Sunday, January 22, 2012

Should We Make Decisions Based on Science -- or Propaganda?

The Endangered Species Act requires officials to use the best available scientific information. Steve Pearce and his Chief of Staff, Todd Willens would like to do away with the law, but for now it is the law.

(Willens was legislative director for Congressman Richard Pombo, who received abundant supplies of oil and gas money and sought to repeal the Endangered Species Act. Pombo was on the Sierra Club’s "Dirty Dozen List" because of his ties to Oil and Gas, and was close to Jack Abramoff, who was later jailed for his illegal influence-peddling. Pombo lost his Congressional seat in 2008; but industry’s fight to eradicate the Endangered Species Act lives on, with Pearce playing a major role.)

A 2007 episode in Willens’s career is instructive: the Florida Everglades were on the U.N. World Heritage Committee’s list as an endangered site. A National Park Service report advocated keeping the Everglades on the list. Willens, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, led the U.S. delegation to the Committee meeting. He vetoed the scientific opinion of the Park Service and the Committee’s scientific advisors. He urged the Committee to take the Everglades off the list.

There’s a pattern here:

Responsible cientists advising the U.N. said the Everglades should stay on the "Endangered Sites" list. Willens got it removed.

Responsible scientists say that the dunes sagebrush lizard is endangered, and that "voluntary" agreements by some landowners won’t suffice to save it. Pearce disagrees, but without scientific support.

Responsible scientists – and the U.S. military – say global warming is a serious problem. Representative Pearce calls it "something that can’t be validated."

Where responsible science is inconvenient for oil and gas or Pearce’s other financial backers, he wishes it away.

The best example of this is Pearce’s ostrich-like reaction to climate change. (Maybe the Republican Party should switch symbols, from elephant to ostrich.) Pearce proclaims (on his peopleforpearce web-site) that "scientist Tim Ball . . . testified that the science is very unclear on whether the carbon in the atmosphere is manmade. The fact is that scientists are still deeply divided on the issue." Pearce proudly states that he called Ball to testify, and he claims Ball was the only real scientist who testified; but Ball’s lack of credibility is almost comical.

Ball is a Canadian climate change sceptic. He chairs the Scientific Advisory Committee of the Natural Resources Stewardship Project. Two of its three directors are executives with a lobbying company, the High Park Group, which represents energy clients on energy policy. Before that, he was with an oil industry-backed organization, Friends of Science.

Ball and his industry-backed sponsors are as careless with his resume as they are with science. Ball was a professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg between 1988 and 1996. NRSP has billed him as "retired professor of climatology at the University of Winnipeg." In 2006, Ball wrote a letter to the Royal Society identifying himself as "Professor of Climatology, University of Winnipeg." But that university had never had a climatology department; Ball has never been a professor of climatology; and his stint as a active geology professor had ended twenty years earlier. His affiliated groups have frequently called him Canada’s "first PhD in climatology" – but his PhD was in historical geography.

Space doesn’t permit further details here, but Ball isn’t the eminent scientist Pearce wishes he were. Ball has published only four pieces of original research in his entire career, none in the last eleven years. He has published in "Energy and Environment" described by one expert as "a journal skeptics can go to when they are rejected by the mainstream peer-reviewed science publications." In legal pleadings, the Calgary Herald stated that "The Plaintiff [Dr. Ball] is viewed as a paid promoter of the agenda of the oil and gas industry rather than as a practicing scientist." (Ball then withdrew his somewhat dubious lawsuit against the Herald.)

This is the industry hack Mr. Pearce dragged in to testify to a Congressional committee. This is the man Pearce cites as "scientific" authority for Pearce’s disbelief in climate change. Sorry, Steve. Not even close.

Ball’s just a guy who’s figured out how to make a decent living off saying what the oil and gas industry wants to hear – kind of like Steve Pearce, actually.

The present dunes sagebrush lizard issue is also classic Pearce.

I don’t claim to know whether the lizard is endangered or how best to preserve it. The experts say one thing. Pearce says another, because the scientific view doesn’t suit him – or his backers.

He can’t fight on scientific grounds.

Therefore, Mr. Pearce tries scare tactics. Apparently the lizard’s range overlaps about one or two per cent of the oil and gas leases in the Permian Basin. One or two per cent. Pearce screams that protecting the lizard could cost us "most of the oil and gas jobs in southeast New Mexico." (Government officials in charge of implementing the Endangered Species Act don’t agree, of course.)

"The delta smelt listing as endangered put 27,000 farmers in the San Joaquin Valley out of work. It shut them down cold," Pearce protests - inaccurately.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (not a bunch of environmentalists) has estimated that job loss was more like 5,000. Meanwhile, continued drought conditions cost 16,000 jobs; but Pearce can’t make political capital out of addressing the drought, which appears to be exacerbated by weather change due to greenhouse gasses we create.

If there are solutions to these complex issues, we’ll find them through honest examination of the scientific and economic facts, and reasoned debate.

Fear-mongering is a time-honored tool for demagogues. It’s a whole lot easier and sometimes more politically effective than serious examination of troublesome issues.

But it’s a lousy way to run a government.

[The column above appeared this morning, Sunday, 22 January, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.  It was the second of two on U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, who had published a column in the same paper portraying himself as an environmental moderate, despite his somewhat grim record with regard to the environment.]

Pearce will, of course, be up for re-election this year.   He will be heavily favored.  Particularly with Koch Brothers' money behind him, there's likely to be some pretty ugly PAC advertising on television if his Democratic opponent shows any sign of making it a close race.

Who will that be?  So far, I'm only aware of one Democrat seeking the nomination: Evelyn Madrid Erhard.  If she wins the nomination, it will be quite a David-and-Goliath scene.   We see her collecting signatures at the Farmers' Market, and talking with citizens.   If she's the nominee, she'll face a hell of a challenge.  Oddly, though, in theory she's just the sort of person Tea Party folks say they want: a regular citizen, about as far from a career politician as anyone could be; and a pretty good example of "family values" -- married to the same man for more than three decades.   At least at first glance, it seems as if she'd be a breath of fresh air if she could manage to unseat Mr. Pearce, who so richly deserves retirement -- though perhap not the lucrative lifetime pension and health care benefits all Congressfolk get.

So, let me think, what else did we see that we liked at Saturday's Farmers' Market?

A man and his dog . . .
. . .  a little love . . .

. . . and a man with no dog
We also watched a family supervise the sketch artist as he made a quick portrait of the son.  The boy maintained a very serious expression throughout, but seemed to approve of the result.

Also a honey bee . . .

. . . and a blues guitarist . . .

. . . and a couple of dogs who didn't much care for each other
-- though from the picture alone, they might be contemplating a first date.
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