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SpaceShipOne man, Nobel boffins: Don't panic on global warming

Row gets nasty – ghosts of Lysenko and McCarthy invoked

Opinion The debate over global warming flamed hotter over the weekend, as a group of eminent scientists and engineers – including Burt Rutan, the famous designer of the X-prize-winning suborbital rocketplane SpaceShipOne – signed an open letter stating that the dangers of climate change are being deliberately exaggerated.

The statement, which was published in the Wall Street Journal, ran under the Hitchhikers'-esque headline "No Need To Panic About Global Warming", and was addressed to future political candidates for high office. It says bluntly:

Candidates should understand that the oft-repeated claim that nearly all scientists demand that something dramatic be done to stop global warming is not true. In fact, a large and growing number of distinguished scientists and engineers do not agree that drastic actions on global warming are needed.

The letter goes on to point out that Nobel Prize winning physicist Ivar Giaever – by no means a standard right-wing climate sceptic, as he publicly supported President Obama's election campaign – has recently resigned from the American Physical Society over the Society's insistence in its policy statement that "The evidence is incontrovertible: Global warming is occurring ... We must reduce emissions of greenhouse gases beginning now."

Giaever is not the only top physicist to have major problems with this stance by the APS: the eminent boffin Professor Harold Lewis also resigned from the Society over the matter in 2010, and legendary physicist Freeman Dyson is also known to be a warming sceptic.

The WSJ letter goes on to rehash other climate-sceptic points, including the levelling-off of temperatures seen around the world over the past decade. Rather extremely perhaps, it likens the warmist consensus in today's scientific world – reflected in such things as the APS policy statement – to the infamous era of Lysenkoism in Soviet biology, when academician Trofim Lysenko would routinely have scientists with dissenting (and as it turned out, correct) theories fired, imprisoned or even executed.

Signing alongside Rutan are 15 other distinguished names, some of them (like him) not experts in climate science – Apollo astronaut and ex-US senator Harrison Schmitt is there, for instance – but also including various top-bracket meteorologists and atmo-boffins.

Response from climate change advocates has been every bit as emotional as the sceptics with their talk of Lysenkoism. Peter Gleick, a prominent climate scientist (also well known for his contention that bottled water is evil) describes the "No Need To Panic" article as "unabashed bias" on the part of the WSJ and says that Rutan et al use "false/strawman" arguments and make "ad hominem attacks on particular climate scientists". (The WSJ article does name climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, but only to quote his leaked ClimateGate email to fellow warmists in which he wrote: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't.")

Gleick goes on to point out that he has recently organised a pro-warmist open letter signed by no less than 255 scientists, not just a measly 16 – and none of them ignorant rocketeers or astronauts either – but the WSJ turned this down.

In that letter – which did get published anyway (PDF), in premier boffinry mag Science - Gleick and his co-signatories insist that they, and not the sceptics, who are being persecuted by oppressive dogmatics. Rather than Lysenko, they evoke from the same era the spectre of US senator Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist witch hunts. They write:

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.

This is ironic as the sceptic Professor Lewis, who describes global warming as "the greatest and most successful pseudoscientific fraud I have seen in my long life as a physicist," was actually forced out of his academic position as a young scientist in 1950 for refusing to sign a McCarthy-era "loyalty oath" as a matter of principle.

The debate is plainly becoming unpleasantly polarised and extreme on both sides. As is common in such situations, people are starting to think of the children: Dr Gleick, for instance, has recently joined the board of the National Center for Science Education, an American non-profit which for many years has done sterling work defending the teaching of evolution in US science classrooms against creationist attempts to suppress it.

The NCSE has now taken on an extra mission, for which it has brought Dr Gleick on board: "to defend and support the teaching of climate change". As far as Dr Gleick is concerned, doubting the case for immediate and serious action against carbon emissions is the same as being a creationist as well as a McCarthy-style witchfinder. ®

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