Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Party-line science

The latest from the "Why the Hell Are We Still Having to Fight This Battle?" department, we have: a new rule within the Department of Agriculture forbidding employees to use the term "climate change."

Yup.  Emails from the National Resources Conservation Service, a unit within the USDA, describe terms that "are to be avoided."  According to Bianca Moebius-Clune, one of the directors within the NRCS, here are some substitutes for the forbidden terms:
  • instead of "climate change," say "weather extremes"
  • instead of "climate change adaptation," say "resilience to weather extremes"
  • instead of "reduce greenhouse gases," say "increase nutrient use efficiency"
  • instead of "sequester carbon," say "build soil organic matter"
"We won’t change the modeling, just how we talk about it," Moebius-Clune writes.  "There are a lot of benefits to putting carbon back in the sail [sic], climate mitigation is just one of them."

Which is disingenuous to say the least.  No one is fooled, Ms. Moebius-Clune, by "how you're talking about" climate change.  This administration has made it clear from the get-go that they are not only science deniers, they will do everything in their power to block or undo efforts to mitigate climate change, up to and including lying outright about what the evidence means.  

And if there was any doubt about the shenanigans going on here, consider that one of the NRCS emails mentioned in the story was from a USDA employee named Suzanne Baker, who asked whether NRCS staff were "allowed to publish work from outside the USDA that use ‘climate change’."  Baker was advised that the issue was best discussed via telephone rather than email -- presumably because telephone conversations leave no paper trail.

The whole thing goes back to an issue I've discussed before in Skeptophilia; that when the government starts having a Party Line with respect to what is acceptable science, there's a serious problem.  Science is by its very nature apolitical; data has no spin.  Now, what should be done about problems uncovered by scientific research is a different matter.  Solutions obviously have political and economic implications that need to be decided by responsible leaders.

But the science itself has zilch to do with whether you're a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or anything else.  You can disbelieve it if you want to, but that doesn't make you a staunch party member, it just means that you're willfully ignorant.

This all makes the timing of a report on climate change released last week, drafted by scientists from thirteen different agencies, seem even more on-point.  The last decades have been the warmest in 1,500 years, and Alaska and the Arctic are warming at twice the global average -- making a positive feedback loop from the methane released by thawing permafrost a frighteningly real possibility.

The report is now sitting on President Trump's desk, and there's considerable concern in the scientific world that Trump will either order it to be amended, or else suppress it completely.  It contradicts his stance that petroleum, coal, and gas use is completely safe, and that global warming is a myth -- something he's stated in one form or another over and over.  "It’s a fraught situation," said Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geoscience and international affairs at Princeton University (who was not involved in the study).  "This is the first case in which an analysis of climate change of this scope has come up in the Trump administration, and scientists will be watching very carefully to see how they handle it."

I may be pessimistic in this regard, but I don't think there's any question how they'll handle it.  Trump has loaded the relevant governmental positions with climate change deniers and people in the pockets of the fossil fuels industry, so his position on this matter is crystal-clear.  If the report isn't round-filed immediately, it'll be returned for revision -- rewriting it so as to cast doubt on its conclusions, taking out language that the powers-that-be dislike and replacing it with vague verbiage intended to generate a shoulder shrug rather than resolute action.

After all, if all of the studies that have gone before this haven't changed the minds of people like Trump, EPA director Scott Pruitt, and Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, this one sure as hell won't.

What I find grimly ironic about this is that in the United States, the state that is projected to have the most damage from climate change is Florida.  So if the ice melt continues at the current rate, Trump's precious Mar-a-Lago resort is going to be at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, a hundred miles from the nearest land.  I know that if this happens, it will come along with the displacement of millions of people worldwide from coastal cities, which is nothing short of tragic; but the mental image of Trump piling up sandbags around his palatial estate, trying futilely to keep the seawater from flooding in, at least cheers me up a little bit.

[image courtesy of the University of Arizona and the Wikimedia Commons]

It would take a bigger man than me not to watch him and say, "How's that 'weather extreme' treating you, Donald?  Bet you wish you had engaged in a little 'increasing of nutrient use efficiency' while you still could, don't you?"

1 comment:

  1. My uncle, James Guirard, was employed as a consultant by Republicans to come up with precisely this sort of substitution, on the theory that if you make up a new term that, while not strictly or even vaguely an accurate description of what you're applying it to, and use it consistently, that it will change people's perceptions. It's worked pretty well for them so far.