Political Campaign Fixates on Climate Science

Donations count for a lot

Ken Silverstein | Aug 23, 2011



Some sharp jabs are shifting the political campaign into high gear. The candidates are now fixating on climate science and their positions may be less about philosophy and more about where they get their money and what each needs to do to win their respective nominations. 


Is it not curious that such an important scientific question as to whether humans are contributing to the earth’s warming has become a forerunner to being selected to represent one’s party? It’s tantamount to politicizing key findings of the medical community. But if one focuses on where each of the respective politicos are getting their funds, the motives become a lot clearer. 


Simply put, the oil, gas and coal industries give the preponderance of their cash to the Republican party. Meanwhile, the clean technology sector tends to favor those who promote a New Economy and the building out of the green infrastructure. And those recipients tend to be the same officials who agree with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s stance on tougher regulations. 


The issue of whether global warming is a man-made phenomenon got fresh fuel last week. That’s when Republican presidential contender Jon Huntsman countered a statement by one of his rivals, Rick Perry of Texas. Perry, who is boasting that his state is still prospering from the growth of the oil and gas industries there, says that the science has been “manipulated” -- something that Huntsman pounced on: 


“To be clear, I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming,” Huntsman tweeted. “Call me crazy.” Quite the opposite, professional politicians claiming to have true insight into scientific matters is itself a sham. 


Discovery should be left to the scientific community. But some are attacking the motives of certain scientists who they say knowingly presented faulty research. Their targets: The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as well the Climatic Research Unit of University of East Anglia in Britain. 


As fas as the U.N. goes, it referenced as fact that the Himalayan Glaciers’ snow caps would melt by 2035, an obvious error. The second one involved scientists who, through emails, had been less than candid. But other experts have double-checked their work and say those particular shortcomings do not obviate any of the results.

“In short, a very wide variety of scientific evidence independently confirms the warming, so nothing said in the emails can shake that conclusion,” says Spencer Weart, who is director emeritus of the American Institute for Physics.

Political Graft

People of goodwill do disagree over whether the warming trend is either urgent or man-made. This debate also comes down to whether citizens think it a wise use of public resources to promote the development of newer but less proven green technologies at the expense of minted but less environmentally-friendly ones. 

Those who tend to advance the coming of the next-generation economy are in favor of this re-allocation of resources. Conversely, those who say that the earth’s warming is a natural occurrence are maintaining that this nation will waste a ton of money trying to fix something in which it has no control. 

Some participants with vested interests, however, take positions because they are trying to curry political or financial favor with a certain constituency. Just as a good attorney will ask expert witnesses if they have been paid to testify on behalf of clients, a competent reporter must do the same. To that end, at least 90 percent of climate scientists -- not political consultants or talk show hosts -- say that the earth is warming in part because of human intervention. 

A recent Washington Post story points to a 2010 study that appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Researchers interviewed 1,372 climate scientists and concluded that 97 percent agreed that people contribute to the warming phenomenon. Are they all bought? 

If so, they could get richer by joining the other 3 percent and switching sides. In 2008, the coal industry that releases a third of all heat-trapping emissions donated 73 percent of its kitty to Republicans while giving 27 percent to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The oil and gas sector has given $238.7 million to candidates and parties since the 1990 election cycle, 75 percent of which has gone to Republicans, the group adds. 

The 200 registered lobbyists in the alternative energy field contributed $30 million to office-seekers. That is 12 times the amount they spent in 1998, the center says, although it is far short of what those who take opposing positions on greenhouse gas cuts have contributed. 

Very few want to spend billions trying prevent a scenario that is highly unlikely. But would most people want to take smaller, practical steps to avert the possibility of environmental and economic hardship, especially if the vast majority of experts are making these cautionary statements? Probably so, but they must first get past the foggy landscape created by the benefactors of huge political donations.


EnergyBiz Insider has been named Honorable Mention for Best Online Column by Media Industry News, MIN. Ken Silverstein has also been named one of the Top Economics Journalists by Wall Street Economists. 

Follow Ken on www.twitter.com/ken_silverstein






*Tuesday’s Insider, written by a guest author, took a different look at a similar set of issues. 

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extremely sensible

replying to the note just posted. well said. but, hey, those talk show hosts you mentioned all have high school diplomas (no college degrees) that far surpass the Ph.D's of the mainstream climate scientists.

Russian Roulette

There is ample evidence that the IPCC view is right.  Unfortunately, this includes the fact that the world is experiencing actual conditions like severe weather events, average temperature increases, and accelerated ice shelf melt that confirm the predictions of the climate models.

Still, I suppose it is possible for someone to have a different interpretation of the various data.

But what is not logical or rational is to be against taking immediate action to reduce GHG emission based on claims that the science is uncertain.   If the mainstream science is riright, failure to reduce GHG emissions will have catastrophic effects on our economy and quality of life.   The rational policy position is to spend the money to head off this catastrophic risk, especially when the costs are not all that high in the big scheme of things (roughly equivalent to the increased energy costs we've borne over the last five years when oil doubled in response to market conditions).  

So, on the one hand, if we follow the advice of the climate scientists but they turn out to be wrong, we will have spent a few dollars more for energy than we needed to, but also gotten side benefits in the form of green jobs and increased energy indepence from the middle east.  

On the other hand, if we follow the advice of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and the other leaders of the Republican Party, and they turn out to be wrong, we will have saved a few dollars in the short term, but devasted our agriculture,  forestry, and outdoor recreation industries; subjected coastal cities around the globe to Katrina-like flooding on a permanent basis; set the stage for mass refugee migrations around the world and resource wars.

The fog of Climate "science"

Ken, were your comments on climate change or the current state of our politics?  Maybe it was both?  It is hard to comment impartially on either.  For those with  leanings either way, some of your statements may seem biased.  To those of us that have known you for years, we know you try to be a reporter.

As several readers pointed out, the scientific method is not being used to determine the facts by either side.  This problem is too big for it.  The facts are not all known.  There are no "controls" that can be employed to test the results in a meaningful time frame.  So what to do?  A rational solution is to have an intelligent discussion and weigh the evidence impartially to reach a "best guess" answer.  That answer may be partly or fully wrong, but at least we will have tried to make a modern, civilized determination of the facts. 

How that determination is acted upon has to have inputs from ALL sides, social as well as scientific.  Robbing the rich to provide heating and cooling for the "under privileged" isn't right.  Robbing the poor to line the wallets of the rich isn't right either.  Poisoning the environment will eventually solve the problem by getting rid of both.

As for "buying scientist," it doesn't take money, it takes recognition.  Most scientist didn't get in that profession for the money, but they soon found out that without recognition, they were not going to get anywhere with the research they care about.  Everything takes money these days and to get those funds requires that a researcher be known to those with the purses.

You are in the energy business so you know that every watt of electicity becomes heat eventually, whether generated by hydro, fossil, nuclear, solar or wind.  The world is using massive amounts of electricity these days, but it is a small fraction of the in-solation we receive and the core heat that comes up to the surface.  Still it is an addition to what the earth has to shed each year to stay close to what we call normal (average really).  We believe the geo-scientist that say the earth has been hotter and colder than it is today.  Even in hind sight they can't say for sure what caused these extremes.

In regard to yesterday's guest article, he did make a few points that are valid.  We must consider the impacts on all inhabitants of spaceship earth.  This won't be easy and we probably won't get it right the first time or the second, but we must try or quit considering ourselves enlightened.  If the problem is man-made, then the costs of the remedy should be born by those who profitted the most.  If the problem is just the normal cycling of the environment then we better spend the wealth required to survive this extreme until it gets back to a more hospitable state.  No matter which it is, the cost of living is going up for everybody.

There is an opportunity for someone like Energy Biz to compile all the arguments on the subject and put them on the table for discussion.  Facts would be clearly identified.  Theories would need to be compared carefully.  Model projections would have to be transparent to those who can understand the components.  It would be a large undertaking, but done well, it would at least clarify what we don't know.  It could be done wiki-style with verification of credentials.  Any one could submit questions, but all "facts" would need documentation.  All theories would require a line of reasoning that is scrutinized carefully by peers.

Thanks for trying to have a discussion, not another shouting match.

David McGee, PE

The fog of Climate "science"

An excellent idea but, as publishers, would Energy Central (proprietors of Energy Biz) be willing and able to sponsor such an undertaking? This would be a massive task, but well worthwhile. I would freely offer my practical support, time and health permitting.


Alan E. Belcher


CO2 and ocean acidification

The relationship between carbon dioxide emissions and global warming depends on a number of physical variables that may be difficult to quantify. Rising average temperatures also stimulate economic development in the Earth's polar regions, quelling criticism among those who anticipate an improvement of their personal fortunes. Oil companies expect to benefit from new ice-free realms of offshore drilling.

By contrast, increasingly negative consequences are presented by ocean acidification, which is a cumulative and enduring chemical process. The absorption of atmospheric CO2 in water forms carbonic acid (H2CO3) that is reducing the natural alkalinity of the world's seas and oceans. Average pH values have diminished by 0.11 compared with the pre-industrial level of 8.179, thereby increasing hydrogen ion concentrations by almost 30% due to the logarithmic measurement scale. Under ongoing CO2 emission trends, ocean pH values could decline by 0.17 - 0.46 units by the year 2100 and by as much as 1.4 units over the next three centuries. The corresponding loss of carbonate concentrations occurs to the detriment of calcifying organisms. Above atmospheric CO2 levels of 450 - 500 ppm, which are expected by the middle of this century, corals will no longer be able to build their calcium carbonate skeletons. 

The UN Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity has determined that the measured trend toward ocean acidification "is irreversible on timescales of at least tens of thousands of years". At current emission rates, "the surface waters of the highly productive Arctic Ocean will become under-saturated with respect to essential carbonate minerals by the year 2032, and the Southern Ocean by 2050 with disruptions to large components of the marine food web." Coastal life forms are additionally confronted by changes in circulation patterns and by the oxygen depletion resulting from fertilizer runoff. According to Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland, Australia, the Earth is "well on the way to the next great extinction event" in these realms.

Jeffrey Michel

Be careful about using poll results


In the 12th paragraph, you mention a Washington Post story which refers to a 2010 study appearing in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" in which researchers interviewed 1327 climate scientists and concluded that 97 per cent agreed that people contributed to the warming phenomenon.  One has to be very careful about taking that to the statement in the 11th paragraph that "...at least 90 percent (sic) of climate scientists...say the earth is warming because of human intervention."

You have seen enough of my posts to know that I think the IPCC Report on Global Climate Change, and specifically its conclusion that manmade CO2 is the principal cause of global climate change, is a fabrication reached by extensive data manipulation rather than application of the scientific method.  However, even I agree that mankind contributes to global warming--hell, you cannot burn tons upon tons of fuel--be it coal, oil, gas, nuclear fuel, whatever--and reject waste heat to the environment and not contribute to global warming strictly because we are putting heat into the atmosphere.  It is the significance of the impact one must consider.

If the authors of the IPCC report are so above board and honest, and thus above the influence of either money or fame, then why all the shennanigans so evident in the "Climate-gate" emails and why the concerted efforts by organizations and journals supporting the IPCC conclusions to put down publication of dissenting opinions that one can read about in "Climate of Extremes" and "Climate Coup"?

Other things one must be vary wary of when citing polls include the source of the population of interviewees, the way the result is stated, and any bias of the researchers.  For instance, look at the statement in paragraph 12:  It says "Researchers interviewed 1327 climate scientists and concluded that 97 percent (sic) agreed that people contribute to the warming phenomenon."  It does not say that 97% agreed that people are the principal contributor to the warming phenomenon.  Yet paragraph 11 says "...at least 90% of climate scientists say...the earth is warming because of human intervention."  If the statement in paragraph 11 is made with paragraph 12 as justification, there is a leap to conclusion that is not justified.  The other thing to be wary of is that the  researchers concluded that 97 per cent of the climate scientists interviewed agreed--not that 97 per cent of the scientists said they agreed.  This throws in possible bias on the part of the researchers--ie who are they, what is their position, and what is the position of the employers they are working for in compilation of the study.

Lastly, one has to look at the body of climate scientists the interviewees were drawn from.  How were they selected?  Are they all members of the National Academy of Sciences?  What is the position of the NAS on the IPCC report and on global climate change?  I bring this up because the American Medical Association is frequently cited as speaking for the majority of physicians in America yet, according to a piece published in the Wall Street Journal (online) on May 7, 2010 and written by Dr. H. Sherz, the AMA membership is less than 20% of all physicians in the USA, so AMA can hardly really represent the position of the majority--let alone all--physicians in America.  So, where is the justification for implying that NAS speaks for the majority of climate scientists?

Well, I said "lastly" in the paragraph above--but there is one more point to make.  The IPCC report is often referred to as "consensus science".  This term is an oxymoron.  There may be a consensus by the scientists involved in certain groups about a theory but a theory remains a theory and not a scientific fact until proven by unbiased, honest application of the scientific method.  This is a stricture the IPCC report has not met from what I have read and heard.  There is no such thing as consensus science.  If consensus science truly existed as fact, then according to a bunch of ancient scientists the Earth is flat and one could literally fall over the edge and the Sun orbits the Earth.

I am afraid this particular article shows your bias, Ken.  As for me, I believe the conclusion of the IPCC report is unproven and highly arguable.  I also believe, even if the conclusion is correct, mankind can adapt more quickly to the impacts of global climate change than given credit for so that the net effect is not worth destroying the economies of the developed countries only to allow the developing countries to supplant the emissions of the developed one with even more emissions than we are presently putting into the atmosphere.

As reference to the impact we are having on the economy with the green drive, I looked at what is happening within ERCOT.  In ERCOT, there is a total of between 9000 and 10000MW of wind generation installed.  The record output for wind is 7355MW according to information from an ERCOT report on wind.  For the period between 24JUN to 04JUL2011, the most power generated was roughly 6500MW with the least being roughly 600MW.  On 04JUL2011, the maximum output from the wind farms never exceeded a quarter of installed capacity.  When the ERCOT load peaked that day at 58,800MW at 5PM, wind was only contributing about 1000MW.  So, if one were to figure that at an average capital expenditure of $2500 per nameplate MW, there has been about $23 billion invested in wind that actually generates less than 10% of all the energy generated in ERCOT.  $23 billion represents the ability to build about 23,000MW of CCGT that can put that 23,000 MW on the grid round the clock for about 95% of the total hours in a year.  $23 billion represents about 4600MW of nuclear facility that can put its full output on the grid round the clock for about 90% of the hours in a year.  $23 billion represents about 10,000MW of super-critical coal fired plant that can put its full power on the grid about 92 to 94% of the total hours in a year.  You had better believe the Chinese and Indians know that last one.

RPSs will be the final nail in the coffin of the US economy before all is said and done.

Mark Byron Wooldridge

Donations count for a lot

Ken, this is a very fair -- even understated -- review of a critical issue facing our country that should be read by everyone who's concerned about the distorting role of money in our nation's politics.

When you cut through the noise and disinformation, the fact remains that 97% of genuine climate scientists subscribe to the view that climate change is both real and caused at least in part by human activity, largely including fossil fuel consumption.  No serious person can believe a conspiracy could be sustained among such a large group of independent-minded people.  It is striking how, at the same time this expert consensus has solidified, extractive (fossil-based) energy has become a major factor in polarizing our nation’s politics.

Several big-money sectors, of course, are heavily involved in lobbying Congress and contributing to candidates (e.g., finance, health/pharma, agribusiness, defense).  But the general pattern among all of them is a roughly even and self-cancelling split (ranging from 50/50 to 60/40) between major parties.  Within the energy sector, this balanced pattern even holds for electric utilities and gas pipelines.  The extractive fossil energy industries (coal, oil and gas) are the only major sub-sector where contributions are both (a) huge and (b) overwhelmingly (often 80/20 or more) tilted toward one party.

The result:  within a decade, the Republican Party – whose leaders once founded the conservation movement and EPA – has become captive to narrow corporate fossil energy interests and hostile to sound science.  It has embraced a short-run profit-maximizing perspective that is detrimental to our environment, public health and long-term economic prosperity.  The Center for Responsive Politics does a tremendous service in organizing and publishing this data.  Your column has likewise done a great service in bringing it to your readers' attention.

Reply to 'Donations Count'


Teddy R and Richard N were not particularly good Republicans. Roosevelt was more like a Lincoln-Whig [government expansionist and partisan Progressive who did not particularly mind a little corruption in his administration]. Nixon was a strange bird who probably didn't deserve what happened during his tenure as POTUS.

But your point about National Parks and EPA is well taken. We would probably be much better off without either of them. The states had parks prior to Roosevelt, and seeing the mess that the Feds have made of our park system, it's probable that state ownership and administration of our green spaces and natural wonders would be preferable. The EPA exhausted its initial usefulness decades ago and has been thrashing around, making governmental mountains out of environmental molehills ever since.

EPA's insane desire to outlaw all DUST and visible smoke has the potential to substantially hinder our economy. EPA's past 3 decades of over-reaching rulemaking will probably [if not enthusiastically reformed] reduce our economy to 3rd tier levels in another decade or so.

Back to AGW ... The world HAS been warming, but it appears to have stopped in the mid-1990s. Current Polar cap warming is probably just a delayed equalization of the earlier thermal energy increase. The warming's probably due to solar cycles. Since the  alarmists' models are totally incorrect on atmospheric energy distribution [see recent NASA data], I'll wager they are incorrect on the degree to which human activity [CO2] has contributed. 





Concensus Science

I do not find the idea that '9 out of 10 scientists accept global warming'  convincing.  Does Y2K or H1N1 ring any bells?  (I could add Ozone Depletion and Keynesian Economics - but will keep those to myself).  And this whole topic is so loaded with PC and culture war emotions.

In my view we need a full and open scientific debate, where the objections of the naysayers are taken seriously, not dismissed as politically incorrect.  But I don't know how that can be done in this polarized environment.

It is too political


First an editorial comment:

"Conversely, those who say that the earth’s warming is a  natural occurrence are maintaining that this nation will waste a ton of money trying to fix something in which it has control."  Should this read, "....no control."?

The source of funds is a political issue, but that focus expected given how this topic has been mismanaged.

Also, here is my summary view:      > Scholarly science begins with skepticism and survives through debate, challenging debate.  Can anyone point me to the thorough debate of both sides that led to such an inarguable conclusion?   > Populism and highlighting majority opinions seems a tool of the political class and perhaps industry, but now it is valid for academia?   > The theories and the models continue to evolve.  Most recently sulphurous emissions have been added to explain the past decade of unexpectedly lower than predicted temperature rise.  Isn't a valid question, what next?

The biggest problem in my view is that this has moved almost entirely to a political debate, including the scientific community.  That those same scientists simply disparage the naysayers rather than presenting public counterargument is especially curious.  Add to that the fact that the optimal remedy involves almost complete disposition of trillions of dollars of existing energy infrastructure worldwide and a subsidy map so complex and burdensome that it almost becomes incomprehensible to most, and it is no surprise resistance builds as a first reaction.  An anecdote:  I was in the audience at an MIT sponsored debate about the need for and means of carbon management, and two of the three scientists (PhD engineer, PhD physicist) repeatedly cited transfer of money to the poor from carbon taxes as a significant benefit.  Politics in place of science?  Put the face of Al Gore in place as the primary champion, and intractable polarization is guaranteed.

Who is a lay person to believe?

As someone who wants to learn, who are we to believe? If 97% of climate scientists say it is real, do we believe them? Do we believe the 3% who probably sincerely hold their beliefs? If I went to 100 doctors and 97 of them told me to quit eating fats and go exercise and 3 of them said to continue on as I"m doing that my diet was just fine, I would change. I personally think that the 3 % is just much louder than the other 97%, which makes it look like things are evenly spilt. 

Who to Believe?

I am sorry to tell you that in my opinion the truth is currently not known nor knowable.  To paraphrase McNamara, this is the 'fog of (not quite) war'.  The issue is what to do in the middle of 'the fog'.  The answer is - the best you can.  Don't be frozen by the unknowns, but don't overreact to every rumor.  Only hindsight is 20/20, and even then the winners write the history.   


"Researchers interviewed 1,372 climate scientists and concluded that 97 percent agreed that people contribute to the warming phenomenon. Are they all bought?"

Tell me who employs these scientists and we can then decide if they are "bought".  I would be willing to guess that nearly all of them are in some way financed by the government, either directly or via a grant of some sort.

If you read opinions of credible scientists not financed by climate research or other interest in government control you will find that this climate scare is not warranted.

"Most of the increase in the air's concentration of greenhouse gases from human activities--over 80 percent--occurred after the 1940s. That means that the strong early 20th century warming must be largely, if not entirely, natural." "The coincident changes in the sun's changing energy output and temperature records on earth tend to argue that the sun has driven a major portion of the 20th century temperature change."

-Sallie Baliunas, astronomer, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

"Global warming results not from the emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, but from an unusually high level of solar radiation and a lengthy – almost throughout the last century – growth in its intensity."  "Had global temperatures directly responded to concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, they would have risen by at least 0.1 degrees Celsius in the past ten years — however, it never happened."  "By 2041, solar activity will reach its minimum according to a 200-year cycle, and a deep cooling period will hit the Earth approximately in 2055-2060. It will last for about 45-65 years and by mid-21st century the planet will face another Little Ice Age.”

Khabibullo Abdusamatov, mathematician and astronomer at Pulkovo Observatory of the Russian Academy of Sciences