The bitter, embattled scientist, the desperate man in the lab coat who’s warning that the end is nigh falls on deaf ears: this is a familiar trope in movies and literature. Our sympathies naturally fall to the underdog, to the brave individual willing to stand up and speak the truth to the stuffy curmudgeons of the status quo. David Legates, a professor of geography at the university, probably thinks of himself as that lone hero, because his long career as a climatologist has been rife with controversy.
Folks, here’s the problem. When you hear that nine out of 10 dentists recommend a particular toothbrush, do your sympathies fall to that tenth dentist who recommends brushing your teeth with a tire iron? Similarly, when 99.99% of climatologists, geologists and other scientists agree that human activity is causing the planet’s atmosphere to warm rapidly and dangerously, do you seek out the 0.001% of scientists who think that there is no problem, and nothing to see here?
Well, when you live in a country where a sizable chunk of the population, including the Head of State, believe that climate change is some sort of conspiratorial hoax, then you just might. You might even appoint that 0.001% to a position of federal authority.
Neil Jacobs, the acting head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), saw fit to appoint Legates as his deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction.
Legates has made a name for himself by repeatedly casting doubt on anthropogenic climate change, the theory that the Earth’s rapid atmospheric warming over the past few centuries has been driven by human industry. He signed the infamous Oregon Petition, a farcical document submitted to Congress which stated, among other things, that “there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.”
In 2007, Legates coauthored a non-peer reviewed article in “Ecological Complexity” which proposed that the observed decline in arctic polar bear populations was caused by humans scaring them away, and that the temperature in the Hudson Bay area was not increasing over the past 70 years, as all other major climate models suggest that it has. The article was funded, in part, by Koch Industries, a petroleum company with a history of partisan political donorship.
Legates is an affiliate of the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank famous for seeking to discredit the dangers of smoking on behalf of Philip Morris U.S.A. (the makers of Marlboro cigarettes) in the 1990s. He is also affiliated with such august organizations as the Independent Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the George C. Marshall Institute. These think tanks, coincidentally, all receive massive annual donations from ExxonMobil.
Legates resigned from his post as Delaware’s state climatologist in 2011, after then-Delaware Governor Ruth Ann Minner publicly criticized his fringe beliefs. Legates continued in-state government as an associate state climatologist and even posted a video on YouTube espousing his pseudoscientific theory that the sun is driving global warming, not human activity.
“I believe that climate change has and will occur, for a variety of reasons; that humans can and do affect our climate, sometimes in adverse ways; and that carbon dioxide is only a minor player in climate change,” Legate wrote in an email to WHYY in 2011. “Minor to the point that very little evidence of climate change in the recent past can be attributed to rising carbon dioxide concentrations.”
We at The Review are in no position to recall Legates from his appointment to the NOAA or his professorship at the university’s Department of Geography and Spatial Sciences. Nor are we going to take the stance that dissenting ideas are unwelcome in science. We are, however, in a position to cast suspicion on the fact that his work is so far beyond the pale of mainstream science, that so much of his work seems to have been funded by ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers and that his work only seems to win the praise of climate change denial think tanks.
There could be a good reason why Legates, and not a scientist from the 99.99% who affirm anthropogenic climate change, was given a role in the NOAA where he will have a direct hand in shaping federal climate policy. If that good reason exists, it seems to be hidden pretty well. A simple Google search has yielded up quite a few eyebrow-raising reasons Legates might not have been the best choice for the job.
The Review has written at-length about Legates’ affiliation with the Cornwall Alliance, an anti-environmentalist, Evangelical Christian public policy group which denies anthropogenic climate change and advocates a literalist interpretation of the Bible.
As the good book says, Professor Legates, “the Earth lies defiled under its inhabitants.” The climate change catastrophe is already upon us. It is not some far-off future event that will affect some obscure, distant nation. In the United States alone, an increase in wildfires, droughts, hurricanes and other forms of extreme weather have been linked directly to anthropogenic climate change. They are only a preview of what’s to come.
The crisis is here: the dead are beginning to pile-up, the Earth lies defiled.
Unlike the Prophet Isaiah, we at The Review aren’t too sure the Earth is defiled because its inhabitants “have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.” Instead, we’re pretty sure that the 99.99% of scientists have had it right for the past several decades and that human carbon dioxide emission is to blame.
The conservative think tanks Legates has worked with have it right, to a certain degree: combating climate change will probably hurt the economy. Modern humanity operates almost entirely on the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere to power our civilization.
However, the last time there was this much carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, uncounted millennia ago, the oceans were 60 feet higher than they are now.
The average global temperature has climbed almost two degrees Fahrenheit since the industrial revolution as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. The Earth naturally warms and cools all the time, but normally it happens on timescales of thousands of centuries. Glaciers and permafrost are rapidly melting at the Earth’s poles and the oceans are heating up.
Delaware is a coastal state, and I am not a scientist. But I would wager to guess that, if the oceans rose and Newark was underwater, that would also hurt the goddamn economy.
If the United States, China, the European Union and the major corporations of the world do not take immediate, decisive action to combat climate change, if men in positions to act, like Legates, continue assuring the stuffy curmudgeons of the status quo that everything is going to be perfectly alright, then the climate crisis will only worsen.
You are now a deputy assistant secretary of commerce for observation and prediction at the NOAA, Professor Legates. We at The Review respectfully ask that you use your newfound position of authority and influence to give a voice to the mainstream scientists. Listen to those bitter, embattled scientists in the lab coats whose warnings that the end is nigh fall everyday on deaf ears.
If you don’t, then the world might look quite a lot like the image painted in the Book of Isaiah, where “the inhabitants of the Earth are scorched, and few men are left.”
The Review’s weekly editorials are written to reflect the majority opinion of The Review’s staff. This week’s editorial was written by Mitchell Patterson, formerly the executive editor and currently the development officer. He may be reached at JMPatter@udel.edu.