“I Am Not a Scientist”

By Greg Broyles, Treasurer, Air Alliance Houston

“…it is the vested interests who take advantage of the existence of contrarians.”

– James Hansen, March 29, 2009 in a letter to the New York Times.


During this last election season, many of you may have noticed a subtle shift in the words used by pro-business political candidates. Political candidates who once said some version of “climate change is a hoax” switched to “I am not a scientist.” This was noted in the New York Times and ridiculed by Stephen Colbert the day after the drubbing of the Democratic Party. Should we be encouraged by this change of language?

Many of us who volunteer with Air Alliance Houston have, in one way or another, learned to eschew polarizing statements about environmental issues. We are trying to move a juggernaut in this very pro-business city. We tell ourselves that public health cannot be served without the participation of this city’s corporations. Many of these corporations are widely viewed as promoting the strongest opposition to climate change initiatives and legislation. Each of us who volunteer with AAH should realize that, in playing nice with our Houston corporate neighbors, we court perfidy.

Many local geologists, geophysicists, chemical engineers and petroleum chemists (scientists all!) have long argued against the scientific consensus of climate change. Their voices have been celebrated as credible opposition to a “theory”.

Every bit of science that affects our daily lives is, in some way, a theory. Some theories have stronger evidence than others, but everything from why excited electrons heat your morning coffee to the physics that led to the creation of your cellphone are ultimately theoretical. Some epistemologists even argue that anything we know, we know only with high probability. That the sky is blue… That the cat rubbing your leg is there…

Ten years ago, Naomi Oreskes published an essay in the December (2004) edition of the journal Science. In it, she described her search through one thousand peer-reviewed papers on climate change for evidence of disagreement with the statement (found in a report that year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), “Most of the observed warming over the past 50 years is likely to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.” She did not find a single article that did this. Ten years later, the body of literature supporting this statement has only grown larger.

So, can we ask the geologists, geophysicists, chemical engineers and petroleum chemists who work in this city, “Are you a bad scientist? Or are you simply a liar?”

Many of us have confronted ethical divides when we study our checkered national history: Slaveholder? Abolitionist?

To all the scientists (and those who cite them) who continue to participate in thwarting efforts to avert calamity, we must ask: On what side of history will you be?