Now that Jim Bridenstine has been confirmed as NASA administrator it is time to revisit one of the accusations that have been levied against him, that he is a “Climate Denier.” The jibe is based on a statement that Bridenstine made on the floor of the House that cast doubt that climate change is an overwhelming problem that has to be addressed by upending the world economy. The matter came up during the final debate in the Senate.

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But what does “climate denier” even mean? Is the term appropriate for a question that relates to science and not, as some of the overheated language coming from Bridenstine’s opponents suggests, religion?

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What is the consensus concerning climate change?

The often repeated sound bite states that “97 percent of the scientific community believes in climate change.” However, the figure is misleading and is based on junk statistics. In fact, opinions on climate change run the gamut from the position that the phenomenon is real and has to be addressed now regardless of consequences to that it is not real or at least insignificant and don’t need solving.

The layperson can learn a lot about the controversies surrounding climate change by reading some of the works of Judith Curry, an eminent climatologist, and climate change skeptic. Her “Climate Models for the Layman” is a useful deconstruction of some of the computer modeling used to support the idea that human-caused climate change is an existential threat. She notes that human-generated CO2 emissions may be a minor factor compared to the output of the sun, volcanic eruptions, and the behavior of ocean currents.

It should also be noted that like Bridenstine, Curry has been vilified by the climate change community, indeed to such an extent that she was obliged to leave academia.

Why the furor

Controversies within science are not unique. Cosmologists argue about questions of the nature of the universe, its beginning and its likely end. Indeed, Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist whose recent passing was mourned widely, was attacked by fellow scientists on a regular basis, not just on the basis of his theories but out of jealousy for his fame.

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The difference between cosmology and climate science is that controversies in the former raise passions in the scientific community but not anywhere else. Climate science can affect the world if an unwise public policy is enacted based on erroneous conclusions. One should, therefore, be careful about using terms such as “denier” and “heretic,” used once to burn people alive who did not worship God in the approved manner. Science should be about debate and disagreement where the facts, unsullied by bias and politics, rise to the top.

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What happens now?

Jim Bridenstine’s expressed opinions on climate change are in the mainstream of climate skepticism as voiced by Judith Curry and other scientists. However, his views do not matter. He has already pledged that no political interference will be imposed on NASA’s Earth Science section. However, Earth Science is in line for a reduction in funding in favor of space exploration, a decision that has been taken above Bridenstine’s pay grade.

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