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Still Under Attack, Climate Scientists Fight Back

5 minute read
Bryan Walsh

Has any field suffered a faster drop in public confidence than climate science? Two and a half years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was finishing up its widely acclaimed fourth assessment on global warming, which made an unequivocal case for the threat of man-made climate change. For its work, the IPCC was rewarded with the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize — shared with Al Gore for his green advocacy — and polls showed strong concern over global warming, even in the U.S. By the time of President Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the stage seemed set for climate science to go from the professional journals to the stuff of legislation.

But that was then. Thanks in part to the events of Climategate last November — when someone hacked into and released thousands of e-mails and documents from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at Britain’s East Anglia University — climate scientists now find themselves under fire. The Climategate e-mails revealed that scientists used terms like trick while discussing climate modeling techniques, which was enough to set off skeptics, who considered it proof that scientists were bending data to reach their conclusions, and making climate change seem worse than it really was. In the aftermath of Climategate, critics also uncovered factual errors — small and few, but real — in the IPCC’s fourth assessment.

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It energized global-warming skeptics. Most recently, on April 23, Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli launched a civil investigative demand (CID) with the University of Virginia (UVA), searching for information on the climate scientist Michael Mann, who once worked at UVA. Mann, who now runs the Earth Systems Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, authored many of the controversial e-mails at the center of Climategate.

The cost of these assaults is real. Despite the fact that a parliamentary inquiry in Britain looked into Climategate and in March exonerated Phil Jones, the head of CRU, of any wrongdoing, the damage had been done. A British survey in February found a 30% drop over just one year in the percentage of adults who said climate change was “definitely” real, and polls in the U.S. have found a similar decline.

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In the face of that dwindling in public confidence — and a renewed surge in attacks from global-warming skeptics — climate scientists are finally fighting back. In the May 7 edition of Science, 255 members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, including 11 Nobel laureates, signed a letter decrying what they call the “political assaults on scientists and climate scientists in particular.” They argue that the attacks on climate science are ideologically motivated by those who want to delay any action on global warming and that it has resulted in a new McCarthyism. “There is always some uncertainty associated with scientific conclusions,” the authors write in Science. But “for a problem as potentially catastrophic as climate change, taking no action poses a dangerous risk for our planet.”

That was the argument made by Representative Edward Markey, the pugnacious Massachusetts Democrat in charge of the Select House Committee for Energy Independence and Global Warming, at a congressional hearing he held Thursday morning on the science of climate change. With the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico still leaking oil with no clear end in sight, Markey reminded Congress that climate change and dependence on petroleum are intertwined — and that no amount of denial could change that inconvenient fact. The U.S. needs to “acknowledge the basic facts that have been known for decades,” Markey said in his opening statement. “Increasing carbon pollution in the atmosphere is warming the planet and the only way to put a halt to such warming is to move to clean-energy solutions.”

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Even in Virginia, where attorney general Cuccinelli has kept up his investigation into Mann’s work, academics have pushed back and criticized skeptics for going too far. Cuccinelli’s CID is exploring potential violations of the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act; it gives the state 30 days to produce more than 10 years’ worth of documents related to state-funded research by Mann during his time at UVA. (Cuccinelli has said he wants to find out whether any of Mann’s research, which was conducted with some state grants, was purposefully “steering a course to reach a conclusion,” according to the Washington Post.) But Mann’s peers at UVA have reciprocated, releasing a position statement arguing that Cuccinelli’s investigation may be politically motivated — he has also filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for attempting to regulate greenhouse gases — and that his actions “directly threaten academic freedom and, thus, our ability to generate the knowledge upon which informed public policy relies.”

Ultimately, that’s what may lie at stake here — whether politics can be kept from interfering with science. In truth, climate change is as much a political problem as it is a scientific one, and no one would argue that science is free of bias. But science does have a self-correcting mechanism — in fact, this week the InterAcademy Council, a coalition of global scientific organizations, named a 12-member committee to review the workings of the IPCC. Scientists have learned from Climategate that they need to be more open. Climate change is too global a problem to be left to the academy, and if scientists are to be trusted, they need to be held accountable — but not by investigations carried out in the name of partisanship rather than truth.

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