Climategate — the Washington Post’s take

This was a big weekend for the Washington Post. In a front-page story today, it exposed, albeit almost sub silentio, the incompetence of the Obama administration’s decision-making process with respect to Afghanistan. And in a front-page story yesterday, it reported, for the first time I believe, on Climategate.
Why did it take the Post so long to provide an account of Climategate? It seems to me that the authors, David Farhenthold and Juliet Eilperin, reveal the reason when they claim that the “scandal has done what many slide shows and public-service ads could not: focus public attention on the science of a warming planet.”
It seems so unfair, doesn’t it? The left-liberal community, including the Washington Post, has been unable (in its view) to win the hearts and minds of the public on “global warming” through calm reason. And now, a juicy scandal that cuts against the left-liberal position is about to capture the public’s imagination.
I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky that the Post finally decided to report the scandal at all.
That said, the Post’s report itself is pretty good, I think. Fahrenthold and Eilperin write:

[The emails] don’t provide proof that human-caused climate change is a lie or a swindle. But they do raise hard questions. In an effort to control what the public hears, did prominent scientists who link climate change to human behavior try to squelch a back-and-forth that is central to the scientific method? Is the science of global warming messier than they have admitted?

For the Post, these may not quite be rhetorical questions. But its report leaves little doubt that the answer to both questions is “yes.”
The Post suggests that science was the victim of politics. In other words, politicians have demanded more certainty than science can provide, and this created pressure on scientists to fudge results or give short shrift to science they don’t like.
This is a questionable hypothesis. It seems just as likely that fanatical scientists, with opportunistic politicians as their hand-maidens, have helped create the frenzied political atmosphere that some now blame for the bad science. To me, it’s a “chicken or the egg” sort of question that’s of little interest.
It’s worth noting, though, that some politicians have been able to advocate a liberal approach to the climate change issue without denying the scientific uncertainly that surrounds the issue. For example, during the presidential campaign, John McCain argued that the smart policy bet is to resolve uncertainty in favor of the view that man is causing too much global warming. His position was that if we enact legislation on this assumption and the assumption turns out to be correct, then we may be able to avert major problems or even a catastrophe. If the assumption is incorrect, we’ll still enjoy the benefits of a better environment.
The obvious problem with this analysis is that it doesn’t take into account the economic costs of the kind of climate change legislation the left advocates. The higher these costs, the less sanguine we can be about enacting climate control legislation without a high degree of confidence in the science that supports that agenda.
Perhaps it is an appreciation of these costs, or more likely an appreciation of their resonance in the public mind, that induces some scientists to engage in propaganda, instead of true science, so as to create undue alarm.
The Post’s hand-wringing about the public’s alleged lack of responsiveness to slide shows and public service ads strikes me as the tip of that iceberg, if you’ll excuse the expression.
JOHN adds a couple of other thoughts about McCain’s position: First, carbon dioxide isn’t a pollutant, so it isn’t true that even if anthropogenic global warming turns out to be overblown, we’ve still improved the environment. A higher level of CO2 improves crop yields. Second, if we approach the issue in terms of risk assessment, by far the biggest risk to be averted is catastrophic cooling–the next ice age, which is surely coming and some say is overdue. If we really believe that human and bovine emissions of CO2 and methane tend to warm the planet, we should encourage more of them as an insurance policy against global cooling, which, unlike global warming, actually would devastate human civilization.

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