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Photo via DeSmog Blog

The first year of the Trump administration was a scary time for a lot of government scientists, what with fossil fuel lobbyists taking top jobs, the climate information being erased from websites, and the arrival of Trump commissars to enforce ideological purity. But for at least one ambitious crank, 2017 was a chance to shine! The New York Times details the strange rise of a fellow named Indur M. Goklany, a minor bureaucrat in the Department of the Interior, who under the Trump regime has required scientific reports to include outright false information about climate change, all in the interest of making the science "better."

It's a classic tactic straight out of Merchants of Doubt, that invaluable look at how the Right distorts science to sow doubt and prevent regulation: Exploit the inherent caution of scientific findings to exaggerate just how uncertain the findings really are. They've been at this shit forever, in defense of risks from leaded gasoline and paint, on to smoking, and right up to climate change. As the fascinating Times piece explains, Goklany's own specialty was inserting misleading claims into official scientific reports, which could end up having serious policy effects down the line.

The wording, known internally as the "Goks uncertainty language" based on Mr. Goklany's nickname, inaccurately claims that there is a lack of consensus among scientists that the earth is warming. In Interior Department emails to scientists, Mr. Goklany pushed misleading interpretations of climate science, saying it "may be overestimating the rate of global warming, for whatever reason;" climate modeling has largely predicted global warming accurately. The final language states inaccurately that some studies have found the earth to be warming, while others have not.

Gee, in a time when so much of the world seems shaped by impersonal forces, it's kind of inspiring to know just one guy with a dream can make the world a far worse place.


This certainly isn't the first time Goklany has gotten attention for his decidedly pro-polluter stances. The Washington Post profiled him in 2018, noting that he'd written papers downplaying climate science for outfits like the Cato Institute and the Heartland Institute, those nice folks with the billboards saying monsters like the Unabomber and Saddam Hussein "believe" in global warming. His contributions to bad science (he's an electrical engineer by training) have even earned him his own page — now updated to include a summary of the Times story — at the DeSmog Blog, which tracks the climate denial movement. Goklany even published his very own book-shaped object, a 1999 Cato Institute joint titled Clearing the Air: The Real Story of the War on Air Pollution. In that tome, Goklany supposedly demonstrated that in the 30 years after the Clean Air Act, the government had actually "done little to improve air quality," a point somewhat disputed by real science. And he also authored a report for the "Global Warming Policy Foundation" called "Carbon Dioxide: The Good News," in which he pushed this cheerful message:

It is very likely that the impact of rising carbon dioxide concentrations is currently net beneficial for both humanity and the biosphere generally. These benefits are real, whereas the costs of warming are uncertain

Once Trump took office, Goklany quickly made himself useful, volunteering to help remove references to climate change from as many agency web pages as possible. In May 2017, he was formally appointed to a position in the office of the deputy secretary at Interior, where he was tasked with reviewing climate policy. So this dude was already a bit of a known quantity to those keeping track of the Trump war on science.

The Times story, however, is the first to detail Goklany's direct interference in the actual content of scientific reports, including "pressing scientists to include misleading climate language in critical policy documents."

In addition to the language suggesting climate science is far less settled than it really is, the "Goks uncertainty language" also pushes a couple of his favorite obsessions about how CO2 is what plants crave, so more of it must be simply wonderful:

He also instructed department scientists to add that rising carbon dioxide — the main force driving global warming — is beneficial because it "may increase plant water use efficiency" and "lengthen the agricultural growing season." Both assertions misrepresent the scientific consensus that, overall, climate change will result in severe disruptions to global agriculture and significant reductions in crop yields.

Strangely, he hasn't also pushed for cornfields to be kept flooded, since water is good for plants, too.

The misleading language has been published in at least nine reports that the Times could find, including some with major implications for water use in the West, like environmental impact statements and studies on "major watersheds including the Klamath and Upper Deschutes river basins in California and Oregon, which provide critical habitat for spawning salmon and other wildlife."

The Klamath provides a lot of water to agricultural areas in California, where, hooray, the agriculture industry has "used increasing amounts of water at a rate that scientists say hurts wildlife and imperils the salmon industry." So if the scientific reports cast doubt on climate change, that has major implications for the eternal fights over who gets water in the West, and that means big big money gets involved very quickly. The Times article notes that since government scientific reports often end up being used in wider policy decisions, and as evidence in lawsuits about 'em, this isn't just a matter of academic argument. Guess who the Goks Uncertainty Principle helps?

The story details the paper trail — acquired through watchdog groups' FOIA requests — of Goklany's efforts to force the climate-doubting language into papers, including making direct edits, which is something bureaucrats aren't really supposed to do. Some scientists pushed back, others found it easier to just let the changes go through, because they saw resistance was futile. It's a deeply depressing read.

We'll close with a nugget the Times mentions, but didn't go into much detail on, to give you a sense of the logic animating this administration. In December 2017, Goklany

gave a presentation at the Interior Department promoting the benefits of fossil fuels and carbon dioxide to human and environmental well-being, according to presentation slides viewed by The Times.

We took a look at that slideshow, and it's a doozy. Here are a couple of typical charts, implying that the more carbon the world burns, the better for human civilization itself:


It's so obvious! If we move toward cleaner energy, then life expectancy will drop, poverty will explode, and little babies will DIE.

And that's how science works today, the end.

[NYT / DeSmog Blog / WaPo / E & E News / Merchants of Doubt]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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