Industry-funded Cambridge astrophysicist adds to partisan divide over climate science – ‘It gives credibility to a crank point of view’Posted by Jim at Tuesday, November 05, 2013
By Christopher Rowland
5 November 2013
WASHINGTON (Boston Globe) – The setting was not unusual for a scholarly conference: a bland ballroom in a Houston hotel. But Willie Soon’s presentation was anything but ordinary. As PowerPoint slides flashed on a screen, his remarks crescendoed into a full-throated denunciation.
“Those people are so out of their minds!’’ exclaimed Soon, a solar researcher at the prestigious Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge. He assailed former vice president Al Gore, among others, for his views on climate change, calling predictions of catastrophic ocean tides “crazy’’ and scornfully concluding: “And they call this science.’’
Never mind that Soon, an astrophysicist, is no specialist on global sea levels, and his most notable writing on the subject was an op-ed article in the conservative Washington Times last year.
He has, nonetheless, established himself as a front-line combatant in the partisan crossfire over rising oceans, melting ice, and other climate issues beyond his primary expertise. Coveted for his Harvard-Smithsonian affiliation, and strident policy views, he has been bankrolled by hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy industry grants.
Working in close coordination with conservative groups in Washington, he passionately seeks to debunk the growing consensus on global warming before audiences of policymakers, at academic seminars and conferences, and in the media.
Polar bears? Not threatened. Sea level? Exaggerated danger. Carbon dioxide? Great for trees. Warming planet? Caused by natural fluctuation in the sun’s energy.
Soon’s views are considered way outside the scientific mainstream, which makes him a prophet or a pariah, depending on which side you ask. Some say his work simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, that his data are cherry-picked to fit his thesis.
But in Washington, where facts generally lose the race with opinion, he is a force. His writings and lectures are frequently cited by industry backed groups and think tanks, as they attempt to sow doubt about global warming.
And the strategy is working.
Outside the Beltway, the science is largely settled. Yet in the capital, government response to one of the major environmental and economic challenges facing the planet is mired in an endless cycle of conflicting claims and partisan finger-pointing.
The work of Soon, and a handful of like-minded scientists, is seen by critics in Congress and elsewhere as a case study in how this deadlock has been engineered by energy companies and antiregulation conservatives.
“They are merchants of doubt, not factual information,’’ said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who delivers a Senate speech every week demanding stronger air-quality standards. “Their strategy isn’t to convince people that the scientists are wrong. Their strategy is simply to raise the specter that there is enough doubt that … you should just move onto the next issue until this gets sorted out,’’ he said. “It gives credibility to a crank point of view.’’
No fewer than 13 US agencies spend more than $2.6 billion a year gathering and analyzing evidence on climate shifts — in land, at sea, at the poles, in space.
The conclusion? Global warming is real, and human activities are almost certainly a major cause.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, has likewise prepared a series of reports documenting the dangers. The latest, released in September, said there is a 95 percent certainty that human activity is the primary cause of the planet’s warming. The report predicts oceans will rise by nearly 3 feet by the end of the century.
And here is the official view of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society: “The scientific evidence is clear: Global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.”
Yet that global scientific consensus is changing few minds in Congress. By latest count, 127 US representatives and 30 senators believe that global warming is not happening or, if it is, that human activity is not the cause, according to a tally by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal advocacy group.
Voter surveys also show a divided public. Gallup, the polling firm, said this year that 57 percent of Americans surveyed believe global warming is a man-made phenomenon, while 39 percent say it is due to natural causes.
This muddled picture has made congressional action all but impossible. [more]