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Stigmatizing Dissent - Oil & Gas Journal

March 9, 2015
By Editors: Oil & Gas Journal

[NOTE: The following editorial was published in the March 9, 2015 edition of Oil & Gas Journal.

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[NOTE: The following editorial was published in the March 9, 2015 edition of Oil & Gas Journal.]

Stigmatizing dissent 

Engineers and scientists who work at the core of the oil and gas industry should regret a new attempt to stigmatize Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon. Some, perhaps many of them might disagree with the Harvard- Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher’s opinions about climate change. But a smear campaign against Soon should raise concern among industry professionals about the political treatment of science in general and their activities in particular. The campaign certainly weakens arguments for aggressive precautions against global warming, which now motivate every policy choice related to energy. 

Specializing in solar phenomena, Soon has suggested for many years that sunspot activity contributes more to observed warming of the atmosphere than the politically favored culprit: a build-up of greenhouse gases from human activity. That Soon’s conclusions about warming causation face opposition should cause no distress. Science is supposed to be controversial. On the subject of climate, though, the political arena tolerates no dissent. 

The astrophysicist thus found his integrity under assault recently in the Boston Globe, New York Times, Washington Post, and other newspapers because his work has been supported financially by a few oil and coal companies and the American Petroleum Institute. The activist group Greenpeace has long carped about what its web site calls “dirty money” in Soon’s research. When a staff member there provided documentation of the funding and alleged Soon didn’t disclose it in an article published by a Chinese scientific journal, reporters manufactured scandal. 

On cue, congressional Democrats scurried after witches. Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Barbara Boxer of California, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island sent businesses and think tanks letters demanding financial disclosure to researchers doubtful about dire predictions of global warming. Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona demanded from seven universities information about support for scientists who question politically acceptable theories about warming. 

Soon called the criticism directed at him “by radical environmental and politically motivated groups...a shameless attempt to silence my scientific research and writings and to make an example out of me as a warning to any other researcher who may dare question in the slightest their fervently held orthodoxy of anthropogenic global warming.” Colleagues defended him. One of them, Robert M. Carter, a paleontologist, stratigrapher, marine geologist, and environmental scientist, issued a 14-page statement pointing out the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, like many such groups, mediates nongovernmental funding of its researchers. In his view, the supposed disclosure scandal is bogus. “The criticism of Dr. Soon is false, mean-spirited, insulting, and potentially libelous,” Carter wrote. 

An observer doesn’t have to be a scientist to un- derstand that the case for drastic action on climate change is weakening. Temperature data aren’t validating projections of models that assume human activity causes most warming. This doesn’t mean people don’t contribute to warming. It doesn’t mean moderation of greenhouse-gas emissions is a bad idea. It does mean reconsideration of the standard warming hypothesis is in order before governments impose intolerably expensive overhauls of energy use. 

As vilification of Soon demonstrates, however, climate politics won’t accommodate alternative views. With their motivating theory increasingly challenged by observation, proponents of extreme precaution have gone from name-calling-“deniers,” “Neanderthals”-to character assassination. Their tactics exude desperation and undermine their credibility. 

A tough problem remains: How to rescue concern for the climate from extremism. A good first step would be to foreswear agendas driven by fear and demanding action at all cost. Related improvement would come from restoration of basic distinctions between science and political advocacy. And concentration of political attention on facts and arguments and away from personalities and motives would be welcome but perhaps too much to expect. 

Everyone is affected by climate. Everyone is affected by the cost and availability of energy. Everyone, therefore, should want political discussion about those matters to be as sophisticated as possible. Oil and gas professionals should worry, too, about the integrity of science in their disciplines and the judiciousness of policies governing their work. 

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