A couple news stories this week that got me thinking.
First, this interview on NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday:
In the NPR piece, Scott Simon moderated a sort of debate between Freakonomics (and Super Freakonomics) author Steven Levitt and Peter Frumhoff of The Union of Concerned Scientists. Levitt advocates geoengineering to fight global warming in the short term while we get CO2 under control -- things like pumping sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the earth. I'm personally skeptical, though a little intrigued, but Frumhoff's arguments against it were... well, fairly shocking. He started arguing that it wouldn't work, but when Levitt pushed back, he basically confessed he thought it was dangerous mostly because it would make it harder to get people behind reducing carbon emissions. In other words: talking about this will make it harder to get people to do what I want them to, so it is better to just pretend it isn't an option at all, especially as world leaders are meeting to try and agree to significant emission reductions.
In response, Levitt asked: "And if the U.S. were to meet the standards that Barack Obama has proposed, what will happen to the temperature of the Earth over the next 50 years?"
There was a long, uncomfortable pause, and then finally Frumhoff admitted: "Well, we're going to see some warming."
In other words: Carbon reduction, on any scale being talked about, will not solve the problem in the short term, while geoengineering possibly could. But we mustn't talk about it.
Now, geoengineering certainly could have lots of other negative effects as well, it seems far from a perfect fix or even a practical one -- but shouldn't we at least be having a discussions about it? We hear so much about how horrible severe global warming could be, so shouldn't we at least consider all the options, no matter how wacky they may seem? Yet the attitude taken by Frumhoff is frankly antidemocratic: don't tell people all the options in case they decide on a different option than the one we, the experts, think is best. Don't discuss the pros and cons of emission reduction vs. geoengineering, just accept as decreed that carbon emission reductions are the one true way.
Even more disturbingly anti-Democratic is this story in Science about leaked private e-mails between top climate scientists. A lot of disturbing content, most strikingly this particular quote from CRU (Climate Research Unit) Director Phil Jones referring to requests from global warming critics for a file of raw global temperature data. He wrote: "I think I'll delete the file rather than send to anyone." Other e-mail exchanges regarded trying to keep controversial research findings out of the 2007 IPCC report, saying "Kevin and I will keep them out somehow - even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is."
Basically, the e-mails contain various versions of the same story: Rather than releasing data that they feared could be misinterpreted, they made an effort to control the message so only information that supported their conclusions were made public.
The factual omissions revealed by these e-mail exchanges are apparently not that damaging to the actual science -- the scientists seem to have good reasoning behind drawing the conclusions they have from their data, but the choice to simply promulgate their conclusions rather than the full course of reasoning that lead to those conclusions is very disturbing -- beyond disturbing. If I, in my research in grad school, tried to hide data which didn't support my conclusions I would be kicked out of school, and rightly so: Transparency is at the very heart of science. You always present the data that supports your conclusions, AND the reasons you might possibly be wrong.
I consider myself an environmentalist, and have never considered myself a doubter of global warming, but this story has frankly shaken me. What these scientists have done is put political dogma ahead of honesty and truth. How then are we to trust them? They think, I guess, that because global warming is so serious, it is too important to debate. I feel quite the opposite: For something that important we need all the facts and all the debate we can get.