April 2007 President's Letter

Political Science
by Steve Brachman
April 22nd is Earth Day. Prior to that, we will be treated to several weeks of environmental messages on television, radio, and in the newspapers. I am certain that many of these messages will concern global warming, and especially, anthropogenic (man-made) global warming. First, I am not going to re-hash the global warming argument here. That has been handled at length elsewhere. Second, to avoid typing "anthropogenic" throughout this letter, I will call it "a-warming".
Rather than argue a-warming in this month's letter, I would like to discuss how the argument has affected the scientific community in general and geologists in particular. First, to be straightforward, I personally think the theory behind a-warming has little merit. But, as my wife says, who cares what I think! What is more important to me is the damage this issue has done to geologists and other scientists. Recently, Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski confirmed that he wanted to strip the title of State Climatologist from Oregon State University's George Taylor because Taylor does not agree with Oregon's official a-warming stance (from KTW-TV report, Portland). Last year, I read an interesting article from Canada about how certain faculty at prominent universities, especially in the United States, have been pressured into conforming to the a-warming point of view. Apparently, so the story goes, if you are involved in climate and atmospheric research, it had better be pro-a-warming or don’t count on any funding. This, of course, does not mean that all research that favors a-warming is due to coercion, it simply means that little or no funding is available to support the other viewpoint.
That was not always that case. In the recent past, several companies, most notably ExxonMobil and Ford, supported groups who engaged in research and published position papers contrary to a-warming. Both companies recently changed their positions. It is no secret that ExxonMobil, under new leadership, agreed to stop funding those groups and has now promised Stanford University $100 million to support their climate change research. What is somewhat less known is that ExxonMobil was actively encouraged to switch its stance by two U.S. Senators, Olympia Snowe, R- Maine, and Jay Rockefeller IV, D-West Virginia. They sent the new CEO an open letter saying that ExxonMobil "has an obligation and a responsibility to the global community to refrain from lending their support...to bogus, non substantiated articles and publications on climate change". The text of this letter is included in the In the News section within this Bulletin. Needless to say, the opinion of Senators who have the ability and the means to pass a Windfall Profits Tax carries a great deal of weight.
Not only has the a-warming debate polarized scientists in general, it also has divided the geologic community. In AAPG, global warming has split the society with most of the "oilies" on one side and most of the internationals/academics/students on the other. In fact, the a-warming crowd has warned that the organization will "whither-away" because students, young professionals, and internationals, the three targeted growth groups of AAPG, will refuse to join or quit due to an anti a-warming AAPG position. I do not doubt they are correct, to some extent. In fact one candidate for Vice President-Sections, John Armentrout, has made the stance of AAPG embracing the a-warming argument as the centerpiece of his campaign.
The result in my opinion is that, what began as a scientific debate now has degenerated into open warfare. Detractors of a-warming are accused of everything from embarrassing the scientific community to conspiring to commit crimes against the planet. Personally, I have made my decision based on the facts as I interpret them. If additional information becomes available to make me change my mind, I will do so. As of this moment, I think my beliefs are correct. No apologies are necessary. Discussions carried out on the national stage, however, seem to consist of 10% reason and 90% emotion. I do not believe that should be the case in the scientific community. Unfortunately, we have reached the watershed where dissent is vilified, and scientific disagreement is politicized as fodder for talk shows. We have reached that point, I believe, because many in the scientific community and elsewhere believe that combating a-warming is so important for the "common good", it is acceptable, or even commendable, to stifle debate, censor opposing opinions, and twist independent thought through coercion. I hope I am wrong, but if correct, we will have arrived at a sad state of affairs, ushering in a new age of de Tocqueville’s "Tyranny of the Majority", this time as it applies to the advancement of science. Frankly, I can’t wait until April 23.

Steve Brachman
Sunday, April 1, 2007
From the President