After joining a controversial lobby group critical of climate change, meteorologist Lennart Bengtsson claims he was shunned by colleagues, leading him to quit. Some scientists complain pressure to conform to consensus opinion has become a serious hindrance in the field.
News that Lennart Bengtsson, the respected former director of Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, had joined the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), sent shockwaves through the climate research community. GWPF is most notable for its skepticism about climate change and its efforts to undermine the position of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The tremors his decision sent through the scientific community shocked Bengtsson.
The scientist said colleagues placed so much pressure on him after joining GWPF that he withdrew from the group out of fear for his own health. Bengtsson added that his treatment had been reminiscent of the persecution of suspected Communists in the United States during the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s.Not all of his fellow climatologists agree. Gavin Schmidt a climatologist and climate modeler at NASA described the “alleged connection to McCarthy” as “ridiculous.” “As someone who has actually been threatened with criminal sanctions by a United States Senator only because of published science, I don’t quite see why Bengtsson’s total freedom to associate with anyone he wants — and let me be clear, he has this freedom — has in any way been compromised,” he said.
But Bengtsson insists that even close colleagues shunned him. He says that one research partner, apparently fearing damage to his reputation, withdrew from a study they had been conducting together. Bengtsson added no further details other than to state that the incident had been hurtful.
NASA’s Schmidt also expressed criticism of that claim. “This is so vague as to mean anything, and without an actual example, it is impossible to know what is being alleged.”
Clouds Gathered Ahead of Storm
It is now emerging that the clouds of controversy gathered ahead of the current storm. In February, Bengtsson weathered a significant setback. The scientific journal Environmental Research Letters declined to publish a study he had authored predicting a milder greenhouse effect. Peer reviewers described the report’s findings as “less than helpful” and added, “actually it is harmful as it opens the door for oversimplified claims of ‘errors’ and worse from the climate-skeptic media side.”
Respected German meteorologist Hans von Storch of the Institute for Coastal Research at the Helmholtz Center, described the justification as “scandalous” and accused the journal of politically motivated decision-making not based on scientific standards. In a statement on the IOP Science website, Publisher Nicola Gulley emphasizes that the study was declined on scientific grounds. She argues that Bengtsson’s work failed to meet the journal’s high standards.
Climate researchers are now engaged in a debate about whether their science is being crippled by a compulsion to conform. They wonder if pressure to reach a consensus is too great. They ask if criticism is being suppressed. No less is at stake than the credibility of research evidence for climate change and the very question of whether climate research is still reliable.
Bengtsson said in an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE that he wanted to open up the climate change debate by joining GWPF. He said that in view of large gaps in knowledge, the pressure to reach a consensus in climate research “does not make sense”.
Nevertheless, by joining the political lobby group, Bengtsson opened himself up to criticism that he had taken a position inappropriate for a scientist of his stature.
‘We Are not an Interest Group’
University of Washington climatologist Eric Steig says the activities of the GWPF are more reminiscent of McCarthyism than Bengtsson’s case. Steig says the GWPF boasts about investigating climate researchers. “They also have published opinion articles on their web site accusing mainstream climate scientists of having ‘secret societies’ and having political agendas designed with specific left-wing policy aims in mind,” he adds. “They have accused British schools of ‘brainwashing’ students by teaching them about climate change.” GWPF, for its part, calls itself a think tank that documents arguments stating why climate change as a problem is being overestimated.
Reto Knutti of the ETH Zürich technical university is also critical. “Organizations like the GWPF contribute to whipping scientific debate into a religious war,” he argues. “They distribute pseudo-scientific reports, even though they are actually pursuing a political aim,” says Knutti. Jochem Marotzke, who is Bengtsson’s successor at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, says, “GWPF works deliberately in a selective way. They mention only arguments that suit their purposes. Counterarguments are kept under wraps.”
Professor Myles Allen, a climate researcher at Oxford, says, “The problem is their anti-science agenda, clearly illustrated by the fact that they refused point blank to submit their recent report criticizing the IPCC 5th Assessment Report to the same kind of open peer review that the IPCC report was itself subjected to.”
GWPF Director Benny Peiser challenges assertions like that. “We are not an interest group; our scientists have no official or collective opinion — to any topics. If there were no taboos in climate science or climate policy, the GWPF would probably not exist.”
But even a professor long critical of the partisanship in the climate debate Roger Pielke Jr., an environmental scientist at the University of Colorado, says the group uses science to cloak its political agenda. Pielke emphasizes, however, that as a lobbying group GWPF “has every right to advance whatever arguments it wants. It often focuses on stealth advocacy — hiding its politics in science — a strategy common across the climate issue, found on all ‘sides,’ and is pretty common across many issues.”
Von Storch agrees that other political camps, such as environmental groups, also use “stealth advocates” to influence scientific debate. Pielke elaborates, “In a democracy people will organize around all sorts of shared interests, as they should, and many will share values that I don’t. So what? Bengtsson’s justifications for associating with GWPF are perfectly legitimate. That he was pressured by his peers with social and other sanctions reflects the deeply politicized nature of this issue.”
He argues that scientific research must be held to higher standards than lobby groups, but even those standards now the subject of greater scrutiny.
Many climatologists have been tacitly complaining about harassment and exclusion for years. But is the situation any worse in this scientific discipline than it is in others? Roger Pielke Sr. of the University of Colorado says, “Unfortunately, climate science has become very politicized and views that differ at all from those in control of the climate assessment process are either ignored or ridiculed. From my experience, I agree 100 percent with the allegations made by the very distinguished Lennart Bengtsson.“
But who is doing the politicizing? Knutti says that it is pretty easy to tell. “If you are on the left politically, you believe in global warming,” he says. “If you are on the right, that is much less likely.” He adds that the line between opinion and fact is often blurred, even among scientists.
‘Dirty, Nasty, Destructive’
“Each side maintains the other is politicizing the debate,” explains Werner Krauss, an environmental ethnologist at the Helmholtz Center for Materials and Coastal Research in Geesthacht, Germany. He says climate research is dominated by “strongmen” who know how to exploit the media whenever they like. Krauss claims Bengtsson stage managed his move to GWPF in the media and alleges that climate research has fallen into the throes of the scientific equivalent of religious fervor. He says it is no wonder Bengtsson came under heavy fire for his decision.
At the same time, Heinrich Miller of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research says, “I find the way his colleagues reacted shocking. Apparently there is now pervasive disappointment because a shining scientific example is making his scientific doubts public,” he says. Miller adds that the Bengtsson case reminds him when politicians use “dirty tricks” to muzzle opponents.
Pielke Jr. confirms that climate research is a tough business. “We see hardball politics,” he says. “I have personally seen very strong social and professional pressures over the years. These include threats to my job, professional ostracism, public misrepresentations of my research and views, efforts to prevent me from speaking publicly and personal threats, many of which have been publicly documented.” He advises that “anyone who wishes to participate in the public debate on climate change should do so knowing how the politics are played today — dirty, nasty, destructive.”
‘Global Warming Is Taken as Dogma’
Climatologist Michael Mann even speaks of “climate wars.” For years, he says he was the subject of attacks by conservative groups skeptical of climate change, especially after the “Climategate” scandal, when his e-mail correspondence was published illegally. The other side is not pulling any punches either — at least when it comes to vitriol. One Austrian professor has gone so far as calling for the death penalty for climate skeptics.Miller says that scientists were politicized more than anything else by having to seek a consensus on results for the 5th IPCC report. “Global warming is taken as dogma. Anyone who doubts it is bad,” says the renowned researcher, who was branded a “climate skeptic” after questioning the scientific validity of computer simulations.
Knutti, by contrast, warns about overemphasizing the lack of certainty about the evidence. He says Bengtsson’s stringent criticism of climate change forecasts is misleading, explaining that the models provided useable results that were tested on historical climate change. The 5th IPCC Report that took hundreds of scientists years to produce, says Knutti, comprehensively documents the range of results. He says that sitting back and waiting until all the questions are answered is not an alternative, and describes a large portion of what has come to be called skepticism as deliberate deception.
Translated from the German by Taryn Toro
Climate change is occurring with extreme rapidity. Recent news headlines warn us: “Earth Could Warm 11 Degrees by 2100,” “Western Antarctic Ice Sheet Is Collapsing,” and “Climate Change Risks Security and Wars.” — and this is just the beginning.
Had extreme measures been inaugurated worldwide 20 years ago to sharply curtail reliance on fossil fuels, much of what we are now experiencing — unwelcome temperature change, dangerous storms, droughts, floods, etc. — would have been minimized. But to this day Washington is among the tiny minority of countries tthat have refused to ratify the basic UN document on climate change, the Kyoto Protocol.
The current stage of the climate crisis will afflict our Earth for innumerable generations to come, creating increasing havoc. Stage one will eventually transform to a crueler stage two later this century and other stages eventually unless severe measures are introduced immediately. We know the dire consequences for future generations if we fail to act immediately.
The well-known Canadian scientist and broadcaster David Suzuki got it right when he said on the Bill Moyers PBS program this month:
“Our politicians should be thrown in the slammer for willful blindness…. I think that we are being willfully blind to the consequences for our children and grandchildren. It’s an intergenerational crime.”
Despite the reality of climate change, the major capitalist industrialized countries — most certainly the United States —are moving at a snail’s pace, if moving at all, to mitigate its decimating effects on life on Earth. At issue is whether the capitalist system is willing and able to bring about the immense changes required to prevent climate change from developing into a global catastrophe from mid-to-end century. The evidence so far is that it will not move fast enough.
Virtually all scientists and most concerned people now understand why climate change is happening, and that it will become much worse. Some of them are part a growing mass movement to stop climate change, which we strongly support. But there’s a catch.
At this point, the problem is deeply embedded in a capitalist economic system based upon the relentless exploitation of the Earth and all its resources to obtain super profits that largely accrue to a small minority of people. Capital must be sharply challenged as a system if climate change is to be halted.
Some progress is being made in the conversion from oil, natural gas and coal to solar, hydropower, wind, biomass (biofuel) and geothermal energy, mainly in several smaller social democratic or liberal countries of Europe and elsewhere. But such progress is the exception and is dwarfed by the greenhouse gas emissions of the major industrialized capitalist economies, led by the U.S. and China.
Of these societies, China — now the world’s largest annual contributor of CO2 to the atmosphere — is devoting the greatest amount of resources and money to develop sources of green energy, but the gap between its fossil and renewable fuels is immense. The U.S., which was the principal emitter of CO2 for well over a hundred years and remains the number one cumulative contributor of poisons in the atmosphere, became number two a few years ago.
Washington lags far behind most major industrial countries in efforts to limit greenhouse emissions. American presidents have known about an impending climate catastrophe at least since the Clinton Administration in the 1990s but have done virtually nothing about it.Given its wealth and powerful status as global hegemon, the United States government under the regimes of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, has been the principal obstacle to concerted global climate action.
President Obama has finally decided after five years to use the powers he already possesses without the need of Congressional approval to implement certain limited beneficial environmental measures, but this is hardly good enough. Now he is even giving hopeful speeches about climate change. But his few insignificant accomplishments are buried by a mountain of missed opportunities and his dedication to drilling for as much oil and fracking for as much gas as possible, turning our country into Saudi America.
As said in mid-May by Paul Jay, the senior editor of The Real News Network: Obama “has a big bully pulpit. He could be rallying the country for a new, green America… but [he’s done] next to nothing since he was elected.”
It is convenient to blame the far right and Tea Party know-nothings for America’s shameful lethargy in this regard, but that’s simply not the main problem. Climate deniers in Congress, exasperating as they are, constitute the farcical sideshow of a much bigger economic and political three-ring circus known as U.S.A. Inc. — the world’s largest business/government monopoly. Its run by the wealthiest sector of the population, including the corporate, banking and finance chieftains, and their well-paid minions in business and government, the mass media and other key institutions.
Theoretically, American democracy is a means of organizing a society based first and foremost on an honest electoral system to choose its leaders and hold them responsible. The electoral system is still based on one person, one vote, but it is corrupted absolutely by the power of big money contributions from the multi-millionaires and billionaires in the ruling class. And by seeing to it there are only two viable parties to choose from — both capitalist, one representing the right and far right and the other the center right — the Plutocracy cannot lose, no matter who wins.
Being capitalist, it’s also supposed to mean a society where citizens may not be economically equal, but assuredly not as unequal as conditions in the U.S. today. Of all the OECD’s major industrial economies America is last in equality. In its quest for ever-greater profits, this ruling class is shredding what remains of that democracy. In the process it has also fought to lower the income and politically disempower the middle and working classes.
According to economic columnist Eduardo Porter in the May 14, New York Times: “The growing concentration of income can, in fact, make inequality more difficult to correct, as the wealthy bring their wealth to bear on the political process to maintain their privilege. What’s more, disparities in income seem to produce political polarization and gridlock, which tend to favor those who receive a better deal from the prevailing rules.”
What’s this got to do with climate change? Everything. Fossil fuel interests (oil, gas, coal) are major elements of the U.S. economy — so much so that Washington subsidizes this industry with from $10 billion up to $52 billion a year (which includes costs of defending pipelines and shipping lanes in the Persian Gulf). Fossil fuel makes its owners, executives and stockholders incredibly rich. All America’s industries and corporations are dependent in one way or another on prevailing energy resources.
Most big corporations and financial interests are wedded to the short-term profit picture, such as a company’s quarterly economic performance charts. Heads roll when profits drop. The fossil fuel industry in particular, and big business in general, fear profits will fall if the U.S. sharply lowers greenhouse gas emissions.
Another factor is that a commitment to reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and to stop the devastation of the ecological system means that the consumption in the richer countries inevitably must be reduced — an utter anathema for capitalism, which is based on continual expansion of demand.
Neither the existing ruling class nor the political system will support the required massive and prompt transition torenewable fuels and the establishment of a sustainable ecological policy to slow down and eventually halt the continual increase in global warming and the decimation of the natural and human environment.
It will take decades of transformation away from fossil fuels and from conspicuous consumption for tangible progress to be made.But only in this way can global warming and ecological disaster be avoided.
In effect, however, the owners of big capital say to this: “No go! Our profits may fall. And we’re certainly not going to tell consumers to cut back on demand! We can make lots of money by adjusting to climate change — building sea walls, retrofitting businesses, schools and other structures to withstand powerful hurricanes or tornadoes, building houses in cooler parts of the country, selling air-conditioners, extracting oil from the Arctic and Antarctic and so on and on. It’s endless. We can finally sell refrigerators to Eskimos! Don’t you realize that adapting to climate change can be an economic boom for big business?
There are two options confronting the American people: (1) Long-term survival and a revived world for future generations by swiftly replacing fossil fuels to mitigate a potential climate change calamity for the 9.5 billion human beings who will inhabit the increasingly inhospitable world of 2050. (2) The other option, evidently intended to protect the economic status quo and strengthen immediate profits, is to prolong the transition to renewable energy as long as possible, meanwhile focusing on profiting from adaptation to rising temperatures and sea levels and so on.
Working toward a better world required requires a radical solution. There’s a fitting slogan in parts of the worldwide environmental movement that expresses the real situation: “System Change, Not Climate Change.” The existing capitalist system demonstrably works against the needs of the masses of people, and not only in climate change.
The U.S. economy is in long-term stagnation, kept going by financial bubbles that profit the wealthy and penalize the middle class, working class and poor; joblessness is expected to remain high in future years; 50% of the American people are low income or poor; many young people, saddled with excessive college debts, are often rewarded with substandard jobs and pay; personal privacy of almost any kind is on the way out, now that the NSA knows all and sees all. There’s more — war, racism, sexism, dead-end minimum wage jobs, and so on and on.
It is imperative that a far more powerful environmental movement develops in the next few years to put some effective breaks on greenhouse gas emissions and the despoliation of the land, water and quality of life. It’s time for the various components of the environmental and left political movements, while retaining their identities and missions, to unite in action on the issue of climate change and build the struggle for climate sanity into a powerful political force.
In this connection, it is timely to recall this statement by Hungarian philosopher István Mészáros:
“The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time… there can be no future for humanity itself.”
The best opportunity we have to end increasing climate change — before high temperatures, air pollution, flooded coastlines, droughts, fierce storms, scarcity of potable water and famine reach disastrous heights — is system change. This is already obvious to much of the left and will become clear to those in the struggle as the crisis increases but the government and business are content to take minimal steps, concentrating more on adaptation than mitigation.
The capitalist industrial world has done much to improve life in the last 200 years (not counting wars, imperialism, colonialism, exploitation and inequality) but now that same economic system’s industrialization is threatening life on Earth. The only alternative system to global capitalism, is 21stcentury socialism, which has learned a lot from its 150 years of efforts, experiences, trials, errors, and successes.
It took capitalism over 600 years to get to where it is now, including the colonial theft of three-quarters of the world and the degradation of its peoples, hundreds of years of slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws, gross inequality, wage-theft, the subjugation of women, child labor, the holocaust imposed upon Native Americans, two World Wars (including another holocaust), thousands of nuclear weapons ready for the next war, grotesque poverty for over half the 7.2 billion people on Earth today, and predictions of much worse environment changes with each passing decade.
That, they say, is the price of progress. Another price, if we allow it to happen,will be severe climate change for future generations.Actually, capital is proving itself incapable of doing the right thing about three existential matters confronting the world and its people today and in the future: climate change, poverty/inequality, and wars.
Socialism isn’t finished because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the development of market economies in some remaining societies. The first chapter of a longer book is over. It’s time for socialism’s second chapter.
Socialism comes in different varieties but none of them would allow profits to stand in the way of creating a society based on renewable fuels, sustainable developmentand new ecological, industrial, economic and social policies. It wouldn’t tolerate great inequality and poverty. It would do its best to avoid war. In our view the world needs this desperately requires system change, not climate change.