Sarah Palin's anti-science showdown

The politics of hacked e-mails, says the former Alaskan governor, prove humans aren't causing climate change

Published December 9, 2009 4:05PM (EST)

"The president should boycott Copenhagen," declares Sarah Palin in an Op-Ed in today's Washington Post. The linchpin of her argument: The ClimateGate e-mails  expose mainstream climate science as "agenda driven."

If anything could make the scientists at the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University feel worse than they already do about their irresponsible and dumb e-mailing, it would have to be handing the likes of Sarah Palin a bully pulpit from which to posture. But one has to snort at Palin's characterization of these scientists as "a highly politicized scientific circle." I'm as upset as anyone at the evidence of scientists attempting to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests, but let's not forget the larger context here. For decades climate researchers have been assaulted by political attacks funded by the energy industry and right-wing think tanks who care nothing at all about the science -- their sole goal has been to shield "free" markets from the consequences of their actions. If you or I faced this kind of daily barrage, we'd probably do stupid things too.

The heart of Sarah Palin's argument isn't really about the science.

But while we recognize the occurrence of these natural, cyclical environmental trends, we can't say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes. We can say, however, that any potential benefits of proposed emissions reduction policies are far outweighed by their economic costs.

Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are at their highest point in 15 million years. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the current decade is the warmest on record, and the current year is the fifth warmest ever -- observations that are supported by data collected by multiple climate research centers. Evidence of global warming comes from many reinforcing points -- melting polar ice, rising sea levels, changes in plant and animal ecology across the globe. Palin's assertion that we can't "say with assurance that man's activities cause weather changes" is far more highly politicized than anything that comes out of the Climate Research Unit. It is fundamentally anti-science.

Sarah Palin and James Inhofe and the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Exxon and all the rest can hold their breath and turn blue in the face and argue as long as they want that the hacked e-mails from East Anglia undermine and refute the work done by thousands of scientists across the world for decades. And in all likelihood, they and their allies will probably succeed in postponing and delaying any prudent action that might have a chance at ameliorating the effects of hotter temperatures in our lifetimes. The problem is hard. Coordinating the actions of governments across the globe on such a complex challenge is near impossible.

I don't think future generations will remember the Inhofes and Palins fondly, but the great thing about science is that it will continue marching on, whatever they do. If there was significant manipulation of data at the Climate Research Unit -- and the evidence of real smoking guns proving fraud is mighty thin -- hardworking scientists will correct it and move forward. That's how science works. That's how we've unlocked the mysteries of the atom and the human genome. That's how we've built computers and space ships and cancer drugs.

The great irony and tragedy of ClimateGate is that decades of anti-science pressure from special interests pushed some scientists over the edge and made them act in ways that are not very scientific. But whether or not that imbroglio scuppers an agreement at Copenhagen or prevents a climate change bill from passing during the current administration, we will continue to accumulate more data and understand better what is happening to our planet as time goes on. And Sarah Palin's malign and conscious stupidity will only grow more historically transcendent.

UPDATE: Mark Ambinder blasts away at Palin's Op-Ed in the Atlantic.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Global Warming How The World Works Sarah Palin