Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The professional practice of pure science, like most other honorable life pursuits, has its opinion leaders, its majority opinion and its minority opinion. However, the mix of pure science with politics, which is necessary from a practical standpoint, has obvious pitfalls.

To some large or small degree, highly opinionated and domineering personalities, stilted viewpoints and sometimes malevolent politics must enter into the recipe. The opinions and domineering seem to flow more freely around the time of the year we call Earth Day (for those who aren’t hip, that would be April 22 every year). When politicking dominates the perspective of pure science on any day of the year, we all lose.

In our combined 50 years of professional atmospheric and environmental science experience in government, academia, activism and consulting, we have observed a dichotomy between the real and the academic-bureaucratic worlds of environmental science.

Scientists and engineers who work hands-on in the trenches with real-world environmental-science challenges on a daily basis are skeptical of claims of a substantial influence on global climate from human activity.

Academicians who view the world from their computer screens, theories, limited field investigations and well-read published reports are not only true believers but avid promoters of the theory of anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

The academics, whose student and public admiration and financial well-being depend on an urgent topic, have a powerful incentive to focus on a simple human-produced cause and therefore a human-correcting solution to the incredibly complex challenge of global climate warming. This narrow focus limits the creativity so necessary to scientific discovery that truly resolves issues and serves society efficiently.

Furthermore, because many students in general education are exposed only to superficial knowledge in science throughout their primary, secondary and college careers, such students as working, voting adults are relegated simply to trusting the consensus of experts on any even modestly complex science matter. For example, when the “lies, damn lies” and AGW statistics are proffered as proof that the Earth is warming because of the excesses of human comfort and that it will continue to do so if humans don’t immediately get less comfortable, the insufficiently educated or uninitiated must simply comply. Let us offer an alternative.

We encourage everyone to begin to educate himself on this important topic by taking a look at the latest global temperature trend data through 2008. A good day to start your personal education might be Earth Day, and a good place to find the data of personal enlightenment is at the Web site of the National Climatic Data Center (

Trend data will show you a continued drop in the average level for the world’s thermometers since 2005. Be assured that the AGW enthusiasts will still obsess that 2008 was one of the highest years on record. However, suppose you were to look at the data trend as if you were riding an amusement park’s roller coaster. Your perspective would be quite different depending on which side of the big hill you were on.

What about bureaucrats? Government agencies with their technical and nontechnical personnel have an enormous responsibility. Such agencies must generate, carry out and oversee ostensibly the best available science to correct real environmental problems.

By and large, government environmental agencies have performed a yeoman’s effort considering the monumental task. For instance, government pollution-control agents, interfacing with the general public and industries in their jurisdiction, live with the degree of reasonableness of government laws and regulations and perform admirably.

But, here again, agencies and individual agents can become politicized. If so, the real will and benefit of the people may be usurped by a political program, pet project or personal infatuation masquerading as, say, a climate sickness with its attendant scientific solution - although the solution eventually is exposed as a very expensive cure for an illness that never existed.

We have had a long history of earnest interest in the environment. On the first Earth Day in 1970, one of us biked to school with a sign proclaiming the day and later frequented outdoor environmental forums at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. We have actively participated in paid and volunteer environmental projects throughout our careers.

Our serious interest in the environment, however, is not unreasonable concern. Much personal, professional and academic experience tells us there’s much more to be learned about the hugely complex climate system. And simple, politically motivated declarations of supposed climate facts and proposed solutions to dubious anthropogenic contributions to global warming will only abridge a full understanding of the biosphere and humans’ limited interference with its natural operation.

A return to pure science and its very cautious association with politics, improved science education, and diligent generation and implementation of environmental regulations will make us all winners this Earth Day and beyond.

Anthony J. Sadar is a certified consulting meteorologist and co-author of “Environmental Risk Communication: Principles and Practices for Industry” (CRC Press/Lewis Publishers 2000). Susan T. Cammarata is an independent environmental lawyer in Pittsburgh.

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