Hayden fiddles while Earth burns

Note: I recently had a request for the following post, which seems to have disappeared from the archive for July 2012.

Howard “Cork” Hayden seems to be a nice guy. He is affable, appears to have a genuine interest in people and favors eccentric clothing (a red tie that says “Remove Before Flying” and a tie tack with a tiny spark plug, a family memento). He has a doctorate in physics and is retired from the University of Connecticut. He now lives in Pueblo, Colo., and occasionally  travels and lectures about climate issues.

I like everything about him except his stand on global warming.

On Wednesday night, Hayden spoke at the Lyon County Extension Office to a group of about twenty, and he made a number of assertions that are either absurd, not supported by the scientific consensus, or both. After reading a front-page story in Wednesday’s Gazette that previewed his appearance, I became concerned that what Hayden had to say was misrepresenting the science behind one of the most serious issues we are likely to face in our lifetimes. Essentially, Hayden said that while the earth may be warming, there is no evidence that it was caused by man, and even so, a warmer earth might not be all that bad.

So, after reading the Gazette story, I composed a list of ten questions to ask Hayden, the sort of exercise I would ask my journalism students to do before interviewing any source with a controversial claim. I wanted to know if he had ties to the oil and gas industry and what his credentials were as a climatologist. I needed clarification on his assertion that global warming is caused by cosmic rays that excite the atmosphere as our solar system passes through different arms of the Milky Way. Then I contacted the Gazette reporter, John Giffin, who did the original piece, and asked if he planned on covering the presentation.  There were some important questions I intended to ask. No, Giffin said, but suggested he would like to talk to me after for a follow up piece.

I arrived early at the extension office, introduced myself, and explained that I disagreed with some of Hayden’s statements, as reported in the Gazette, and would he mind if I asked questions? No, he said. Would he prefer that I hold my questions for the end, or ask them as he presented his material? Ask whenever, he said.

Great, I said. I was glad the group would hear my questions, too.

The first half of his lecture was about why we don’t need a national energy policy. He prefaced this by saying we don’t use as much energy as one might guess. He claimed that we use only three times as much energy per capita in the United States than we did, say, in 1850. Since 1640, Hayden claimed, we use about 100,000 times as much energy. He had made a similar claim in his interview with the Gazette, and earlier in the afternoon I had contacted Rudy M. Baum, editor of the Chemical & Engineering News in Washington, D.C. I asked Baum about Hayden’s credentials and sent a link to the front page story.

“I don’t know Prof. Hayden,” Baum wrote in an email, “but a quick Google search shows that he is a bona fide member of the clique of climate change deniers. He’s associated with the Heartland Institute, which is in the forefront of climate change denial. He firmly believes that burning fossil fuels is a good thing, a warmer world would be a better place to live, etc. He has no expertise in climate science and he is opposed to any limitations on burning fossil fuels, so, no, his views probably shouldn’t be trusted.”

Baum had more to say about Hayden’s claim about U.S. energy trends.

“In the story from the Emporia Gazette that you provided a link to, Hayden makes a preposterous claim—that modern humans use only three times as much energy as someone living (in 1850),” Baum said, citing the year given in the story. “…In the U.S., we use at least 100 times as much energy per capita. Americans (each) use 25 barrels of oil per year, which is the equivalent of 300 years of free human labor. That’s oil alone. The idea that the U.S. uses 100,000 times as much energy as it did in 1640 is nonsensical.  It’s millions or tens of millions times more.”

When I read Hayden the quote, he dismissed it by attacking Baum’s character. He called him names that included, as I recall, jerk. Later, when I asked Hayden if he has ever published a paper on climatology in a peer-reviewed journal, he said no. He had once sent one to Baum, he said, but it was refused. And when I asked him his credentials as a climatologist, he turned the question by claiming there weren’t that many climatologists anyway, that the number was about a dozen. The American Association of State Climatologists, however, lists 150 members and associate members on its website, all involved in climatological services or research.

And that’s just in the United States.

The United States does not need an energy policy, Hayden told the group, We’ve done just fine without one. Can anybody think of any reason we should have an energy policy? When I brought up the devastation of strip coal mining, for example, and the Superfund sites that we are left with from the Laissez-faire days of capitalism, Hayden conceded we might need some regulation on mining. But overall, his mantra was anti-regulation.

In the second half of his lecture, Hayden attacked the idea that global warming is caused by man. He said that when the people who wanted to control others realized that the populace was getting tired of the term “global warming,” they switched it to “climate change.” Nope, Hayden is wrong again. The phrase came from leading Republican language consultant Frank Luntz, who urged conservatives to reframe the issue as climate change, instead of global warming, because it sounded like something less threatening and more natural.

Hayden presented a claim that the earth has experienced periods of global warming and cooling, caused by cosmic rays that strike the atmosphere depending on what arm of the Milky Way our solar system happens to be in. Well, perhaps, but the changes he is talking about are against a time scale of hundreds of millions of years, and go back to a time before the Cambrian explosion, when our atmosphere first contained enough oxygen to permit higher life forms. My reaction is that, firstly, it’s difficult to compare what is happening on earth now to gradual changes that occurred over hundreds of aeons; secondly, the cosmic ray fluctuation argument based on galaxy rotation seems irrelevant, since it takes the Milky Way 250 million years to make one orbit.  For the past hundred years, the time period mostly discussed concerned global warming, we have basically stayed in the same spot in the Milky Way.

Hayden had other problems with the evidence. He didn’t trust dendrochronology, the science of studying tree rings, to estimate how hot it was in the years before we starting keeping accurate temperature readings. He didn’t think that global temperatures, taking the whole earth’s temperature, had been done properly. He didn’t trust the reports issued by the International Panel on Climate Change. He claimed the activity of the sun had been increasing for the past hundred years, which has accounted for a hotter climate. He’s wrong about that – mean solar activity has been declining in the past 50 or 60 years, and is now at a historic minimum. If anything, we should be having historically cooler temperatures, based on the current solar cycle.

But we’re not.

The United States has experienced the warmest 12 months since record-keeping began in 1895, NOAA scientists have announced. The 12-month period ending June 2012 was the warmest on record, with a nationally-averaged temperature 3.2 degrees higher than the long-term average, and accompanied by extreme and violent weather.

Hayden said he was a skeptic, and admired healthy skepticism.

Recently, Skeptic magazine ran a cover story entitled “How We Know Global Warming is Real and Human Caused.” The magazine is published by the Skeptics Society, which, according to its website, is “a scientific and educational organization of leading scientists, scholars, investigative journalists, historians, professors, and teachers. Our mission is to investigate and provide a sound scientific viewpoint on claims of the paranormal, pseudoscience, fringe groups, cults and claims between: science, pseudoscience, junk science, voodoo science, pathological science, bad science, non-science and plain old nonsense.”

The cover story, by Donald R. Prothero, outlined the scientific consensus for global warming – and knocked down every argument that Hayden would make. Yet, why do people continue to question the reality of climate change?

“The right-wing institutes and the energy lobby beat the bushes to find scientists—any scientists—who might disagree with the scientific consensus,” Prothero wrote. “As investigative journalists and scientists have documented over and over again, the denialist conspiracy essentially paid for the testimony of anyone who could be useful to them.” Especially valuable, Prothero said, were those who would speak negatively of the IPCC report.

At the meeting, I asked Hayden if anybody with an agenda was paying for his anti-human caused global warming stance. This question caused some dissent in the crowd – how rude! – but it’s one of the most important questions you can ask about somebody who is trying to convince you of something. Imagine, for example, listening to an “expert” on auto safety and regulation who is in the employ of Ford or General Motors. Hayden, to his credit, was gracious enough to answer the question. No, he said, he took no money.

But didn’t he speak at the Heartland Institute’s Seventh Annual conference on climate change this May in Chicago? Yes, he said. Were you paid, I asked. Yes, he said, but it was a small fee, he said, probably not as much as I make as a college professor in a month.

The Heartland Institute is a conservative and libertarian think tank which advocates free market policies. Founded in 1984, it conducts research and undertakes advocacy work on issues from taxation to fracking to global warming. In the 1990s, the group worked with Philip Morris to question the science linking second hand smoke to health risks, and to lobby against government public-health reforms. Its conferences on global warming are meetings of man-made climate change deniers.

I asked Hayden if he knew that the Heartland Institute was funded by the Koch brothers of Wichita, billionaires of the first class who are heavily vested in energy and have an economic interest in discrediting climate science (and, I should add here, promoting the tea party, funding anti-labor fights in Wisconsin, and fighting government regulation in general).

He said he didn’t know – and that he didn’t care.

Perhaps he should.

One of Heartland’s new campaigns features a billboard in Chicago, according to the Huffington Post, showing a mug shot of Unabomber Ted Kaczynski looking trademark crazy. The tag? “I still believe in global warming. Do you?”

I asked Hayden to come back and debate me on the issue within the next thirty days, at a location that was mutually acceptable. He demurred, saying that he lived in Colorado and it was a long way to this part of Kansas.  I hope he will reconsider, because I think people everywhere need to talk about the issue, consider the sources and quality of information, and make informed decisions.

I wished the Gazette had been there to cover the presentation. Later, reporter John Giffin told me that the follow up story had been pulled, that there would be no coverage. His editor, he said, did not consider it worthy of any more time. But, Giffin offered, I could write an opinion piece.

In the end, I thanked Hayden for his presentation. At least he has the guts to stand up, under his own name, and explain what he believes, and to field questions about it. Some of the best science has come from outside the academy, as Thomas Kuhn so brilliantly showed in 1962’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolution.” But Hayden is unlikely to break any paradigms with his lectures on global warming or energy policy.

He is, however, dangerously misleading the public.

 

Max McCoy is an author and associate professor of journalism at Emporia State University.