My political rite of passage

This was originally posted on 20.02.2011 and it describes events that occurred in March 2007.  It was written a few months after the events.  I post it again here because recent events make it clear that the political circus remains alive and well.  It is as germane today as it was when it was written.

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“If one judged solely by recent [U.S.] media coverage, one would think that the deniers have a point.  In an embarrassing display of political gullibility and scientific illiteracy, news organizations have repeatedly played into the deniers’ hands: by implicitly endorsing the deniers’ unfounded accusations of fraud against scientists whose emails were stolen, by portraying a single error within a thousand page report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as reason to question the entirety of mainstream climate science, and then by abandoning the climate story over the past twelve months, even as mainstream scientists were turning out one landmark study after another clarifying the extreme peril facing civilization.” – Mark Hertsgaard in Politico

The following is my amateur attempt at literary journalism.  This was written a few months after the events described in an effort to purge myself of toxins acquired through my work. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report had been published in February 2007, and the events described below occurred in March, early in my tenure as science advisor to the Florida state commission on sustainability.  My little story is a very minor saga in the climate wars, but I offer it here for whatever instruction it may provide. 

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As I drew close to Tallahassee in the early afternoon of the presentation I was in frequent communication by cell phone with Mary, Director of Research for the Century Commission, reviewing logistics and arranging our rendezvous outside the multilevel parking garage near the capitol building.  As I walked out of the garage into the blazing sun of the courtyard, I found Mary sitting on a bench near the main plaza.  It was a typical March day in northwest Florida, and for me already too warm to be wearing a coat and tie.  I was eager to escape to the air conditioning lest I become obviously damp. 

Mary was, as always, meticulously coifed and precisely appointed in dark blue down-to-business skirt and blazer, seemingly incapable of perspiring.  She greeted me with affected warmth and effused that I was looking good.  She bade me to sit and looked into my eyes, inquiring with exaggerated sincerity if I was doing OK.  This prompted me to the think again that she was probably acutely aware that I was new to this business.  Despite her partly contrived concern and obvious vested interest in my coming performance, I was grateful for her kind words and I momentarily felt as though I were with a friend.

I suspect that the reason that Steve Seibert, the Executive Director of the Commission, would comment that I had “credibility” is that I was a newbie at communicating with politicians.  True, I have the requisite scientific credentials and, unlike most of my breed, I give an intelligible talk for the public.  Far more important for the play about to ensue, being new to the game meant that I was unabashedly sincere, and this allowed me to be the straight man for the politicians’ grandstanding.  

My job was to use science to make the Commission look good, but alas, I didn’t know this.  Unlike my jaded colleagues from the climate wars of the last decade, I naïvely thought that the legislators would give a damn about what I had to say.  I assumed that given the heightened awareness created by the IPCC report the previous month, they would be eager to learn more from someone who understands Florida and climate change.  In the beginner’s mind anything is possible and the hubris of the newcomer is often amusing. As I write this, I am embarrassed at my surprise and outrage at the ensuing events. 

On that afternoon I was nervous about whether or not I would be up to the task, and I fretted about how I was going to cram the essential message on climate and energy into only 15 minutes at the end of the Commission’s report.  In February I had delivered an overview of climate science to the Commission, and it had been received with a mixture of enthusiasm and studied silence by the various members.  Later, a couple of the commissioners had anonymously raised some of the standard skeptics arguments, which were sent to me via email.  I had responded by producing a short white paper about the scientific consensus. 

As I walked to the capitol building, I recall momentarily thinking that I might run into hostility similar to that which NOAA scientist Susan Solomon had recently experienced when reporting to Inhofe’s Senate committee in DC.  Blind to the crass comedy about to unfold, I dismissed this thought as simple paranoia.

Mary and I negotiated security on the ground floor and went directly to the chamber where the Commission was to report to its authorizing committee, arriving about an hour before the scheduled event.  The capitol building is hardly evocative of history, but rather gives the appearance of a modern corporate headquarters with concrete and steel rising several stories above the surrounding buildings.  Within the genre of modern office buildings it is angular and ugly.  

The conference room was equipped to display visuals to the front and rear, allowing the committee and the gallery to simultaneously view screens at opposite ends of the conference room.  I recall thinking that whoever designed the room was clearly not someone who gave presentations, because both screens were hard for the presenter to see, the screen for the gallery being too far away, and the screen for the committee placed behind the presenter.  As the techie helped me to transfer my presentation to the computer, I noted that neither screen would work well with a laser pointer, and I reminded myself once again of the cardinal rule to verbally describe the axes of each graph that I would present.

As the legislators took their seats, I sat down near the aisle in the second row of the gallery so as to have easy access to the podium when it came my turn to speak.  I found myself next to a colleague from the University of Florida Extension service whom I had encountered a month before at a meeting in southeast Florida.  She was nervously warm and encouraging, and I was grateful to see her. 

As the meeting was brought to order, I surveyed the committee members – mostly men and two women, all middle aged.  I vaguely sensed that the members would rather be someplace else, and I had learned earlier that it had been a busy day for legislative business.  Our session was to begin at 3 pm, and from the demeanor of the chairman, it was clear that they hoped to make short work of the Century Commission report.  One restless senator caught my eye as he noisily demanded that an aide bring him a Diet Coke.

After the opening ritual incantations, the meeting proceeded simply enough with first Steve Seibert and then Rick Baker, mayor of St. Petersburg and the Commission Chair, reporting on the activities of the Commission over the last year.  As this was to be the first annual report, I knew that both Seibert and Mayor Baker were eager to leave the impression that the Commission had accomplished important work during its first year of existence.  In fact, relatively little had been accomplished, so they each made much noise about the Commission’s purpose and intentions.  Much was riding on this meeting, because the authorizing committee’s recommendation could determine the continued existence of Commission and the salaries for its personnel. 

I was amused to hear Mayor Baker once again plug his success at improving the response time of St. Petersburg Public Works in repairing sidewalks.  Although I never quite appreciated the connection between this and the work of the Commission, it was clear that Mayor Baker thought it should be mentioned frequently.

As he moved into the main part of the report, Mayor Baker was almost rhapsodic about one of the recommendations in the Commission’s first report.  This recommendation stated that the Commission should “determine a date certain” when it might be possible for Florida to be “independent of foreign oil.”   I remember the sunny weekend afternoon when I first learned that this was being considered.  Stunned by the absurdity of the notion, I had remarked to my son that this would be quite a stretch because there was no significant production or refining capacity in the state. Baker seemed to be excited about the political power of this new mission for the Commission, and later that year I would be ordered to write a report explaining how this could be achieved. This gratuitous summons of science in the service of politics caused me much distress and led to my decision to not renew my contract. 

The Century Commission for a Sustainable Florida is composed of members appointed by the Governor and both houses of the Florida legislature. It had mostly been the brainchild of Senator Mike Bennett, who sat as a member of the Commission and also served on the authorizing committee. Today, he sat with the committee facing the gallery. The Commission had been created during the last year of the Jeb Bush administration, partly in recognition of the fact that Florida generally flew by the seat of its pants when planning for the future. 

Thus, the Commission’s charge was to envision Florida’s future at 25 and 50 years hence, and make explicit recommendations on how to achieve more sustainable use of Florida’s resources. At a previous meeting of the full Commission in Miami, the president of the Senate (then Marco Rubio) advised the Commissioners to “fly at 30,000 feet”, and not concern themselves with the low altitude “clutter” associated with specific recommendations of how resources should be used in the near term. I found this suggestion bizarre and unworkable. It should be obvious that how we use finite resources in the near term is the primary determinant of our options at 25 and 50 years.

Seibert and Baker took longer than anticipated, and eventually I was introduced as the science advisor to the Commission and I stepped to the podium.  The chairman expressed concern that they finish on time, and inquired whether or not I could be done in about 10 minutes.  I smiled tightly and responded that I could, thinking that this was impossible while mentally racing through my slides to find those that could be skipped.

I began with the climate portion of the talk, showing a graph of temperature and carbon emissions over the last 1000 years as the second slide.  No sooner had I begun to explain this figure than Senator Diet Coke interrupted and loudly declared that this was wrong.  He was obviously outraged.  Moreover, it was his understanding that the Century Commission was to work on issues that would not cause controversy.  To him, my graph was controversial.  I stopped cold in my presentation, while Senator Bennett temporized about how climate was certainly important, but we really needed to hear about energy. The committee chairman looked like he smelled something foul, and suggested that I move on to the energy portion of my talk.

Knowing that the most important part of my talk had just been murdered, I phlegmatically paged forward to my discussion of energy alternatives. Perhaps because my energy alternatives were all designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and perhaps because he sensed that he had me on the ropes, Senator Diet Coke exploded from his seat and blustered that he could not sit still and listen to such nonsense any longer.  At this point, the chairman turned to his right and left as if to poll the members of his committee, and indicated that I should step down.  Mayor Baker leapt into the awkward silence.  I remember thinking that the science may have been silenced, but at least I had kept my promise to finish in 10 minutes.  In fact, I had spoken for no more than 4 minutes total.  Senator Diet Coke watched me retire to my seat with a look of righteous satisfaction on his face.

In the anxious moments that followed, Rick Baker was unctuous as he talked fast and did his best to put a positive spin on the fiasco.  He effused that we all could agree that putting less carbon into the air was better than putting more carbon into the air, regardless of ones’ view about global warming.  Rather shell shocked, I remember little of what was said.  I recall that various members of the committee weighed in with their views about energy issues, carefully avoiding making any statement that might be construed as support for the view that anthropogenic climate change is real.  As the committee adjourned for the day, I recall noting that the two women legislators had not uttered a single word during the entire proceedings.  They both looked tired and cranky. 

As folks were filing from the room, one of the other legislators loudly suggested to Senator Diet Coke that he read up about Darwin while he learned about climate change, and this brought a smile to several in the room.  Senator Diet Coke was in fact Cary Baker, a Gulf War veteran from Eustis, Florida, where he owned and operated the Peterson gun shops.  Charles Lee, a member of the Commission and advisor to the Florida Audubon Society, grasped my shoulder and suggested to me that I go shake Senator Baker’s hand.  Although my initial thought was that I would rather have a colonoscopy without anesthetic, like a good boy scout I marched up to Senator Baker with my hand extended and uttered some appropriate banalities. 

It was then that I learned that Senator Baker thought that I had showed the “infamous” hockey stick.  Senator Baker had been tutored well by the industry-backed disinformation machine, which had done an excellent job of disseminating the nonsense that the hockey stick was somehow broken. I informed him that, no, I had not shown the original hockey stick graph, but that even if I had, this science was on solid ground because the most recent 800 years of the hockey stick had been validated by the National Academy of Sciences.  This was clearly news to the Senator, and I was about to continue his education when our discussion was interrupted by Seibert, who no doubt thought it better that I not spend too much time getting to know the Senator.  I gratefully retreated to retrieve my briefcase.

As I was about to leave the room one of the committee members, a dapper avuncular fellow whose name I can’t remember, approached me smiling broadly. In a clumsy effort to be reassuring, he told me to be sure and send a copy of my presentation to the committee.  He feebly stated that climate change was obviously controversial in Florida.  Agreeing, I rolled my eyes and found myself babbling that Mayor Baker’s statement about putting less carbon in the air made no sense, scientifically.  I noted that if carbon dioxide were not a greenhouse gas, then there would be no compelling reason that we should not continue to burn fossil fuels.  In retrospect I feel silly that I ever thought that scientific logic would matter in the least in this discussion. 

I left Tallahassee as fast as I could, hoping to be detoxed by the soothing sounds of XM’s Audio Visions as I fled down Interstate 10 towards Gainesville in my gas sipping Scion xB.  This section of I-10 courses through long rolling hills of woodland and pasture, and it usually activates my biophilia.  As my drive progressed, however, I became increasingly uncomfortable and had the eerie sense that I was no longer part of the adult culture of the 21st century.  Somehow the world no longer looked familiar.  What had just happened, and why hadn’t I seen it coming?  Why had no one risen to defend the science?  Where was the outrage?

About an hour into my drive, Mary called my cell to see how I was holding up.  We talked at some length, and she concluded that this incident would play to our advantage, especially as Governor Crist’s climate change initiative picked up steam.  I suggested that the public would come to realized that legislators like Cary Baker are Neanderthals.  Today I recall with gratitude her compassion during that call.  It is remarkable that none of the Commission leadership ever mentioned the incident to me.  Baker, Bennett, and Seibert apparently did not think that an apology or condolence should be sent my way. Only one newspaper in the state reported the incident. 

Both the Century Commission and I survived, although I eventually did not renew my contract with them. The Commission received funding for another year, but only after a brutal legislative session in which the outcome was hardly certain.  I had grown through an essential rite of passage for any scientist who chooses to work with politicians.  Through this experience and other events in coming months, I learned that science is almost always subject to political expediency. 

No matter how compelling the science on anthropogenic climate change, it will only be accepted and acted on when the politicians deem it expedient for their political future and acceptable to their funding base. Thus, the call for change must be loud and come from a broad base of support. I am now firmly convinced that lofty ideals such as the future of humankind are utterly immaterial to current political discourse. The idea that compelling science should result in rational policy now seems hopelessly naïve. 

The most striking thing about my rite of passage was the lack of any objection to Cary Baker’s bullying. The instant capitulation of the alpha males unfolded within the context of business as usual.  The demeanor of the chairperson, Rick Baker, Mike Bennett, and Steve Seibert after I was dismissed conveyed that their task was simply damage control. There was no call to arms, and apparently no one but me thought that a principle of democracy had been violated.  This was simply politics as usual, and the goal was to get past it.  The disconnect between their attitude and my values was jarring, and it is no wonder that I felt like a stranger in a strange land as I drove home.  My concept of American democracy was transformed.

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Since 2007 the climate wars have intensified.  The well-funded deniers have made enormous gains, helped in no small measure by the trumped up charges associated with Climagegate.  There can be little doubt that political expediency rules the day and that the assault on reason is succeeding.  Note that Obama did not mention the words “climate change” or “carbon” once in his recent state of the union address.  The scientific establishment has been slow to energetically respond, and only recently have members of the American Geophysical Union formed a team that can respond rapidly to misunderstandings and outright distortions when they appear in the media.  In turn, the deniers have stepped up their attacks on climate scientists.  A recent paper in PNAS by William Anderegg and others including the late Stephen Schneider determined that more than 97% of climate scientists endorse the IPCC Fourth Assessment. This paper also showed that the relative expertise of the doubters was substantially below that of the convinced researchers.

It is worth noting that there exist a handful of climate scientists that have chosen to minimize or otherwise discount anthropogenic climate change.  Some of these individuals are apparently receiving funding from big oil and big coal, while others are working for conservative think tanks that espouse free enterprise as the solution to our problems. Others are simply unwilling to acknowledge the credibility of the data and are intransigent in their view that CO2 is not particularly important as a greenhouse gas.

Assuming that the good guys get to write history, which is hardly certain at this point, I believe that the names of those scientists owned by industry will be reviled for decades to come.  Some of them will be known as the Lysenkos of their time.

Although some may think that it could not get much worse, I believe that the climate wars are only now getting deadly serious.  Before this is over, I believe that climate scientists who actively oppose the industry funded distortion machine will find their livelihoods and possibly their lives threatened.  Indeed, this has already happened to a some extent.  The stakes are enormous.  Nothing less than the future power structure of the world will be determined by how we respond to climate change.  In another post I will relate my experiences in Boise where I encountered perhaps the most hostile audience of my career.  Most of my antagonists were wearing suits and held advanced degrees.  As I write these words I feel a twinge of fear.

I believe that now is the time for uncommon courage.  Scientists did not enter their chosen fields to be outspoken public defenders of rational thought.  Instead, the vast majority of us were driven by an intense curiosity and wanted to understand some little slice of the universe.  For our efforts a lucky few have been granted the extraordinary privilege of being paid to be intellectual explorers. 

The party is over and it is time for us to stand our ground and refuse to tolerate bullying by industry paid charlatans.