The Case of Michael Oppenheimer
I’ve written frequently about the links that exist between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and activists, activist organizations, and activist scientists. I find myself deeply troubled by the frequency and extent of these links. It makes no sense to me that an organization that claims to be scientific, rigorous, balanced – and policy-neutral – would allow itself to come within a mile of Greenpeace or other similar groups.
It makes no sense to me that people who claim to sincerely believe we face a planetary emergency, and who believe we have mere years to recognize and respond to this emergency, would behave so recklessly. Why gamble with your reputation in this manner? Why offer your critics such an easy target? What could you possibly be gaining that would make these relationships worth it?
I’m beginning to suspect that there actually is no rational explanation – at least not one in which the IPCC comes out looking remotely like a responsible adult. Instead, I’m now leaning toward a banal and profoundly depressing answer. It boils down to this: large segments of the scientific community have taken leave of their senses.
I have been led to this conclusion after considering the case of an astrophysicist named Michael Oppenheimer. At first glance this gentleman could hardly seem more eminent. He is director of a program in science, technology and environmental policy at Princeton University. He is a professor in the atmospheric sciences department as well as at an institute for international studies.
Prior to these appointments, however, Oppenheimer spent more than two decades as the chief scientist for the activist Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). That organization is so wealthy its list of staff experts includes more than 100 names. Among them are seven attorneys, eight economists, and a vice-president of corporate sponsorships.
Groups like the EDF lobby ferociously to advance their particular perspective. They also hire people who provide their activist agenda with a veneer of scientific respectability. Even now, Oppenheimer continues to advise the EDF. This means that his professional life has been spent in an activist milieu.
Yet the IPCC has not kept him at a distance. Instead, as his online biography points out, Oppenheimer is “a long-time participant.” He was a lead author for the 2007 edition of the climate bible, is serving as an even more senior author for the upcoming edition, and has also helped write “a special report on climate extremes and disasters.”
In an effort to make sense of how this can possibly be the case, I found myself considering a few other factoids. Perhaps the big reason why the IPCC does not view Oppenheimer as irredeemably tainted is because the scientific profession itself seems to have lost its bearings on such matters.
Oppenheimer’s Princeton bio further tells us that he:
…has been a member of several panels of the National Academy of Sciences and is now a member of the National Academies’ Board on Energy and Environmental Studies. He is also…a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
When the public hears the term “scientist” we think of someone who is above the fray – who’s disinterested and dispassionate and who goes wherever the scientific results happen to lead. This implied neutrality is what invests scientists with authority in public debates.
But in the 1970s a new kind of scientist began to emerge – the activist scientist. Nowadays, these people often occupy impressive positions at universities. They are often employed by respectable government agencies. All of that disguises the fact that they hold strong activist worldviews.
It appears that the activist scientists who emerged in the 1970s have been working their way into high-status, leadership positions. The scientific establishment, rather than keeping its distance from those whose careers have been associated with activism, now appears to be celebrating such people.
Perhaps the IPCC doesn’t regard Oppenheimer as damaged goods because the National Academy of Sciences doesn’t. Neither does the American Association for the Advancement of Science. (Nor, it should be observed, does Princeton.)
But this has consequences. The public has been told IPCC reports represent the considered opinion of the world’s top experts. But what happens when the public discovers that many of those involved are actually brazen activists? What happens when it discovers that the world’s most illustrious science bodies have themselves stopped drawing a line in the sand between activists and those who strive to pursue science in a genuinely neutral and unbiased fashion?
What will the long term damage be to science itself?
It seems to me that if scientists want us to trust their expert opinions they need to behave in a trustworthy manner. If they want us to be impressed by their high standards, they actually need to enforce these standards. The judgment of science bodies must not only be sound it must appear to be so.
When people with overt activist agendas get appointed to National Academy of Sciences panels, it’s time to start taking the findings of those panels with several grains of salt. When activist careers are rewarded with American Association for the Advancement of Science honours, those honours become devalued. What once was gold turns to clay.
Seen from this perspective, the close ties between activists and the IPCC are actually a symptom of a much broader malaise. That malaise threatens the future of science itself.
Entry filed under: activist scientists, climate bible, ethical & philosophical, historical perspective, IPCC. Tags: activist scientists, American Association for the Advancement of Science, climate bible, Environmental Defense Fund, historical perspective, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, Michael Oppenheimer, US National Academy of Sciences.