But as NPR demonstrated in a recent report, that's just the tip of the iceberg.
“More than a dozen schools in states as varied as Texas, Montana, Ohio and West Virginia are already tapping natural resources on college campuses,” the report explains. “The University of Southern Indiana recently started pumping oil.”
In an August post about the return of the “war on science”—prosecuted by the political right—I drew a key distinction between attacks on knowledge that had occurred during the George W. Bush administration, and those we’re seeing now. To wit:
1. Bottom Up v. Top Down Anti-Science Attacks. Clearly, the U.S. Republican right has remained at “war” with science—at least on the most hot button issues. Were this not the case, Huntsman’s claim would not resonate, as it so obviously does.
If anything, however, I believe matters have gotten worse. Why? Largely because we’ve swapped the relatively genteel “war on science” of the George W. Bush administration (which was prosecuted in top-down fashion from the White House and administration, largely in service of what various staff believed that the president wanted, or what should or shouldn’t be on the public agenda or in the media) for a more populist and bottom-up strain associated with the rise of the Tea Party. This is partly a function of the fact that the GOP is in the opposition right now, rather than running the country; and partly a function of the right moving further to, uh, the right; and partly also, I think, a function of the increasing influence of the blogosphere.
Either way, there are lots of consequences. For instance, the attacks on science are now nastier, aimed at individual scientists and presenting direct assaults on their integrity and their work. This goes far beyond Bush vaguely mumbling that scientists don’t have a consensus on climate change, or that it might be natural; or some aide at NOAA or NASAblocking a scientist’s media interview.
I think this distinction is fairly crucial. It’s one thing to attack science in a populist vein. You can probably get away with being nastier about it, but you’re not necessarily wielding any power over scientists. You don’t have, for instance, the ability to censor them, as you do when you’re running things.
Most of the Tea Party and GOP-debate attacks we’ve seen of late are clearly populist in nature. But let’s not forget that one of the leading GOP presidential candidates is also a governor of Texas, who therefore does hold the reins of power.
On the face of things, there is no clear reason why the same person—like, say, Rick Perry–ought to deny accepted science about both evolution, and also global warming. After all, the fundamental reason or motivation for denying these things appears very different.
As has been clear for more than a century, the theory of evolution threatens a certain breed of religious belief. It clearly undermines a literal reading of the Book of Genesis, for instance. It suggests that God didn’t create people or make them out to be anything special. Indeed, if you think about it, it suggests that if God does exist, then God created humans through a bloody and brutal process (natural selection) that is full of death, pain, and cruelty over vast time-scales. (Great guy, this God, eh?)
Climate change has nothing—or at least nothing obvious–to do with this. That’s not to say climate science isn’t threatening; it is, but surely in a very different way. Modern climate science suggests that the free market, the source of so much economic growth and prosperity, also has a dark side. It suggests that humanity, left unchecked to exploit technology and maximize productivity, can really shoot itself in the foot sometimes. It suggests you need governments to step in and regulate, rather than letting the market rip.
In a socio-political vaccum, then, it is not at all clear why these two views should go together.
In May 2011 the US National Academy of Sciences declared that “Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused by human activities, and poses significant risks for a broad range of human and natural systems. Each additional ton of greenhouse gases emitted commits us to further change and greater risks…. The environmental, economic, and humanitarian risks of climate change indicate a pressing need for substantial action to limit the magnitude of climate change and to prepare to adapt to its impacts.” One hundred other national and international scientific organizations agree with the NAS. How many disagreed? None. Zero. Zilch. As one scientist put it, “There’s a better scientific consensus on this than on any issue I know—except maybe Newton’s second law of dynamics.”
One organization that does dispute the NAS and the world consensus on global warming is the US House of Representatives. In April, the House took up a bill to remove the power of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse gases, opening a new front in the Republican War on Science (title of a great book by Chris Mooney). Rep Henry Waxman (D-CA) offered a countering amendment with language nearly identical to that of the Academy: “Congress accepts the scientific findings of the Environmental Protection Agency that climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” The amendment failed 184-240, with one Republican voting in favor and three Democrats against.
Ever since the Republican presidential debate last week, science watchers have been shaking their heads over Rick Perry’s ridiculous invocation of Galileo Galilei to defend his denialist position on climate change.
“Galileo got outvoted for a spell,” Perry said–presumably meaning to suggest that climate “skeptics,” too, will have their day in the sun (the sun that, thanks to Galileo, we know lies at the center of the solar system).
Not only is this junk history on Perry’s part. A more accurate analogy would liken today’s climate researchers to Galileo—delivering an inconvenient truth that some right wing ideologues (then and now) just can’t handle—and Perry to the Inquisition.
Let’s face it: In the context of his times, Galileo was a liberal. He was a fearless explorer of new knowledge, as well as a puckish challenger of assumed wisdom. He famously argued that science and religion don’t have to be in conflict—so long as religionists don’t insist on reading Scripture literally (as so many of Perry’s anti-evolutionist supporters today do).
So to find a conservative Texas governor, backed by the religious right, invoking this canonical questioner of authority is really precious.
But forget historical accuracy for a moment. Climate “skeptics” have long been invoking Galileo as their mascot, and the interesting question is why.
It is not exactly news that many candidates on the GOP side take “war on science” positions, e.g., denying that global warming is human caused, or that human evolution explains who and what we are. Climate and evolution have long been the “big two” issues in the “war,” but I would expect that many of the GOP candidates reject modern scientific knowledge on a variety of other subjects as well. (Just ask them about, say, reproductive health and contraception.)
The standard “war on science” saga has droned on—usually in the background–for years and years. But somehow, it all exploded into political consciousness last week with Texas governor Rick Perry’s attacks on the integrity of climate researchers, and his claim that his own state teaches creationism–which if true would violate a Supreme Court ruling. (Actually, this is not state policy, though I suspect much creationism is being taught in many schools in Texas, in defiance of the law of the land.)
At that point, former Utah governor and outsider GOP candidate Jon Huntsman Tweeted some simple words, which ended up nevertheless serving as a shot heard round the political world:
Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA is required to protect states from sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide pollution emitted from coal plants in other states. After dragging its feet for a while, the Bush administration introduced the Clean Air Interstate Rule in 2005. Due to its over-reliance on emissions trading, the Clean Air Interstate Rule was shot down (PDF) in December 2008 by the U.S. Court of appeals for the District of Columbia. One year ago today, the Obama administration proposed a plan – the Clean Air Transport Rule – to replace the Bush administration’s flawed Clean Air Interstate Rule.
Democracy is utterly dependent upon an electorate that is accurately informed. In promoting climate change denial (and often denying their responsibility for doing so) industry has done more than endanger the environment. It has undermined democracy.
There is a vast difference between putting forth a point of view, honestly held, and intentionally sowing the seeds of confusion. Free speech does not include the right to deceive. Deception is not a point of view. And the right to disagree does not include a right to intentionally subvert the public awareness.