Stop Blurring the Line Between Climate Science and Climate Activism

Stop Blurring the Line Between Climate Science and Climate Activism
AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

In late October, yet another Congressional committee looked at climate change.  Unfortunately for those of us who want serious solutions, the focus was only on pointing fingers at industry or giving oxygen to ambitious proposals such as the so-called Green New Deal. What is needed is more attention to practical ways to address climate change.  Ultimately, practical solutions will come from science, technology and engineering.

Instead, the October 23 hearing before a House Oversight subcommittee, intended to explore the burdens from the effects of climate change on the economically disadvantaged and minority communities, focused elsewhere. Much of the session pushed the accusation that ExxonMobil encouraged public skepticism about climate change and played down its own scientists’ predictions that fossil fuels use would cause warming temperatures. Over the last four years, the company has debunked those claims with thousands of documents but partisans and activists are undeterred. 

The star witness was Naomi Oreskes, one of the energy industry’s most tenacious antagonists. Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard, earned a doctorate in mining geology from Stanford. These credentials aside, she is more activist than scientist. Peers have discredited more than one of her analyses.

In a 2017 paper she co-authored with Geoffrey Supran, “Assessing ExxonMobil's Climate Change Communications (1977–2014),” she accused ExxonMobil of shelving science for a disinformation campaign. Some saw the paper as flawed in its methodology. Professor Kimberly Neuendorf, a research scientist and expert in content analysis whose work was cited in the paper, later analyzed the methodology and conclusions and found so many flaws that she pronounced the content analysis, “..unreliable, invalid, biased, not generalizable, and not replicable.”

Research from the National Climate Assessment and the World Energy Outlook make clear the validity of climate change.  But Oreskes sought to prove a scientific consensus on climate change by reviewing abstracts in scientific journals for the magazine Science in 2004. But other academics could not find many of the abstracts she cited, and the piece had to be corrected. 

This is a sign of sloppiness, dishonesty, bias, or all three.   In 2010, she published Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.  She was criticized this time for bias in trusting some experts while discounting others and for being “less a scholarly work than a passionate attack.”  

Climate change is a real phenomenon with human agency. We need solutions that are technologically-driven, market-based and considerate of the social costs of alternatives.  Unfortunately, the public debate on this subject has been dominated by environmental extremists, anti-oil crusaders, and industry lobbyists.  The media has mostly ignored scientists.  Last fall, WNYC’s program On the Media reported that in the numerous segments on climate policy on the Sunday news-talk shows, it had been three years since any featured a climate scientist.  

The time has come for Congress to refrain from giving climate activists the stage for recriminations against the oil and natural gas industry. Instead lawmakers from both parties should convene an honest discussion of forward-looking solutions with all stakeholders.

ExxonMobil and other companies have invested billions of dollars to make energy production cleaner along with making major investments in clean energy. Policymakers should be looking at ways to complement these efforts. For example, the National Science Foundation has the potential to use its Engineering Research Centers and associated awards to advance this effort. 

Enlarging budget allocations for support of scientific and technological research are needed now.  

The consequences of policies adopted to address climate change could be as far-reaching and disruptive as the phenomenon itself so we need to get this right. Time is of the essence. Accusations against industry and calls for recrimination based on flawed studies and political biases must now take a back seat to solutions based on science, engineering, and economics.    

Dr. Larry Edward Penley, a former university president, currently serves on the Arizona Board of Regents.  

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