Criticism Intensifies of New Mexico’s Climate Denying Energy Secretary, Harrison Schmitt

Mon, 2011-02-07 06:13Chris Mooney
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Criticism Intensifies of New Mexico’s Climate Denying Energy Secretary, Harrison Schmitt

harrison schmitt, astronaut

Harrison Schmitt has had an impressive and storied career: Apollo astronaut and moonwalker, U.S. Senator,  Ph.D. geologist. Since his recent appointment to head the New Mexico Department of Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources, however, much attention is being focused on Schmitt’s highly unconventional views about climate change.

It’s not just that Republican Governor Susana Martinez’s new pick for the state’s top energy and environment role is a climate denier. It’s the highly politicized nature of his views and past statements–and just how wrong he is about technical matters in climate science–that’s particular stunning.

Politics first: Schmitt thinks that the environmental movement today is “what was previously considered the communist movement.” According to Schmitt, this occurred due to the fall of the Berlin wall: “the great champion of the opponents of liberty, namely communism, had to find some other place to go and they basically went into the environmental movement.For this reason, Schmitt says, citizens need to “wake up enough so that they can take control of their government again.”

It’s bad enough to have someone who thinks this way about environmentalists heading an agency whose mandate includes environmental conservation. But in some ways still worse is what we might call Schmitt’s hyper-wrong technical arguments used to support his climate denialist position.

This issue has already been getting attention in New Mexico newspapers. And now, climate bloggers Scott Mandia and John Cook both have posts this morning about a 2009 paper on climate models that Schmitt submitted to NASA.

The 2009 paper claims, among other things, that Arctic sea ice extent had seen a recovery, so that 2009 levels were back to where they’d been 20 years earlier in 1989. But as Mandia and Cook explain, that’s simply not true. Furthermore, even if Schmitt were right about sea ice extent, extent isn’t the same as sea ice volume, as I explained in this New Scientist piece. The decline in volume is also unequivocal and probably what matters more, because thinner ice has less chance of surviving the summer melt season.

This troubling claim about sea ice is just one of many that Schmitt has used to bolster his climate denialist stance, but it’s important because it’s so stark. Will Schmitt admit he was mistaken, and Arctic sea ice is indeed in marked decline? That would be a start towards showing the scientific and environmental community that he can put public service above ideology in his new role.


Previous Comments

Sounds like Schmitt is a disciple of the deeply peculiar Lord Monckton.

At 1:25: “The communists piled out of the Berlin Wall…”

Schmitt has withdrawn his candidacy for political office, as we can see by a later post here, but I felt compelled to comment at this late point.

What interests me is his comment about Communism. And, admittedly, I’ve been struggling to categorize his attitude so I freely admit to my own ignorance in this area of attitude formation, and I welcome comments on this subject.

Allow me to digress – the pro and con attitudes on the issue of climate change are not subject to the same psychological dynamics. Schmitt reveals something about his beliefs with his comment – for lack of a better way of putting it – that there are Communist motives behind the environmental movement. It’s a belief that goes well beyond mundane cold cognitive effects such as cognitive dissonance and enters into the realm of hot cognition (or motivated reasoning) and conspiracy theory.

The question that I’m always attempting to answer is whether denialists actually know they’re lying or instead believe what they contend. Unfortunately, I can’t answer this question, but there are clearly instances in which playing fast and loose with the truth is rationalized for what is believed to be the greater good. What’s revealed in Schmitt’s comment on Communism is the need to defend an entire world-view rather than something specifically related to climate science. Freud first used the term denial to describe a defense mechanism and global warming denialism may share these Freudian roots. What’s frequently evident in denialist attitudes is the need to disprove climate science at any cost. It’s an obsessive and irrational attitude. I’ve found little evidence of heterodox beliefs concerning global warming among skeptics (at least, among knowledgeable ones). What’s apparent in most contrarian belief systems is the need to discredit climate science by any means possible. The belief in a world-wide conspiracy seems too ridiculous to warrant debunking but the fact that there is such a belief tells us something about the underlying attitudes of its proponents. The theory of global warming has touched a nerve in denialists and the outlandish theories they contrive to discredit it are symptomatic of a reaction to having a cherished belief threatened.

I won’t attempt to summarize all the candidate beliefs but most of them could be categorized as defense of the status quo. Also, the term Market Fundamentalism specifically refers to an obsessive attachment to an idealized type of economic system. Curiously, even though there’s been an overabundance of rhetoric about free markets, Market Fundamentalism is primarily a laissez-faire system which has no rules. And there’s usually an Ayn Rand-ian type of Social Darwinism that underlies this. If I had to make a guess, I’d say that Conservative Libertarian types find the theory of global warming threatening because it makes their beliefs untenable so they decided to reject reality and keep their belief system instead.

What is he doing in politics? It is good that he visited Moon and write a dissertation(I think he asked some services for help). I am still sure that US politics looks like show business where everybody plays his own role in a great performance called Government. Anywhere his point of view about communists very funny.


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