McCarthy’s climate dogma damaging science

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climate change

Tom Harris

In her testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works on Wednesday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy proclaimed:

“Climate change [caused by human activity] is one of the greatest challenges of our time. It already threatens human health and welfare and economic well-being, and if left unchecked, it will have devastating impacts on the United States and the planet. The science is clear. The risks are clear. And the high costs of climate inaction are clear. We must act.”

No one, not even the world’s leading climate scientists, knows this. As illustrated at the Ninth International Conference on Climate Change held earlier this month in Las Vegas, experts can no longer even agree whether global warming or cooling lie ahead. Dr. Chris Essex, Professor of Applied Mathematics at The University of Western Ontario, explained that uncertainty is to be expected in such an immature and rapidly evolving field. “Climate is one of the most challenging open problems in modern science,” said Essex. “Some knowledgeable scientists believe that the climate problem can never be solved.”

Ordinarily, this would simply be a debate between specialists. But the sort of overconfidence expressed by McCarthy, certainty about things we cannot know, has infected governments worldwide, resulting in billions of dollars being wasted revamping our energy infrastructure to supposedly stop climate change.

Historically, the left have ridiculed conservatives for being absolute about such things as morals, politics, and religion. The claims that science discovers truths about nature instead of simply opinions and beliefs based on observations—empirical evidence that is always subject to interpretation—eventually led to the ‘science wars’ of the late twentieth century, a conflict in which the intellectual left were the skeptics of science. And it was the left who supported Albert Einstein’s relativity and the right who opposed it, believing it threatened their cultural worldview.

But this traditional approach—skepticism and relativism from the left and absolutism from the right—has been turned on its head in the climate debate. While conservatives call for open debate about the causes of climate change, left wingers consider such discussion intolerable and act as if we know the future of climate, a position that is scientifically and philosophically indefensible.

And now many scientists, even those who focus on climate and so should know better, speak confidently about future climate states, or remain mute about the vast uncertainties in the science when leaders such as McCarthy speak. They obviously fear alienating their intellectual fellow travelers, peers who, even if they are unfamiliar with the science, support the climate movement for political reasons. One of the greatest successes of activists has been to convince society to identify environmentalism, and specifically ‘stopping global warming’, with liberalism since most opinion leaders in society, including scientists and university professors, are progressives. But this too makes no sense. Some of the most famous conservationists were conservative.

Academics who understand the illogic of assertions such as McCarthy’s say nothing also because they do not want to undermine positions that they personally support, ideals such as environmental protection and social justice. So they sell out philosophically, backing off from the skepticism they would normally express.

This is a slippery slope.

Blind acceptance of truth in science, and the condemnation of skeptics, has slowed human progress throughout history. For example, when the Greco-Egyptian writer Claudius Ptolemy proposed his Earth-centered system, he did not say it was physical astronomy, a true description of how the universe actually worked. He promoted it as mathematical astronomy, a model that worked well for astronomical observations, astrology, and creating calendars.

It was the Catholic Church which, relying on a literal interpretation of the Bible, promoted the Ptolemaic system as truth to be questioned at one’s peril. This was why Nicolaus Copernicus, a Canon in the Church, waited until he was on his death bed before he allowed his revolutionary book showing the Sun to be the center of the universe to be published, even though the text was completed 30 years earlier. This is also why Galileo ran into so much trouble when he claimed that the Church was wrong and that Copernicanism was the real truth, a position that Galileo could not really know either.

Similarly, the widely assumed ‘truth’ of Sir Isaac Newton’s laws of motion and law of universal gravitation, theories that initially advanced our understanding of nature, eventually impeded scientific progress until Albert Einstein formulated relativity, a theory that also may turn out to be wrong. When authorities preach ‘truth’ about science, progress stops.

Scholars must be free to question the status quo, not merely go along with it for fear of ridicule or retribution. The Obama administration’s confident, aggressive stance on global warming is creating a climate of fear in the research community that all scientifically-minded people, whatever their political stripes or beliefs about climate change, must condemn.

Tom Harris is Executive Director of the Ottawa, Canada-based International Climate Science Coalition (

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