Science and Politics

Climate change isn't real?! There are Scottish people with suntans!
--Adam Hills, Characterful (2007)

As someone with a scientifically-inclined mind, climate change is an observable and measurable phenomenon. But announcing one's allegiance to the climate change theory camp these days is akin to loudly announcing one is a card-carrying terrorist in some circles. And this got me thinking: At what point did science become such a politically charged topic? Between Climategate and conservative shouting matches, scientific study seems to be a field to enter warily as a new graduate.

I am not so naive to think that science is bias-free, despite one's best efforts and intentions. Funding is needed for the expertise, time, and equipment that goes into scientific inquiry. Scientific study started out as a hobby by, let's face it, wealthy men, or those physicians and naturalists who could afford to spend hours and lifetimes conducting research. As the Royal Society prepared to celebrate its 350th anniversary in 2010, an article in the Economist on the state of funding for the science in England stated “[m]ost of the money comes from business: some £15.9 billion in 2008 (before the recession). In the same year, public spending on science in universities totalled £7.8 billion, government departments spent £1.3 billion, and charities stumped up £600m.” As of 2012, governments appear to be even less willing or able to fund science and education, and big business views science as a source of big money.

Without funding, there is no science. Funds for scientific advancement comes with strings and expectations from grant organizations/individuals and institutes. Funds are in short supply during this “challenging economic time” (sorry, quoting Mr. Mom) for science and education. The Harper government has been accused of having a blatant disregard for the sciences since 2008. One only needs to examine Canada's deplorable stance on the Kyoto Accord to see the truth of this statement. To add insult to injury, Ottawa has been criticized of late for its practice of muzzling Canadian governmental scientific research.

All of which brings me back, somewhat obliquely, to the alleged global warming conspiracy and nasty politics. What is particularly troubling to me is the number of people who believe that anthropogenic, or human-caused climate change is a myth. Even more disturbing is the number of politicians who fail to see the long-term consequences of ignoring climate change, potentially missing the opportunity for change in the process. Paleoclimate data, also known as climate proxies, consisting of tree rings, and rock, ice, and sediment cores all point to climate swings over eons. But it is important to note that the most dramatic changes can be observed in climate records covering the period just after the start of the Industrial Revolution by comparison.

At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, technology was the solution to all of society's ills. Factory jobs meant the end of unemployment and the misery of poverty, people got the goods they needed (this was also the birth of advertising and the selling of goods to people who didn't know what they wanted), and the start of public education. Unhealthy clouds of sulfurous coal smoke belched out by factories was the price of a healthy economy. "Pea soup" fogs over London, consisting of throat-choking smog turned day into night, and made night even more sinister. And it was only just over a generation ago we were losing species to extinction from over-hunting, DDT use, and population demands for more land. Water actually caught fire, choked by pollutants and debris. Case in point, the Cuyahoga River in Ohio in 1969. How quickly we forget.

If it's one thing that is hammered home to me over and over again in my studies of science and history it is this: We have short memories as human beings. The inability to think beyond fifty or even one hundred years is a human failing attributable to our relatively short lifespans. So my question to climate-change skeptics and politicians is this: What do we have lose in ignoring or denying climate change? Everything. On the positive side, we have everything to gain through scientific inquiry and our capacity for ingenuity to find balance between humanity and nature. It shouldn't have to take another environmental disaster like Cuyahoga or rising sea levels to get our politicians to act in our best interests.

Warming of Two Degrees Inevitable for Canada:

Paleoclimate Proxies: