Deliberate attempt to mislead?

Earlier this month, more than 100 news outlets published articles on a new, peer-reviewed paper which examined the potential amount of greenhouse gases that could be emitted as a result of the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. That paper, written by Stockholm Environment Institute senior scientists Peter Erickson and Michael Lazarus and published in the premier scientific journal Nature, found that building the Keystone XL pipeline could result in carbon emissions up to four times greater than the U.S. State Department has estimated.

Benjamin Zycher, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, took issue with the authors’ finding and methodology and published an article outlining his grievances in The Hill on Monday. Instead of attributing the paper’s conclusions to its authors, however, Zycher also attributed the findings to me, a reporter for the news website ThinkProgress. Citing my affiliation to the Center for American Progress, he dismissed the study as “political propaganda,” put forward by both myself and the scientists.

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What follows is a series of ad hominem attacks. Zycher calls both me and the scientists “oblivious,” guilty of publishing “deeply unserious blather,” and believing improved living conditions to be “abhorrent.”

But the bigger issue is this: Cloaked in Zycher’s arguments over the study’s content and his palpable distrust of the scientists is an attempt to associate them with the “political left.” This is evident due to the fact that ThinkProgress was singled out from the more than 100 news outlets who covered the research – such as The Associated Press and The Los Angeles Times --  as if it were the only source presenting the information.  Either Zycher incorrectly believes that the Stockholm Environment Institute is somehow associated with ThinkProgress or this is a deliberate attempt to mislead the readers of the Hill.

Attempting to discredit two scientists by inferring they have a political agenda is a deeply unfair tactic that seems to be happening more as research becomes crucial to policymaking, particularly when it comes to climate change. Zycher himself has put the word “science” in quotation marks while challenging the work of U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a gargantuan undertaking of nearly 800 scientists to provide a comprehensive understanding of climate science – calling it a “political document” while questioning whether harmful global warming is even happening. In his Monday article, he repeatedly put the words “scientific study” in quotation marks, an apparent attempt to diminish its credibility.

This science-rejecting mindset has harrowing implications beyond Keystone XL, beyond Zycher, and beyond this one study. But let’s take Zycher’s actual issues with the research into account. There are problems there, too.

Zycher argues that the authors’ predictions on how much greenhouse gases could be emitted are based on assumptions that tar sands crude oil demand will rise after the Keystone XL pipeline is built. But the research does not state that demand will rise  – rather, it presents a range of results depending on the extent of which Keystone XL might lead to increased tar sands production. It is the question of that possibility that the State Department left out, the authors say.

Zycher also argues that even if demand for Canadian tar sands oil did increase because of Keystone XL, fossil fuel production elsewhere would decrease – that is, for every one more barrel of Canadian crude produced, the world will produce one barrel less. That’s not necessarily true; producers and investors respond to market prices, not the oil meter in Alberta, and it will not be a precisely a one-for-one substitution. That’s exactly the kind of question the paper seeks to examine.

Zycher’s critiques of the study don’t end there, but there is no need to repeat all of his arguments here.  Instead, we should keep our eyes peeled to see if his rebuttals are published in a scientific journal.  If they pass scientific muster, Nature or another reputable journal will surely welcome them.  There is nothing scientists like more than the give and take of the scientific method. 

The sad reality is that as issues like climate change become more and more politicized, it is the scientists who will get caught in the crossfire. And humans, deceived to believe that scientists don’t have meaningful and important things to say, will suffer as a result.  Instead of making baseless claims about scientists having unspoken agendas, Washington DC thinktanks could better spend their time focusing on what actions are necessary in light of the science as we understand it. As a reporter, I’d be happy to cover that story.

Emily Atkin is a climate and environment reporter with ThinkProgress.org