Carlo Rotella

Playing rough

‘Hockey stick’ scientists dragged into the politics of global warming

By Carlo Rotella
June 8, 2011

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PUT “RAYMOND Bradley’’ and “hockey stick’’ into a Google search box, and you’ll get an education in what happens when science runs afoul of politics. Bradley, a distinguished and widely respected climatologist who directs the Climate System Research Center at UMass Amherst, is co-author of a graph known as “the hockey stick’’ because it shows relatively flat temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere for most of the last millennium, with a sharp upward turn in the 20th century.

Your Google search will also take you to websites that question the scientific consensus on global warming. They typically depict Bradley as a ringleader in a conspiracy to orchestrate panic over climate change, one of a cabal intent on making themselves rich and famous, taxing the free market to death, and instituting a new world order headed by Al Gore. And the hockey stick, first published in 1998 and reproduced in 2001 in a report of the authoritative (and therefore, on these websites, incomparably nefarious) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is his worst crime.

Don’t dismiss such character assassination as the harmless chatter of fringe-dwellers. They have the attention of many Americans, and of Congress. Bradley tells the story of his run-in with this crew in his new book, “Global Warming and Political Intimidation: How Politicians Cracked Down as the Earth Heated Up.’’ It centers on his account of being harassed and threatened not only by bloggers and gadflies but by Representative Joe Barton of Texas and Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, both Republicans.

“The book came out of the frustration and aggravation of my own experience,’’ Bradley said on the phone recently, “and mine was by no means the worst. Good scientists like Ben Santer, Mike Mann, and Phil Jones have received the blunt end of it.’’

Bradley’s book describes the shock of being yanked out of the scholarly realm and into the arena of partisan politics. Of being investigated by Barton’s House Energy Committee, Bradley said, “You realize they have infinite power, and they can ruin you — and they would have, if not for the strength of Sherwood Boehlert,’’ the Republican Congressman from New York who stood up to Barton. “Boehlert’s words should be etched on the portals of every science building in the country,’’ writes Bradley, “next to a big image of a thumb pushing down on the balance of scientific inquiry: ‘Seeking scientific truth is too important to be impeded by political expediency. When it comes to scientific debates, Congress is all thumbs.’ ’’

Scientifically, “the hockey stick is a brick outhouse, very robust,’’ as Bradley put it. The reliability of his findings has been confirmed by more than a decade of testing and scrutiny by the field. And yet the campaign to discredit what he and almost all of his colleagues accept as the fact of human-influenced global warming has made significant gains in popular and political culture over the past decade. “They’ve manipulated the media brilliantly,’’ he said. “Inhofe put out this anti-IPCC report and coupled it with a call for 17 scientists to be indicted. It got on the front page of every newspaper.’’

Despite his initial horror at being dragged into the public arena, Bradley recognizes that the battle will be won or lost there. He said, “We have to take on global warming as a political issue. Scientists need to stop self-flagellating if they can’t convince Rush Limbaugh and his followers. Let’s go for the other 60 percent who will listen. Right now, that’s basically a Democrat and left group. The Tea Party has made global warming a litmus test, so you almost can’t get a Republican to talk seriously about it. There’s a lot of money blowing hard the other way, but we have to keep insisting, explaining.’’

Bradley still believes that his fellow citizens will wake up in time to take action. “Americans are generally concerned about the environment,’’ he said. “Right now they’re distracted by their personal economic issues, and I can understand that, and it may take another Katrina, something of that magnitude, but I think they will eventually refocus on this issue, for their children’s sake.’’

Carlo Rotella is director of American Studies at Boston College. His column appears regularly in the Globe.