North Carolina's Atlantic Beach at sunrise. State planners cannot take future sea level rise projections into account, thanks to a state law that citizen-activist John Droz helped push. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Bigroger27509
MOREHEAD CITY, N.C. – John Droz Jr. is not the stereotypical back-room political player: A tall and trim 67, bespectacled with a shorn scalp, he's a man who prefers sweater vests and jeans rather than crisp suits and bears more resemblance to a retired high-school science teacher than a political heavyweight.
Yet this semi-retired real-estate investor and self-described environmental advocate spends much of his time quietly and effectively plying the halls of power in Raleigh, N.C., deflecting credit and avoiding the spotlight.
"This isn't about me," he offered, repeatedly.
What it's about, however, is Droz' outsized role in shaping science's influence on public policy – on climate change, sea-level rise, the advantages of renewable energy over fossil fuels. His work has rippled far beyond Raleigh's 1960s-era State Legislative Building and into the national debate on how to respond to warnings raised by climate scientists.
Droz, a part-time N.C. resident who summers in the Adirondack region of New York State, has a knack for getting time in front of North Carolina's conservative Legislature. In recent years he has proved adroit – to a degree unmatched by any other ordinary citizen in the Tar Heel State – at offering up alternatives to the assessments and conclusions provided by state analysts and scientific panels.
His work with lawmakers and the pro-development advocacy group NC-20 helped roll back state efforts to include climate-change predictions in coastal planning. He's testified against wind power. And he's tried to get the state to repeal its renewable energy standards.
One of the tools of Droz' trade is a 168-slide presentation, "Our Energy Policy: From Science or Lobbyists?" that's packed with data on the high costs and inefficiencies related to wind energy.
It's also dense with populist claims: "Pied piper profiteers," he states in one slide, are trying to fleece the public through a "reverse Robin-Hood" scheme that would force low-income taxpayers to subsidize green energy projects through their utility bills.
'Science under assault'
Droz has presented his slideshow, and others like it, including "Science Under Assault," to the North Carolina Legislature and in town-hall style meetings across the country. Those talks are often sponsored by conservative and libertarian-leaning groups such as the American Tradition Institute, a think tank known for hounding climate scientists with enormous data requests.
His goal behind the presentations? To educate a public that he says has been misled by special interest groups who put forth scientists and experts with personal and political agendas.
But what Droz is doing, say experts on public policy and climate science, is successfully sowing doubt in lawmakers and the public alike. He raises questions about the science behind complex policy issues mostly tied to global warming where, among scientists, the evidence is clear.
"Most members are not scientists, and they're not particularly prepared to, in the same way a way scientist does, weigh scientific evidence about complex phenomena," said Tom Birkland, a professor of public policy at North Carolina State University.
The efforts of Droz – and those who present similar arguments in a similar fashion, notably Fox News and other conservative media – erode the public trust in scientists, said Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist at a consulting firm in California and an advocate for responsible energy policies.
An outsized voice
It also discredits the notion of global warming, added Nucitelli, who recently co-authored a study looking at the scientific consensus on climate change.