Conservatives vs. Science
The 1980s and 1990s were prime time for environmental scares, many of which proved bogus. On one side were liberals, greens and professional alarmists who always assumed the worst. On the other side, many nonliberals chose to heed scientists who had studied the evidence. Time and again, the skeptics were right.
Remember the Alar scare of 1989, when Meryl Streep went before Congress to warn of a pesticide used on apples? There was much concern, but it didn't pan out. An official with the National Cancer Institute eventually concluded the cancer risk from eating apples treated with Alar was "nonexistent."
How about silicone breast implants? The FDA took them off the market in
1992, but for no good reason: In 1999, the Institute of Medicine said
they didn't cause breast cancer or other serious diseases.
There was acid rain, which allegedly was a catastrophe for lakes and
forests in the East. The director of an exhaustive federally funded
assessment, however, announced in 1990 that "the amount of damage is
less than we once thought, and it's much less than some of the
characterizations we sometimes hear."
Over and over, we saw a pattern. Environmental and public health groups
with a leftward bent said the sky was falling; conservatives and
libertarians (me included) asked for scientific evidence; and the
science sooner or later debunked the fears.
Back then, those skeptical about environmental warnings deferred to
learned people who knew the subject best. Alarmists stoutly ignored them
while scrounging up a few experts who would take their side.
But that was another century. Today, it's scientists who agree on the
validity of a major environmental peril -- climate change caused by
human activity. It's liberals and environmentalists who can point to a
broad scholarly consensus for their claims. And it's the skeptics who
now revile the scientists as stooges and liars.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right in step with many conservative advocacy
groups and commentators when he derides global warming as "all one
contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight." The
conservative magazine National Review regularly heaps scorn on
So does the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, which depicts it
as an urban legend fabricated by Al Gore. Fox News ... well, I'll let
This naysaying has had its intended effect. A Pew Research Center poll
last year found that 53 percent of Republicans don't believe the earth
is getting warmer, and 58 percent think scientists actually agree with
That is known as living in a fool's paradise. The consensus among
experts, in fact, happens to be virtually unanimous on the other side. A
survey of climate scientists who have published research in the field
found that 97 to 98 percent believe people are causing the planet to
Every major scientific group concurs. The National Academy of Sciences
published a report last year reaching a firm conclusion: "Climate change
is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses
significant risks for -- and in many cases is already affecting -- a
broad range of human and natural systems."
Groups such as the American Geophysical Union, the American
Meteorological Society and the American Association for the Advancement
of Science agree. So does the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,
made up of scientists from around the world. At this point, disagreeing
is like saying Willie Mays has no business in the Hall of Fame.
There are, of course, some scientists who express doubts about global
warming. But what would environmental skeptics say if 97 percent of
scientists solemnly announced that climate change is a pile of
We don't have to ask, because we know from the past scares. In those
instances, a solid scientific consensus was enough to settle the issue
in their minds. This time, those who once urged opponents to defer to
the experts are doing exactly the opposite.
They arrive at their position by reasoning backward: They reach a
conclusion and snatch at any shred of evidence that justifies it. The
climate-change deniers don't like the idea of governments restricting
greenhouse gas emissions, so they insist that these emissions are
nothing to worry about, that scientists are corrupt and that it's all
part of a socialist power grab.
They used to uphold respect for science. Now they prefer magical
thinking. \ ----------\ Steve Chapman is a member of the Tribune's
editorial board and blogs at chicagotribune.com/chapman
Steve Chapman, a member of the Tribune's editorial board
Thu, 1 Sep 2011
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