The climate change McCarthyists

Never in the history of think-tanks has a research proposal received so much publicity. Starting, so far as I can tell, in The Guardian, it spread through the world, including the front page of this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald. The problem (according to The Guardian):

Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world’s largest oil companies to undermine a major climate change report due to be published today.
Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an ExxonMobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Travel expenses and additional payments were also offered.

Professor Q, who has joined the chorus of criticism, has also tracked down a copy of the original letter (pdf) the AEI sent to prospective authors.

It really is hard to see what the fuss is about. There is a political consensus that something needs to be done about climate change, not because we are necessarily 100% certain about the science, but because policymakers cannot do nothing in the face of potentially catastrophic risks. Few decisions are made with perfect information. But I cannot see that there is anything to be lost from continuing to hear from the sceptics, and that the sponsoring body once took some money from Exxon or has staff that once worked for Bush tells us little that is useful.

Like most of the right-wing think-tanks the AEI does not do hired gun research and does not get itself in the position of leftist NGOs of having a dominant funder that can influence their public statements. It only gets 17% of its annual funding from corporations, suggesting that the capacity of any one company to have an influence would be very limited even in theory, and probably near zero in practice.

As I have said in many posts, arguments stand or fall on their merits, and the claim that (as the AEI letter asserts) the IPCC process has biases or that the AEI has taken Exxon money alerts us to potential issues with each, but does not spare us the effort of actually listening to what they have to say. The AEI was not offering $10,000 for quick spin. It was offering $10,000 for 7,500- 10,000 words by December 2007. It’s hardly a huge sum for a long paper from an expert.

The charge of McCarthyism is terribly over-used, but launching such a prominent and widespread attack on research that hasn’t even been written is resonant of Senator McCarthy’s attacks on those he suspected – sometimes correctly, often not – of being communists.