Climate Characters: Skeptical engineer questions government motives

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June 7, 2017

Contract work and a dystopian novel shaped John Albright’s view of free markets and government suspicion.

By Zara Abrams 
The Daily Climate 

Editor’s note: Climate Characters follows five people with varied views on climate change with the goal of bringing a greater degree of compassion and understanding to the highly polarized conversation.

As an engineer working in the defense industry, John Albright has designed everything from body armor for the U.S. Marines to solar energy plants in Southern California’s Mojave Desert.  

Like Michael Casey, a martial arts instructor we profiled Monday, both Albright’s career and his upbringing led him to doubt the authority and motives of experts. Specifically, he thinks leading climate researchers and government officials exaggerate the human contribution to global warming in a grab for more money and power. 

Albright, whose name has been changed because he worked on classified projects, expected his work as an engineer to be straightforward, honest, cut and dried. To his astonishment, that was not the case. 

"People say I'm unscientific. They say I don't believe in science, but that's not true." -John Albright

In the defense industry, he explained in an interview, contractors set unrealistically high goals. For example, a company will promise to provide 150,000 units of body armor in six months, fully aware that the project will take at least a year to complete. Then they request an extension—and more money—to complete the half-finished work. 

“The trick in the defense industry is to never complete your project,” Albright says. “If you just finished your project, you’d be out of your job.” 

Albright sees the government as disingenuous, a suspicion that had roots in his childhood. At his father’s prompting, Albright read Ayn Rand’s 1957 cult novel, Atlas Shrugged, during junior high. The novel depicts a dystopian society where a petty bureaucratic government over-regulates, making it impossible for brilliant entrepreneurs to prosper and stimulate the economy by creating jobs. He says the book’s individualistic message, which champions free will, reinforced his beliefs and has shaped his views of the U.S. government ever since. 

Recently, he was particularly bothered by internal contradictions he saw firsthand in the environmental movement. During his work on a solar plant in the Mojave Desert, the same environmental lobby that advocated for clean power also fought against the plant’s construction because it overlapped with the habitat of the desert tortoise, a threatened species. 

In Albright’s experience, authorities are often inconsistent and even dishonest, especially when the goals they wish to achieve conflict. Sometimes, governments will go so far as to deny the truth when it conflicts with their ideology. In cases where scientific research has unpopular policy implications, authorities may strategically exploit the doubt inherent to the scientific process to make the evidence appear shaky. 7-Carson sign

“Doubt is crucial to science…but it also makes science vulnerable to misrepresentation,” writes Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway in “Merchants of Doubt,” a groundbreaking 2010 book that analyzed the history of science denial in the U.S. government. 

Anti-science campaigns entered the public sphere when research linking cigarette smoke to lung cancer and other respiratory diseases started piling up. For decades, tobacco industry executives funded misleading marketing campaigns to convince the public that the science of tobacco smoke was as yet unresolved. Of course, science can never provide a definite “yes” or “no” on any subject, but even that innate uncertainty doesn’t stop most people from acknowledging that gravity is real. 

In America, the denial that plagues the modern environmental movement was historically linked to a fear of communism, and an impassioned defense of free enterprise. In 1962, when marine biologist Rachel Carson published “Silent Spring”, which spelled out the destructive power of the pesticide DDT, traditionalists were instantly suspicious. If what she said was true, it would mean increased federal regulation could hurt the profits of major corporations such as the agriculture giant Monsanto. 

After Silent Spring was published, critics fired back both publicly and privately. A review of the book in Time magazine called Carson’s writing “emotion-fanning” and her argument “hysterically overemphatic.” In a private letter to President Eisenhower, the Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, said Carson was “probably a communist.” Monsanto even released a satirical response, a story called “The Desolate Year” in its monthly magazine, which claimed incorrectly that Carson’s DDT-free world would be riddled with malaria. Others riffed on the idea that women were far too emotional to be scientifically accurate, personally vilifying Carson until her untimely death from breast cancer two years later. 

As a female scientist, Carson faced difficulty even before she sounded the alarm. Though she had penned several best-sellers, including “The Sea Around Us” and “Under the Sea Wind,” it took her years to find a publisher willing to release “Silent Spring.” 

The attacks Carson endured were only the beginning of anti-environmental sentiment in America. On the first annual Earth Day in 1970, the FBI “conducted widespread surveillance of antipollution rallies,” according to a report published the following year in the New York Times. Leaders of the intelligence community feared that Earth Day, which happened to fall on Lenin’s birthday, was a Soviet plot to undermine the U.S. government. 

Fred Singer and Robert Jastrow, right-wing physicists who respectively held leadership positions in the EPA and NASA, called proponents of regulating air and water pollution communist sympathizers. They even nicknamed environmentalists “watermelons” – green on the outside, red on the inside—as chronicled in “Merchants of Doubt.” 

Protecting the environment is still seen by some as anti-American, the enemy of free-market enterprise. The modern anti-science campaign relies on conservative think tanks such as the Heartland Institute, which releases misleading documents that mimic scientific reports but do not contain peer-reviewed data, and on media voices such as right-wing radio host Glenn Beck, who has called former President Obama a socialist for his efforts to regulate carbon. 

It’s not just the radical right that’s uncertain. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an international task force created by the United Nations, has proclaimed that human action is the dominant cause of global warming in the past century. But a fall 2016 Pew poll revealed that more than half the country, including the current occupant of the Oval Office, still believes that global warming is either caused by natural cycles or not occurring at all. 

The deception works because the public doesn’t want to change. Just as Americans believed the ploys of the tobacco industry because they didn’t want to quit smoking, people believe the Heartland Institute and Glenn Beck because they don’t want to give up their SUVs or their houses in the suburbs. 

“Many conservatives see action on climate change as really an attack on a way of life,” says Republican former Congressman Bob Inglis in the “Merchants of Doubt” film. “Along come some people sowing some doubt and it’s pretty effective, because I’m looking for that answer. I want it to be that the science is not real.” 

Albright, the defense contractor, insists that in his case, he’s not falling for a misinformation campaign. “People say I’m unscientific. They say I don’t believe in science, but that’s not true.” 

He’s read the most recent IPCC report on climate change, he says, and researches topics he cares about—including climate change—on a daily basis from sources across the political spectrum. He resents people assuming he’s ill-informed, just because his beliefs are unpopular. 

And like anyone deeply immersed in an issue they deem significant, Albright genuinely appreciates anyone who listens to him and takes him seriously.

Zara Abrams is a freelance journalist and master’s student in USC’s Specialized Journalism program. “Climate characters” was her thesis project. Follow her at @ZaraAbrams

The Daily Climate is an independent, foundation-funded news service covering energy, the environment and climate change. Find us on Twitter @TheDailyClimate or email editor Brian Bienkowski at bbienkowski [at] EHN.org

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