Facing South
Facing South

The Pope machine's wacky attack on the science of sea level rise

Art Pope's powerful conservative political network has long played a lead role in challenging mainstream climate science in North Carolina. Now it's also raging against the related science of sea level rise, using similar tactics of distortion, misrepresentation and just plain bad reporting.

Carolina Journal -- a publication of the John Locke Foundation, a nonprofit think tank founded by Pope that gets about 70 percent of its income from his family foundation -- recently jumped into the brouhaha over a bill being considered by the Republican-controlled General Assembly that would make it illegal for the state to consider scenarios of accelerated sea level rise as predicted by scientific models. Scientific American blogger Scott Huler explains:

North Carolina legislators have decided that the way to make exponential increases in sea level rise -- caused by those inconvenient feedback loops we keep hearing about from scientists -- go away is to make it against the law to extrapolate exponential; we can only extrapolate along a line predicted by previous sea level rises.

This week, following public outcry over House Bill 819 that included a humorous treatment by the satirical TV show The Colbert Report, the state House unanimously rejected the proposal passed by the Senate. The measure will now head to a conference committee co-chaired by a House member who thinks the state should study the issue further.

But last week, while the bill was still in play, Carolina Journal published a guest column by Paul Chesser (in photo), a former associate editor of Carolina Journal and a leading national voice for climate-science contrarianism as a fellow at the right-wing American Tradition Institute, which works to discredit climate scientists and efforts to promote renewable energy.

Chesser accused "environmental pressure groups, activist scientists, and the legacy media" of lacking "balance" in their discussions of the proposal -- when in fact it's Chesser's reporting that's unbalanced, in every sense of the word.

Consider his treatment of Rob Jackson, a scientist who chairs Duke University's Center for Global Environmental Change. Jackson holds degrees in chemical engineering, ecology and statistics from leading universities; he's published more than 150 peer-reviewed scientific papers; he's won numerous awards for his work. But Chesser dismisses Jackson as "prejudiced" because of his position and because he receives federal funding for research on climate change in the Southeast:

In other words, he gets paid to find such problems. You can be certain he isn’t paid to identify whether other natural influences such as the sun and clouds might affect global temperatures and sea level.

Chesser has taken criticisms about fossil fuel industry-funded science denial groups and turned them on their head: In his world view, the more legitimate a climate scientist is and the more public support he receives, the more likely that he is taking part in one of the most massive conspiracies the world has ever known, perpetrated by the global scientific establishment to profit from an elaborate lie.

Meanwhile, Chesser defends NC-20, the alliance of coastal development interests that pushed for the bill. He calls them "property rights defenders" who "were marginalized as 'deniers' of real science." (For more on the group, see "The agenda behind the sea level rise bill: from the Carolina coast to the Kochs" by the Independent Weekly's Lisa Sorg.)

The thing is, NC-20 are deniers of "real science" -- if by the "real science" of sea level rise we mean the scientific consensus that the seas are rising at an increasing rate and are expected to continue rising for centuries.

In the upside-down world of Chesser -- a former editor of conservative Christian newspapers who once railed against climate science while quoting the Biblical book of Revelation -- the scientific approach is derided as "crystal ball computer models."

So what evidence does Chesser put forth to defend his notion that sea level rise will not increase exponentially?

First, he points to a recent study published in Nature Geoscience that relies on historical photos of glaciers to show, according to the abstract, that "many land-terminating glaciers underwent a more rapid retreat in the 1930s than in the 2000s, whereas marine-terminating glaciers retreated more rapidly during the recent warming."

Somehow Chesser manages to twist that finding into a claim "that Greenland ice melt could slow down rather than accelerate, leading to less dramatic sea level rise." In fact, author Jason E. Box explicitly acknowledged that sea level rise is speeding up in an interview with ScienceDaily:

"From these images, we see that the mid-century cooling stabilized the glaciers … That suggests that if we want to stabilize today's accelerating ice loss, we need to see a little cooling of our own."

Chesser also cites an article claiming that "global sea level is not in an alarming rising mode" that appeared in the Winter 2010/2011 edition of 21st Century Science and Technology. That's not a peer-reviewed scientific journal but a quarterly magazine published by the supporters of infamous crackpot conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche.

In addition to being at the forefront of denying the reality of global warming, pro-LaRouche publications have also promoted other far-out conspiracy theories, including the notion that The Beatles were created by British intelligence agencies and that the Queen of England runs the global drug trade.

Furthermore, the author of the article Chesser cites is not a climate scientist but retired Swedish geologist Nils-Axel Mörner, the author of a self-published booklet titled, "The Greatest Lie Ever Told" that takes a contrarian view on sea level rise. In 2004 the president of the International Union for Quaternary Research -- whose sea level change commission Mörner once chaired -- publicly stated that the organization does not support Mörner's beliefs.

Mörner also claims to be an expert in the pseudoscience of dowsing, a form of divination that involves using a Y-shaped twig to locate underground water, metals and gems. He was offered $1 million to prove that dowsing really works but declined.

Art Pope has said he thinks climate change and global warming "represent important public policy and scientific debates," and that the "John Locke Foundation is playing an important role in that."

Given that, you'd think his organization would take its credibility a little more seriously.

(Photo of Paul Chesser via the John Locke Foundation website.)

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