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Shooting the messenger

Posted: August 29, 2011 - 8:27pm

Texas Gov. Rick Perry stirred up controversy on the campaign trail recently when he dismissed the problem of climate change and accused scientists of basically making up the problem.

As a born-and-bred Texan, it’s especially disturbing to hear this now, when our state is getting absolutely hammered by heat and drought. I’ve got to wonder how any resident of Texas — and particularly the governor who not so long ago was asking us to pray for rain — can be so cavalier about climate change.

As a climate scientist at Texas A&M University, I can also tell you from the data that the current heat wave and drought in Texas is so bad that calling it “extreme weather” does not do it justice. July was the single hottest month in the observational record, and the 12 months that ended in July were drier than any corresponding period in the record. I know that climate change does not cause any specific weather event. But I also know that humans have warmed the climate over the last century, and that this warming has almost certainly made the heat wave and drought more extreme than it would have otherwise been.

I am not alone in these views. There are dozens of atmospheric scientists at Texas institutions like Rice, the University of Texas, and Texas A&M, and none of them dispute the mainstream scientific view of climate change. This is not surprising, since there are only a handful of atmospheric scientists in the entire world who dispute the essential facts — and their ranks are not increasing, as Perry claimed.

And I can assure Perry that scientists are not just another special interest looking to line their own pockets. I left a job as an investment banker on Wall Street in 1988 to go to graduate school in chemistry. I certainly didn’t make that choice to get rich, and I didn’t do it to exert influence in the international arena either.

I went into science because I wanted to devote my life to the search for scientific knowledge. and to make the world a better place. That’s the same noble goal that motivates most scientists. The ultimate dream is to make a discovery so profound and revolutionary that it catapults one into the pantheon of the greatest scientific minds of history: Newton, Einstein, Maxwell, Planck, etc.

This is just one of the many reasons it is inconceivable for an entire scientific community to conspire en masse to mislead the public. In fact, if climate scientists truly wanted to maximize funding, we would be claiming that we had no idea why the climate is changing — a position that would certainly attract bipartisan support for increased research.

The economic costs of the Texas heat wave and drought are enormous. The cost to Texas alone will be many billions of dollars (hundreds of dollars for every resident), and these costs will ripple through the economy so that everyone will eventually pay for it. Perry needs to squarely face the choice confronting us; either we pay to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, or we pay for the impacts of a changing climate. There is no free lunch.

Economists have looked at this problem repeatedly over the last two decades, and virtually every mainstream economist has concluded that the costs of reducing emissions are less than the costs of unchecked climate change. The only disagreement is on the optimal level of emissions reductions.

I suppose it should not be surprising when politicians like Perry choose to shoot the messenger rather than face this hard choice. He may view this as a legitimate policy on climate change, but it’s not one that the facts support.

• Dessler is a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

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