Inconvenient Science

by Benjamin Domenech on 7:41 am June 29, 2009

Inconvenient Science

As members of Congress debated and voted on the Waxman-Markey climate legislation last week, a disturbing story was quietly spreading about an internal report that called the science and policies informing that bill into question — a report whose conclusions proved so inconvenient to the White House that it was rejected with prejudice.

According to Declan McCullagh at CNET and CBS News, the Environmental Protection Agency has apparently squelched an internal report on anthropogenic global warming from a career staffer — one Alan Carlin, an MIT-educated senior research analyst and 38-year non-political appointee, which means he’s assigned only to perform fact and science-based analysis regardless of who occupies the White House. The report contained several inconvenient conclusions regarding the recent EPA declarations of their intent to regulate greenhouse gases, particularly carbon dioxide, as a pollutant, a process that most observers expect to be far more expensive than the cap and trade measure currently headed to the Senate.

Carlin, who works at the EPA’s National Center for Environmental Economics (NCEE), prepared a report that is highly critical of this impending decision. The draft version of the report can be read here. While exceedingly technical in nature as it goes on, the opening summary seems written with the mindset of an author who knows his work will be roundly rejected. This is not a partisan or an activist writing screed, but an informed analyst citing a litany of errors in the existing work of his fellow bureaucrats.

As of the best information I currently have, the GHG/CO2 hypothesis as to the cause of global warming, which this Draft TSD supports, is currently an invalid hypothesis from a scientific viewpoint because it fails a number of critical comparisons with available observable data. Any one of these failings should be enough to invalidate the hypothesis; the breadth of these failings leaves no other possible conclusion based on current data. As Feynman (1975) has said failure to conform to real world data makes it necessary from a scientific viewpoint to revise the hypothesis or abandon it (see Section 2.1 for the exact quote). Unfortunately this has not happened in the global warming debate, but needs to if an accurate finding concerning endangerment is to be made.

At the end of the comment week, Carlin’s report was rejected, with officials claiming in internal emails that this research would have “a very negative impact on our office.”

What is perhaps most jarring about this document is not just its squelching, but that it was written at all, given the EPA’s incredibly short internal comment window — just one week (or as Carlin describes it, “approximately 4-5 working days”) — on a subject that has such extreme ramifications for the economy and environment of the United States. It’s as disturbing as the idea of dropping a 300-plus page amendment to a massive policy bill at 3 AM in the morning, and expecting people to vote on it that very night. This is, of course, exactly what happened with Waxman-Markey, the first mandatory reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, which passed on Friday by a 219-212 margin cutting across partisan lines. Opposed by Greenpeace and other environmental groups as being a sop to the lobbyists of America, it’s one more example of government policy being determined by who yells loudest.

One of the largest dead-horse memes of the last eight years was the “Republican war on science,” so much so that President Obama made a point of saying that with his inauguration, “the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over.” Animated primarily by the Bush administration’s policy positions on funding for two key areas — stem cells and global warming — it’s a descriptive term that becomes laughable upon closer inspection. Just five years after Vice Presidential nominee John Edwards claimed that “when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve will get up out of that wheelchair and walk again,” the president’s stem cell policy has been thoroughly vindicated, and is now so obviously the correct decision that Obama’s much-heralded path may be even more restrictive on research funding. And incidents like Alan Carlin’s show that when it comes to the environment, this has never been about involving the broadest range of intelligent, non-partisan voices on science, but instead driving a consistent public relations meme to the people, tolerating no dissent.

The point is simply this: when the government gets into the business of funding anything, there will be winners and there will be losers. In the arena of science, it’s sometimes one of the easiest choices to make, given that unlike most areas dependent on government funding, you have the ability to evaluate without interference, depending on solid metrics for success and failure. But it’s also harder, because the government has to essentially wager on benefits for taxpayer funding that will come decades down the road — and more often than not, this wager is determined by who has the best public relations firm.

This is one of the reasons the stem cell funding issue was so divisive — on the one hand, you had those Americans who want the free market and private philanthropy to determine science’s path, within moral limits, while on the other you had thousands of Americans with good motivations unwittingly driven on by those who wanted to reap the benefit of taxpayer dollars to bail out dead-end research which was simply not the primary interest for the scientific community.

Today, a similar circumstance is showing itself on the issue of the climate: those who stand in the way of massive lobbyist-written pieces of legislation are denounced as foes of the environment, as if what they call “cap and trade” and what older, more honest people called “selling indulgences” is of such urgency that one cannot wait for a bill or a report to be read, let alone understood. The global warming specter is so powerful that any policy latched onto it could reasonably be expected to pass the House of Representatives. This is not a matter of partisan exclusivity: the Left routinely accuses the Right of invoking emotional reminders of 9/11 to excess, gaining support for dubious national security policies — but the difference of course is that whether 9/11 actually happened, and how it happened, is not a subject of continued debate.

Are we witnessing the Democrat war on science? Maybe — at the least, it’s a war on responsible governance.

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