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June 29, 2009
‘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.
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
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.
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