The Left and the Right are Both Horribly Wrong on One Subject, and the World is at Risk as a Result

GELFAND ON … CLIMATE POLITICS -The following argument has something in it to challenge both the new right and the traditional left. Just to start off, let's put the conclusions on the table. Global warming is real, and has horrible consequences. We need nuclear power as part of the remedy. 

The argument itself is fairly simple and so obvious that it takes extraordinary mental effort to come up with even a fanciful counterargument.

I don't have to belabor the pro-nuclear argument, because it's been set out just now by four respected scientists in a public letter that has been covered by CNN and can be accessed directly.  In brief, we need nuclear power as one element of clean energy if we are to have any hope of reacting effectively to global warming. There is no other way to get to where we need to be. Traditional arguments about safety are rendered moot both by the prospect of improved design and by environmental necessity.  

The letter was written by climate scientists who are trained in the subject matter and willing to think quantitatively about the problem. That's something that you don't see much in the press and even less in politics. It justifies response at an equal level of expertise. Nevertheless, I will take up the overarching argument from a slightly different perspective. 

My training and experience are in theoretical and laboratory science. I know lots about laboratory practice and quite a bit about biochemistry and cell biology. 

So what does this have to do with the science of global climate change? Nothing. And likewise, the science and engineering of nuclear power plants are not among my specialties.  So how is it that I speak so knowingly about public policy when it comes to these two topics? Let me explain. 

While attending college and learning how hard math and science can be, I was exposed to some very smart people. Some were my teachers, and some were my fellow students. Sometimes I learned to puzzle my way through a rigorous mathematical proof or how to predict the way a chemical reaction would go.  None of these studies made me knowledgeable about planetary science, and the same could be said about my non-expertise in nuclear engineering. 

But there is one thing I did pick up. 

I developed a sense of who I could trust when it comes to technical and scientific questions. It's based on studying under people who were deemed to be experts by other experts, and whose work, I learned, was trustworthy. One way to figure out who is trustworthy is to work your way through their publications and listen to their lectures. Even if you yourself couldn't have thought up what they were doing, you can evaluate whether it is logical or not. I can do that when it comes to biochemical studies. Other people do it for planetary physics and climate science. 

I learned about the nature of science, and the social culture in which it exists. One of the interesting things I learned was that those who are at the top of the profession exist in a realm of almost incredible intellectual freedom. The right wing resents the tenure system for more than one reason, but it has become obvious that tenure provides freedom of expression that is rare elsewhere. I don't know much about how this effects the humanities, but in science, the ability to engage in free inquiry is critical. 

And that's where the right wing breaks with its pious pronouncements about supporting freedom. Apparently freedom, for the right wing, does not extend to speaking and writing the truth about global climate change. The best minds in the field have communicated with almost unprecedented unanimity. 

Since they exist inside of the culture of science, they don't say that global warming has been demonstrated absolutely. Science doesn't work that way. Things become more and more likely, better and better demonstrated, less and less unlikely. That's where we are now. 

The consensus among the vast majority of climate scientists is that the earth is warming and that a substantial driving force for this warming is (and has been) human production of carbon dioxide. The reason for the existence of this consensus is the process that I described above, namely that lots of well trained people with years of experience in the field have been checking over the calculations and comparing theoretical predictions with rapidly accumulating data. 

More briefly put, we have been burning up millions of years worth of fossil fuel in a brief span of time, and the atmosphere has been the dumping ground for the results of that combustion. The chickens are coming home to roost, and the data coming from satellite observations and oceanic temperatures, combined with recent decades of climate activity support that claim. 

So what is the right wing counterargument to the reality of global warming? I think it can be summarized in the form of two statements: (a) There are some scientists who don't agree with the majority and (b) The scientists who support the observation of global warming are whores. 

Perhaps that last bit reads a bit harshly, but if you boil down the right wing arguments, they come down to the assertion that lots and lots of scientists are too wedded to research grant money to tell the truth, and the truth is counter to what the granting institutions are willing to consider. 

Their op-ed pieces and letters to the editor are full of arguments that come down to wishful thinking on their part tied to the willful refusal to learn the technical details or even to consider with open minds what the best experts in the field tell them. One line of argument continues to obsess on an exchange of emails between people who were looking at biological data, claiming to find a smoking gun which was not really a gun and didn't actually smoke. 

But if you were to ask me to evaluate the merit of modern climate science at the technical level, I would be mostly lost. I'm probably a little better than the average Joe because I did study numerical methods of solutions to differential equations. Hey, I even got paid to write computer code, and my doctoral work was actually based on using numerical methods to solve differential equations that pertain to biochemical processes. 

But my experience does not qualify me to judge the science of global warming or the scientists who do it. What my experience does allow me to do is to judge the whole scientific enterprise from the standpoint of its ethics, its seriousness, and its ability to get answers. And at that level, I have to say directly and loudly, the right wingers are wrong. They want to view the whole scientific enterprise as not only corrupt, but incorrigibly stupid. How else could they argue the way that they do? 

I've met many scientists, I've been around the institution most of my adult life, and that's not what I see. Science is competitive and often it's unbelievably difficult, but it's not corrupt. That does not mean that there are no corrupt people, that scientific fraud never exists, or that mistakes don't happen. All of these things have been demonstrated -- corrupt people, mistakes, and fabricated results. But I have to say that most of us don't live that way and we are more aghast than the rest of you when scientific fraud is uncovered. 

So when I say that I have learned who and what I can trust, it is not a trivial statement. When a substantial number of climate scientists point out the reality of global warming, it's because they have looked hard at lots of data, they have analyzed it to death, they have considered all the potential weaknesses in every part of the argument, and then they have done it again, and again, and again. And how do I know this, you might ask? Because I've been around science and in science, and I know how it works. 

There's more to this argument because I've not taken up the issue of nuclear power in detail, leaving it to the letter linked above. Nevertheless, it's a fair point to be made, that nuclear power has its own risks, and they have to be weighed against the predictable effects of global warming. We'll leave that discussion for the second part of this essay.


(Robert Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch and can be reached at






Vol 11 Issue 89

Pub: Nov 5, 2013