I wondered. He seems disinclined to read even the simplest background material on the authors he recommends. He would dismiss such information, apparently, as products of the “lame-stream media.” I was feeling despair when I recalled something about my friend: one of the coolest things about him, and one of the things that made me admire him originally, was that the chain of pharmacies he owned did not sell cigarettes. He sacrificed profit for principle.
“I’ll remind him,” I thought, and dutifully asked him if he recalled taking such a position. For good measure, I mentioned once again Dr. Seitz’s more-than-coincidental connection to both tobacco and climate change, thinking my friend’s having pierced one veil of denial would lead to his piercing of another.
He wrote back almost immediately: “My idea was very simple, how could we sell cigs in the front of the store and meds in the back? Seemed very hypocritical to me. Nothing to do with the environment or green movement.”
I was dumbstruck. Again. Where I see clarity, rationality and obvious connection, this man, whose IQ I know to be significantly higher than average, (not only is he great at business, he’s a tough out in Words with Friends) sees only a left-wing conspiracy. My only hope is his revulsion at hypocrisy. I’m sure I could point out instances of hypocrisy on his side of the argument but, realistically, he’ll just tout the glacier in Norway that’s gotten bigger or the ninety-five-year-old smoker who didn’t get cancer. There’s an anecdote for everything!
Life is too short. When I perceive a “man of science” to have blind faith in the gospel according to Palin and Trump, I’m afraid he is irretrievable. The famous motto of the United Negro College Fund seems apt: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I lack the energy to continue fighting this battle; maybe I’ll look for a good cartoon to send him, or a kitten video.

Advertisements