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June 29, 2009

Another Non-Scientific ‘Rebuttal’ to the Scientific Consensus on Climate Change


You’ve probably never heard the name Alan Carlin, and there is good reason for that. Up until a week or so ago, he was just another employee of the Environmental Protection Agency. Today, his name is part of the muddied side of climate politics.


His path to notoriety started when he penned a paper with a guy named John Davidson challenging the scientific consensus on global warming. His paper was reviewed and rejected. After he was told not to pursue further studies, critics of that consensus got wind and claimed that the EPA was once again politicizing science.


It would indeed be troubling if true. The problem, however, becomes apparent when you read the paper. His conclusion is thus: The warming in the Earth’s atmosphere is probably attributable to solar variation, except that the Earth’s atmosphere is cooling. And, if the Earth’s atmosphere is indeed warming, the best way to mitigate that is not a cap-and-trade program. Oh, and because human welfare improved dramatically alongside the increase in carbon content of the atmosphere, there is no way carbon content could cause human misery.


It’s an excellent summary of the skeptics’ argument in general. Over the years, that argument has encompassed a dizzying array of reasons – the Earth is heating because of the sun, the Earth is heating because of volcanoes, a group of scientists has signed a petition, data showing the Earth heating is faulty, the Earth is in fact cooling. There is no consistent, coherent line of thought. Each excuse, in turn, is resurrected when convenient and offered even if it flatly contradicts the very last thing said. Carlin’s document essentially sums this up in the summary, and much of it was taken not from peer-reviewed papers but from the Internet.


Unsurprisingly, the EPA rejected the paper. Anyway, why shouldn’t they? Carlin wasn’t hired by the EPA to do assessments on climate change science, but to crunch economic numbers. This makes a good deal of sense, since Carlin himself is a trained economist and not a climate scientist, which in turn perhaps explains why Carlin’s push to get his comments included earned him a mild e-mail rebuke from his boss.


Naturally, the e-mails made their way to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a pro-growth, anti-regulation think tank that has received a lot of money from fossil fuel companies. The CEI promptly took the e-mails public, suggesting that they could be used to challenge the legality of climate legislation.


The timing of this was perfect enough to raise an eyebrow of suspicion. Even as the story was breaking, the House of Representatives was preparing to vote on a cap-and-trade program, and the margin was expected to be razor thin. Naturally, the release prompted calls from the floor of the House that no bill was needed, and the EPA was accused to stifling scientific debate.


Unfortunately, what little press this has generated so far has uncritically repeated those allegations, cherry picking quotes from internal e-mails to cast conspiratorial shadows on the government agency. It is not apparent that any of the reporters covering the controversy actually read Carlin’s paper or tried to figure out where he was getting his information.


This is, again, not terribly surprising. While there is a good deal of quality science reporting going on, it is not usually married well with reporting on political issues. The two are treated as different animals, and when combined with a general decline in science literacy, explains why many Americans are incapable of discerning quality science from garbage.


While the mini-controversy failed to stop cap-and-trade from passing the House, there is one thing you can take to the bank. If you follow climate politics, this is probably not the last time you have heard the names Carlin and Davidson. Their names will be wedged into the non-stop cycle of talking points without heed to whether they help shape anything akin to a coherent narrative.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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