The climate change wars have several historical precedents — right down to the nastiness and idiocy
Both Nicolaus Copernicus and Albert Einstein became the target of ridicule after they proposed theories that were considered absurd — and worse. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
A RealClimate post on Thursday drew my attention to a fascinating article documenting how the slow acceptance of anthropogenic climate change by the public — and the vituperative treatment often afforded climate scientists — really is nothing terribly new in science.
The article, by Steven Sherwood, co-director of the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, appeared back in October in Physics Today. But aside from a mention here and there by hyperventilating bloggers, I don’t believe it got much attention. That’s a shame, because the historical insights Sherwood offers can help us understand what’s going on today in the climate change wars.
The ugly nature of the current climate debate, with its increasingly frequent characterization of scientists as opportunists, totalitarians, or downright criminals, is also, unfortunately, not new. Copernicus (posthumously) and his prominent followers through Isaac Newton were all accused of being heretics or atheists. Einstein was derided by his political opponents through the 1920s and 1930s as a Communist—despite his dim view of the Soviet Union—or simply as a fraud. When a group of American women tried to prevent him from entering the US because of his supposed Communism, he quipped, “Never before have I experienced from the fair sex such energetic rejection of all advances, or if I have, then certainly never from so many at once.” At one point Einstein stopped giving public lectures out of fear for his personal safety, also now a worry for some greenhouse warming proponents.
A graphic from the piece nicely illustrates timelines for acceptance of three paradigm-shifting ideas: the Copernican theory that the Sun, not the Earth is at the center of the solar system; Einstein’s theory of relativity; and the theory of greenhouse warming, which dates all the way back to 1864, when John Tyndall first proposed the idea. The patterns of resistance, organized backlash, and, in the case of the first two, eventual widespread acceptance, are remarkably similar. Click on the thumbnail at left for a larger version over at Physics Today.
Sherwood suggests that, as was the case with the other theories, anthropogenic warming will eventually become largely accepted throughout society. But will it come too late?
Lastly, for a critique of Sherwood’s piece, see this by Roger Pielke, Sr.