The U.S. Chamber of Dunces Takes on Climate Change

August 26, 2009


The American right never ceases to amaze and entertain. Reuters reports today that the US Chamber of Commerce wants to put the science of Climate Change “on trial.” Apparently, the titans of business want the EPA to stage a show trial, which will buttress the burgeoning astroturf campaign to limit emissions reductions.

So far, so bizarre. But the report gets odder, and funnier.  The LA Times has reported that “Chamber officials say it would be ‘the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st century’ — complete with witnesses, cross-examinations and a judge who would rule, essentially, on whether humans are warming the planet to dangerous effect.”

Now I’m not sure whether Chamber officials have read much history, but to refresh their memories: the Scopes “monkey trial” was brought by the state of Tennessee against a schoolteacher, John Scopes, who had begun to teach evolution to his pupils.  He did so in knowing contravention of a piece of legislation called the Butler Act, which forbid school to “teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation of men as taught in the bible.”

Ironically, Scopes was put up to the task by a coalition of local businessmen in the town of Dayton. Local mining magnate George Rappleyea, seeing the controversy that would be engendered, wanted some easy publicity for the town, resulting in an interesting alliance of big business and crusading science. Scopes lost the case, despite the assistance of his dazzling lawyer Clarence Darrow, and the scientific strength of his position.

Yet the “monkey trial” put to bed the popular campaign against evolution, which struggled to escape from some of America’s less enlightened pockets. Despite the legal intricacies of Tennessee law, the spectactle of Darrow hammering the ill informed position of his counterpart William Jennings Bryan, made creationism a laughing stock across the nation.

William Kovacs, the senior vice president for environment, technology and regulatory affairs at the US Chamber of Commerce, appears to want to play Scopes’ wacky alter ego, telling the press that “It would be evolution versus creationism…It would be the science of climate change on trial.”

Although bringing the full weight of corporate PR budgets and the vindictive polemicists of the American right to bear on the EPA might make for some spectacular theatre, I doubt that Kovacs has assessed the deeper implications of his idea. In reality, the science behind our knowledge of climate change is increasingly solid. Nothing is 100% true in science, leaving room for extreme sceptics to point to the absence of certainty as proof of falsehood. Yet that’s how science, as opposed to religion, works. What the Chamber of Commerce wants to do, is to reduce climate change science to the level of a religious debate – to reduce the issue to a matter of faith.

This, of course, means that the opposing view – that humans are not causing climate change, that it isn’t actually happening, and that we can do nothing about it if it is, cannot be proven either. What would transpire, in all likelihood, is a Judge Judy style judicial rampage, where the merits of scientific reasoning are submerged by a tsunami of insinuation, exagerration and emotional manipulation. Kovacs may well get more than he bargained for, with both “sides” (a binary generated only by the trial format itself) capable of mobilizing such tactics.

What certainly wouldn’t happen, is the banishment of climate science to the recesses of America, fit only for cranks and weirdos.

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