Forum: Politicization of fact

Jordan Shenhar and Alexander Chase

After four primetime events moderated by five of television’s most prominent journalists for a total of six hours, the presidential debate schedule has finally reached its conclusion. Yet not once did Americans hear a detailed position on climate change from any of their prospective leaders. That’s a shame, and not only because the country is increasingly concerned about the effects of a warming planet. In addition to its political, economic and environmental significance, the issue is an excellent microcosm of one of the more troubling trends of the 2016 election cycle: the politicization of fact.

So in this week’s forum, we’re excited to feature a piece from Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) that touches on both of those themes. As the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Smith has subpoenaed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, demanding the agency release nearly all of its interdepartmental emails, as well as the research methodology of a study debunking the claim — popular among climate change skeptics — that global temperatures had “paused” during the 2000s. This summer, he subpoenaed the Massachusetts and New York attorneys general along with nine environmental groups as part of an investigation into whether ExxonMobil misled the public on its impact on climate change.

He writes here that his mission is to ensure that federally funded environmental science  remains objective and apolitical.

Smith is correct that climate science is too important an endeavor to tether to any one political agenda, and it’s worth mentioning that many of Smith’s Republican colleagues in states from Kansas to Florida promote clean energy and acknowledge the importance of combating climate change.

Unfortunately, Smith’s own position doesn’t live up to his stated ideals. For instance, he writes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change disputes that anthropogenic climate change contributes to extreme weather. But the IPCC’s 2012 report on the subject contradicts this, stating that “there is evidence that some extremes have changed as a result of anthropogenic influences, including increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.”

Smith also has a history of conflating variance in climate models with uncertainty over the existence of climate change. And while he accuses NOAA of cherry-picking data, he wrote an op-ed denouncing its research that cited a single out-of-context image from a single study by the University of East Anglia as countervailing evidence.

We agree with Smith that individuals have a right to hold whatever opinion they wish on the matter of climate change. But the science itself is no matter of opinion. It is not important that the overwhelming majority of scientists agree that global climate change is happening because of human actions, that the consequences are visible now and that they present a great threat to the world. It is important that they believe that because their research compels them to do so.

When anodyne truths become grounds for political contention, debates over ideas become nearly impossible. The competition between different visions of a better world depends on a common understanding of what the world actually looks like. On that note, we round out this week’s forum with an article by guest columnist Rachel Renier, who argues that legitimizing Donald Trump’s efforts to draw attention to Bill Clinton’s history of sexual misconduct detracts from the severity of Trump’s own behavior.

As always, the Daily Texan forum team welcomes contributions from anyone in and around the UT community. We look forward to hearing from you!

Chase is an economics and Plan II senior from Royse City. Shenhar is an economics, government and Plan II senior from Westport, Connecticut.

Read Rep. Lamar Smith's piece here.

Read Rachel Renier's piece here.