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Creating a Problem for Climate Skeptics

Monday, March 22, 2010

By conflating creationism with climate skepticism, creationists can only harm their fellow man by greasing the skids for draconian climate policies.

To my dismay, creationists have decided to hitch their religious crusade to secular skepticism of climate science and policy. As the New York Times reports:

Critics of the teaching of evolution in the nation’s classrooms are gaining ground in some states by linking the issue to global warming, arguing that dissenting views on both scientific subjects should be taught in public schools. In Kentucky, a bill recently introduced in the Legislature would encourage teachers to discuss “the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories,” including “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning.”

The Times further observes that

The linkage of evolution and global warming is partly a legal strategy: courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general. Yet they are also capitalizing on rising public resistance in some quarters to accepting the science of global warming, particularly among political conservatives who oppose efforts to rein in emissions of greenhouse gases.

As a public policy analyst trained in biology and environmental science, I would like to sound “repel boarders” and kick these would-be policy pirates off the back of the ship. Not only do I reject equating climate-science skepticism with creationism, but I believe that the efforts of these new conflationists will only give proponents of draconian greenhouse gas controls a new stick with which to beat climate-science skeptics as well as climate-policy skeptics.

Why do I say that grouping creationism and climate science is incorrect or conflationist? Simple: because in climate skepticism, no supernatural entity need apply.

Former Vice President Al Gore and his ilk have long tried to lump climate skeptics in with groups like flat-earthers, geocentrists, tobacco scientists, moon-landing doubters, birthers, young-earth creationists, and other fabulists. The last thing we need is for creationists to re-empower this dying paradigm of science-slander. It is neither correct, nor helpful in the fight of climate skeptics against Al Gore’s efforts to trigger a “wrenching transformation” of our technological civilization.

Why do I say that grouping creationism and climate science is incorrect or conflationist? Simple: because in climate skepticism, no supernatural entity need apply. No serious climate skeptic I have ever heard invokes anything supernatural, extraterrestrial, or conspiratorial in their analysis of the flaws of climate science. Climate science skepticism isn’t about a god or gods, or about any other creatures that perform, fail to perform, or once may have performed supernatural acts that, by definition, cannot be analyzed using the tools of science.

Climate skeptics might point to groupthink and lopsided incentives among scientists and policy makers as a problem, but that’s about as close to a conspiracy or supernatural entity as they get. After all, it doesn’t take a conspiracy or a deity to get fish to swim in schools, or birds to fly in flocks: it’s just a matter of follow-the-leader.

So, for example, a climate skeptic may point out that temperature data is missing from someone’s analysis, and question how someone’s computer program filled in the missing data by averaging temperature data from other areas. But he won’t say, “the fact that you have some missing links (or data) proves your entire theory wrong.” Climate skeptics may worry about the surface temperature record because they have qualms about how the urban heat island effect has been adjusted for, and how the elimination of weather stations from cold areas may have biased the record. But they are not suggesting that any supernatural entity is responsible. And they’re not saying that somehow, a few missing thermometer readings in one or two states falsifies the observation that certain gases in the atmosphere absorb and reradiate outgoing long-wave radiation, which is at the center of the theory of anthropogenic climate change.

No serious climate skeptic I have ever heard invokes anything supernatural, extraterrestrial, or conspiratorial in their analysis of the flaws of climate science.

Climate skeptics may criticize claims that major storms are causing more property damage because they are faster or more frequent, but they’ll base that criticism on empirical storm frequency/intensity data over time, and on standard analysis of economic data to show that coastal damage has increased mainly because more people have put wealth in harm’s way. They won’t suggest anything supernatural is involved.

In short, science skepticism is science-based. Creationism is religion.

But perhaps the biggest difference between creationists and climate skeptics is in the realm of public policy. Believers in evolution (myself included) are not, by and large, trying to use the government’s monopoly power on force to require creationists to adopt a lifestyle radically different from the one they would wish to live. But this is exactly what greenhouse gas control proponents seek to do.

Sure, evolutionists would like to keep religion out of public-school science classrooms, but as far as I know, they haven’t tried to get the government to ban teaching creationism in private schools or religious schools (or public schools, outside of the sciences, for that matter). They haven’t tried to get the government to ban materials that would support teaching creationism. They haven’t tried to require the teaching of evolution in church, or to insist that all religious institutions should also teach their students or congregations that physical science is an equally valid explanation for the various signs, portents, and miracles mentioned in their religious tracts. (If some over-zealous evolutionist has proposed such intrusive actions, I will gladly reject their legitimacy.)

Believers in evolution are not trying to use the government’s monopoly power on force to require creationists to adopt a lifestyle radically different from the one they would wish to live. But this is exactly what greenhouse gas control proponents seek to do.

Most importantly, they haven’t tried to pass laws that would deny creationists the house of their choice, the car of their choice, the light bulb of their choice, the water heater, clothes dryer, refrigerator, television, asthma inhaler, water bottle, toilet paper, plastic bag, or disposable diaper of their choice, as proponents of greenhouse gas controls have.

Environmental activists, and climate scientist-activists such as Phil Jones, Michael Mann, James Hansen, and Stephen Schneider, by contrast, have indeed labored to co-opt the tools of both science and national and international governance to force people to adopt the low-carbon lifestyle they think best. Through greenhouse gas control proposals, as well as “alternative energy” proposals, energy-efficiency standards and the like, greenhouse gas control advocates would exert government control over virtually every aspect of people’s lives. They would determine how much you pay for energy, goods, and services, as well as specifically limiting access to—or completely banning access to—devices and activities that people have found beneficial either in terms of quality of life, or economic well-being. This is a profound difference between the goals of climate policy and the goals of educational policy pertaining to teaching creationism in terms of the extension of state control over people’s lives.

I can understand (though not sympathize with) the frustration that creationists have endured in their efforts to get schools to teach creationism as an “alternative” to evolution in explaining either human nature, or the origins of life on Earth. But the stakes are not remotely comparable.

By conflating creationism with climate skepticism, and allowing global warming catastrophists to dismiss skeptics as being motivated by religion, creationists can only harm their fellow man by greasing the skids for draconian climate policies that tend to be regressive, authoritarian, anti-capitalist, and impoverishing in their effects. Creationists may think their mission is so important that it justifies enabling those who would use government to force our society into what, in their eyes, is an ecotopia, but what most would find a communitarian dystopia. I strongly disagree.

Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Green and Aparna Mathur recently debunked the idea of “A Green Future for Just Pennies a Day?” Green also explained “The Meaning of Motley CRU” in the Climategate scandal, and said “Who Should ‘Go First’ on Greenhouse Gas Control?” was a false dilemma. He wrote, “Green Energy Jobs? Not from Obama’s Big Government Meddling” and testified on “Climate Change Legislation” before the Senate.

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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