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The Great (Global) Climate Science Conspiracy

There is a conspiracy theory abroad that a preponderance of climate scientists are on the payroll of the US government to publish dire news about the state of the world’s air, oceans, and bio-systems. Through academic grants, so the theory goes, these folks are making the big bucks by telling Americans that we need to curb sources of pollution for Reasons. 

One of my correspondents, Kevin, voiced it this way:

William of Ockham

The overwhelming majority of  ‘climate scientists’ draw their pay through grants from the federal government and it is to their financial benefit to keep the ‘man-made’ climate scam going. From the ‘global cooling’ and impending ice age of the late ’60s/early ’70s, through ‘global warming’ and polar bears about to drown, none of [which] proved to be true. No matter what ‘grift’ Leftists try, the solution is always the same: turning more money to the government and less freedom for the people. 

I was perhaps too blunt in my response, but there was so much je ne sais quoi in that paragraph that I suffered a momentary lapse of diplomacy. I said, “That doesn’t make sense, Kevin.”

In fact, it didn’t make sense to me on multiple levels. I whipped out Occam’s Razor (the scientific KISS principle) and tried to parse Kevin’s assumptions.

  1. The money doesn’t go to individuals; it goes to groups doing climate work. So, for example, California has a $25M grant for climate adaptation. Twenty-five mil! Wow, right? But here’s how that $25M is spent: “The ICARP Adaptation Planning Grant Program will invest $25 million over multiple funding rounds for local, regional, and tribal governments to support climate adaptation efforts.” Spread as thinly as those multiple funding rounds and the groups receiving them indicate, no one is getting rich, least of all the government entities paying for the effort.
  2. This is not the message that any government wants to hear. But there are certainly interest groups that would like to hear a contrary message. If you’re going to make big bucks, you’d want to follow the money to those who have it—in this case, multi-national business interests that exist by reaping profit from non-renewable resources such as oil, coal, gas and other polluting sources of energy. If you wished to be part of their revenue stream as an academic, wouldn’t you want to publish results that made them happy? 
  3. If the US government is somehow paying out megabucks to climate scientists to hear a message that will require them to spend even more megabucks on clean energy infrastructure, where’s the financial incentive for the government?
  4. As political regimes change and different interest groups are in charge of the government and the way it responds to Bad Climate News, climate scientists don’t change their tune to make different policy-makers happy, they keep harping on the need to clean up our act. Why would they do this if they could make more money from some regimes by shutting up or saying “oops” and reversing course? (Readers may recall that one recent administration put a gag order on the EPA and climate scientists in the US as a group, even going so far as to exile some of them far way from centers of power and bar them from speaking at or attending climate-related conferences or even talking about climate science to the public or amongst themselves.)
  5. This conspiracy is framed as a Thing between the US government and American scientists, but climatologists all over the world have been raising the alarm for many years. This isn’t just a handful of scientists in the US getting grants from the US government; it’s scientists from countries all over the world who’ve conducted their own research. 
  6. Which brings me to this: Try for just a moment, I asked Kevin, to imagine the logistics necessary to get 97% of climate scientists around the world—starting in the 60s or 70s—not only to pursue the same research, but to come to the same conclusions. Who organizes it? How do they recruit? How do they ensure loyalty to the cause of the message that no one wants to hear? How do they keep someone from spilling the beans? 
  7. “None of [this] proved to be true”? I was tempted to ask Kevin about the color of the sky on his planet, but I am trying to curb my snark. Some days it’s an uphill battle. I suspect that wherever Kevin is getting his information, they are not reporting on the size of our ice caps, the loss of glaciers, the rise of sea level that has put at least five Pacific islands underwater (necessitating mass evacuations), and is threatening the island nation of Tuvalu. Closer to home, sea level rise is also encroaching on the southeast coast of the United States. Americans are literally losing houses and neighborhoods to the Atlantic Ocean. Kevin was concerned with freedom; how about the freedom of choosing where you live?

In addition to addressing the logic, logistics and facts related to Kevin’s assertion, I also wanted to respond to the implication that the seemingly different scenarios climate scientists considered over the decades occurred because they simply kept changing their story. They didn’t change their story, they simply kept at their research and connected more of the dots. This resulted in

  1. more data, which
  2. allowed them to refine their climate models, and
  3. reflected legitimate differences in the way they calculated effects.

Even I understand why the forces at work in our changing climate could result in either literal scorched earth or a new ice age or both. Much of this has depended on how ocean currents responded to the changes in climate. If, for example, the major Atlantic currents responded by changing their courses, an ice age in Europe and the northern US was a conceivable result.

Beyond the science of this, what seems like a simple economic calculation comes down to a matter of human character. Kevin saw scientists as a (straw) body who would lie and cheat to gain grants—grants that don’t actually go to the individual academics, but rather to their institutions. That’s not only a misperception of how academic grants work, but it’s a broad, prejudiced condemnation of human beings you don’t even know from their social media posts.

In my experience, scientists are a lot like cats. They tend toward a level of independence of thought that makes them seem eccentric even to other academics. I know three physicists and two physics teachers quite well—four are friends, one is my son. These are not compliant people. Which is almost irrelevant given the improbable real-world logistics of setting up such a conspiracy and keeping it going for decades without leaving a paper or digital trail. 

I reminded Kevin that the “they make money doing it” argument, in addition to conflating the amount of wealth individual scientists acquire with monies spread out over multiple groups over a period of years, also assumes that all climate scientists are cut from the same cloth and will always place money above truth or reality or other people.

But, why would they? Not one of the scientists I know would. 

Would you?

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