Teresa Heinz Kerry: Another Controversial Commentator

There is no science debate (about climate change); there’s a science fiction debate.”

When the luncheon speaker at the 60th annual convention of the National Conference of Editorial Writers uttered that quote, an editor from Indianapolis (with whom I had been arguing earlier), leaned over with a sarcastic snarl and said: “And now you know it’s true because your heard it from Teresa Heinz Kerry.”

It points out, yet again, one of the central problems of the “debate” about climate change. The people who are most qualified to speak about the topic (scientists) are often the most reticent. They live in a different world. They speak through the careful publication of their research. And they guard their professional credibility by couching their conclusions in the myriad qualifiers that always apply. As a result, the science argument is seldom expressed with the kind of strident conviction and clarity that is – how shall we say? – optimum in trying to win over a confused public.

When you finally get a speaker to the podium who will slam the message home, she turns out to be the controversial wife of former presidential candidate Senator John Kerry. – a woman whose scientific bona fides are, at the least, easy to dismiss.

The situation tends not to be the same on the other side of the “debate.” While the many hundreds of world-leading researchers who contribute to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessments are sometimes irritatingly conditional in stating their case, the “scientists” like Pat Michaels and S. Fred Singer and Tim Ball are definitive in their criticisms. They say, variously but without reservation, that climate change isn’t happening, isn’t proven, isn’t the fault of humankind, isn’t possible to overcome or (this from University of Colorado Professor Bill Gray) isn’t going to last for more than a couple of more years.

These are all welcome messages for a country full of comfortable suburbanites whose lifestyles are heavily dependent upon consumption levels of fossil fuels that are outstripped only by oil producing kingdoms. These industry-funded experts are forever saying that Americans can’t afford to respond to climate change and that there is no reason that they should try, anyway. No wonder the confusion remains.

Teresa Heinz also offered another reason why the U.S. public debate is less well-informed than it should be. One of the editorial writers asked if Americans were getting the information they need to make good decisions and Heinz's answer – “scientific” in its length and conditionality – could be interpreted as a flat: no.

She blamed the Republican domination of U.S. government, not because they are Republicans, but because they have used their control of Congressional committees to silence other voices.

Heinz pointed especially to Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe, chair of the Congressional Committee on Public Works and the Environment, who ran a very showy hearing this summer on climate change, and especially on the ever-controversial Mann “hockey stick” graph. Mann entertained a catch-all of climate change deniers, including “expert” witnesses like science fiction writer Michael Crichton, but the Chair refused to allow the Democrats on the committee to call their own witnesses. This, Heinz said, was “absurd and dangerous.” Those who disagree with Inhofe (a reasonably huge group) are denied the information that might reasonably come from experts the Democrats chose. As it is, if the Dems are too aggressive in questioning Inhofe’s chosen spokesters, they wind up condemned as being (typically) negative.

Heinz (who has dropped the double-barrelled usage of her second husband’s name) received a sustained ovation at the end of her speech, a tribute to her skill as a speaker, her huge contribution to the city of Pittsburgh (where the conference was occurring) and, presumably, to the content of her speech.

To some degree, however, it might also have been interpreted as proof that Americans are, on the whole, a polite people. The Indiana editor joined in the applause, without hesitation and without any meanspiritedness.

But anyone who took that as an endorsement of the woman or her views is destined for disappointment – especially if they hope that the science (fiction) climate change debate will be resolved soon in the corridors of American power.