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A Conspiracy So Vast…

By Matthew Yglesias  

"A Conspiracy So Vast…"

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I don’t have a great deal to say about the alleged scandal revealed by emails stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit. Anyone who’s read their Kuhn will know that there’s some politicking in science, particularly regarding scientific issues that have important political implications, but the fact of the matter is that the natural sciences and the institutions associated with them have been enormously successful in expanding humanity’s capabilities. And they are telling us quite clearly that human activity is creating higher-and-higher concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases and this higher gas concentrations are driving problematic shifts in the global climate.

What I wonder for those, like Senator James Inhof and Cato Institute Vice President Roger Pilon, who seem to think these emails prove the existence of a nefarious conspiracy to defraud the public about the evidence for anthropogenic climate change is what’s the purpose of this conspiracy? You can see why, having decided that he really wants to pass a clean energy bill, John Kerry might be well-motivated to fudge the facts around the edges about various things. But what’s the upside for Kerry in taking this issue up in the first place? Or Barbara Boxer or Henry Waxman? How is it that the government of China, which is clearly reluctant to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, doesn’t seem to have any qualms with this science? Maybe political parties from across the spectrum in France endorse consensus climate science because they’re under the influence of the nuclear energy industry, but why does this political consensus extend to the U.K. and all across continental Europe? Are David Cameron and Angela Merkel in the grips of growth-hating socialist ideology? And what about the scientists themselves? Where’s the upside? Normally to posit a giant conspiracy you need some plausible account of the motives.

It shouldn’t take a genius to note that opposition to the scientific consensus is extremely concentrated among political movements with strong ties to the coal and oil industry. You can easily see where the upside is for them in getting this wrong. But adopting the view that the IPCC is correct really is “inconvenient” from a political point of view. Indeed, even political leaders who accept the basic outline of this climate consensus rarely actually argue in favor of reductions that are sufficiently sweeping to meet IPCC guidelines specifically because doing so is so politically problematic. This just isn’t a “good issue” to take on. But it happens to be a real problem and so, reluctantly, leaders around the world are trying to take it on.

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