Through the Looking Glass: Climate Change Denial, Conflict of Interest and Connecting Science to Policy

November 8, 2013 | 4:57 pm
Andrew Rosenberg
Former contributor

The Boston Globe has an outstanding series of articles entitled “Broken City” and it is not hard to guess which city they are referring to.  Hint—not the one that boasts a World-Series-winning team.

When fully implemented, strong scientific integrity policies can protect government scientists and prevent political interference in science. The EPA is ahead of the curve compared to other agencies when it comes to scientific integrity. The most recent article in the series is about Willie Soon at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, who rejects the overwhelming evidence from his fellow scientists that climate change and all its manifestations are occurring and caused by people.

Dr. Soon gets an enthusiastic hearing from some energy industry backers of his program of speeches and some questionable compilations of data to support his point of view. He also has an impact on Capitol Hill (hence inclusion in the “Broken City” series) with those members of Congress predisposed to his message that climate change is not caused by people but rather by natural fluctuations in the sun’s energy.

This is an old story, creating disinformation to cast doubt on scientific evidence whose implications are anathema to some special interests. Of course there is a large body of evidence concerning changes in climate resulting from heat-trapping emissions. From a scientific perspective, if there are a small number of scientists who doubt the evidence, it doesn’t really matter. But their outsized voice in the policy discussion does matter. And, in terms of connecting science to public policy, it raises important issues about how we, as a society, view scientific evidence as a basis for the choices we face.

Here I want to focus on two particular aspects that the article about Dr. Soon highlighted for me. First, conflict of interest. Dr. Soon has been largely supported by the fossil fuel industry in his outspoken criticism of climate scientists and the scientific evidence that shows that the climate is changing. Yet he claims that he is the one who is objective, that he is the only one just looking at the facts. And he asserts that while he sees no conflict because of his fossil fuel industry funding, those that find evidence of anthropogenic climate change are biased.

This is stepping through the looking glass. The major reports that chronicle our changing climate—the IPCC, or the US National Climate Assessment—are done on a purely voluntary basis, for the most part. Scientists devote time above and beyond their day jobs to summarize the state of the science for the public and policymakers. I should know. I am one of the scientists on the US assessment advisory panel and convening lead author on the oceans chapter. This position is entirely uncompensated and I’m happy to volunteer my time and expertise. It is an important effort, and many many scientists routinely take on major tasks like this on a pro bono basis.

Yet, Soon’s allies in Congress and within some advocacy groups accuse my colleagues and me of conflict of interest or a hidden agenda. The problem with their argument is that most mainstream scientists are not funded by special interests, such as the fossil fuel industry, with a vested stake in the outcome of climate change policy decisions. But most of the deniers are.

Again, we have seen this movie before. When I worked as a scientific advisor for fishery management, the fishing industry would often argue—particularly in front of elected officials—that we scientists had some hidden agenda to drive them all out of business. In reality, we were fulfilling laws Congress had passed to inform decisions about catch limits and fisheries management with the best available science. But the fishing industry—in disputing science—would claim that they were the only ones who were objective. It sounds ridiculous, but for some reason that argument seemed to carry weight with some officials, just as the climate deniers’ claims do now.

So now let’s step back through the looking glass and recognize that special interests and industry funding creates a clear conflict of interest that must be addressed before we should take their views seriously. I don’t think Dr. Soon will cease presenting his arguments. But why should any policy maker listen? Look at the provenance of the information. Is it coming from an independent source, and is it just an individual view or is it broadly based?

If Dr. Soon’s research carried weight with his colleagues, it would make more sense to listen. But it doesn’t—not because Dr. Soon receives funding from industry, but because he is wrong. He has never conclusively made his case that solar variation is causing climate change and he probably never will.

And that brings me to the second aspect of the story that I particularly noted. With respect to Dr. Soon’s views, the former director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center is quoted as saying, “As far as I can tell, no one pays any attention to him.” Unfortunately, that isn’t the case. While he and his colleagues in astrophysics may ignore most of Soon’s work, climate scientists with real expertise in the field certainly pay attention to it, precisely because it is promoted by fossil fuel interests and their allies to confuse the public. When misinformation is shouted out—when conflicts of interest are not clearly exposed and viewed for what they are—scientists and the public need to speak out.