When "Climategate" broke on Nov. 20, with hackers stealing and subsequently releasing more than a thousand apparently dubious e-mails by renowned climate scientists, the timing couldn't have been more inconvenient for advocates of action on climate change. The major U.N. global-warming summit in Copenhagen was just a few weeks away, and the U.S. Senate was starting work on a bill that would cap U.S. carbon emissions. It was the eve of a month in which crucial decisions could be made in the global effort to curb climate change before its effects become truly dangerous.
The publication of private e-mails from researchers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at Britain's East Anglia University, which raised questions about whether scientists had distorted or scrubbed data on global warming, "could scarcely be more damaging," in the words of English environmental writer George Monbiot. But it was only one in a series of troubling indicators that skepticism about global warming is on the rise. A survey released in October by the Pew Research Center found that the number of Americans who believed there is solid evidence that the world is warming had dropped from 71% in April 2008 to 57% in October 2009; over the same period, the percentage who believed climate change is a very serious problem had dropped from 44% to 35%.
Meanwhile, in Australia where two years ago climate skeptic and former Prime Minister John Howard was voted out of office the opposition Liberal Party in December elected Tony Abbott, another warming skeptic, as its leader. Abbott threatens to scuttle Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's proposed cap-and-trade bill. Even in green Europe, there are worrying signs, including the selection of Nick Griffin, leader of the ultra-right British National Party and a man who has called climate science an "Orwellian consensus," as a representative for the European Parliament at Copenhagen. "Climate-change denial in Europe is actually increasing over the past few months," says James Hoggan, blogger and author of the new book Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming.
Why? The debate over climate-change science was closed two years ago, after the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that global warming was "unequivocal" and that it "very likely" owed to man-made greenhouse-gas emissions. While there is still plenty of room to argue over the precise pace of climate change or the best way to deal with global warming going forward, the case for man-made warming was definitively made. Or wasn't it?
Indeed, for all the sound and fury over Climategate, there was little in the CRU's hacked e-mails that significantly damaged the overall case for climate change. Deniers claim that an e-mail from CRU chief Phil Jones demonstrates that the CRU's historical global temperature data have been exaggerated. Jones wrote that he would use a "trick" to "hide the decline" in temperatures. The phrasing was unfortunate, but Jones was merely referring to an accepted method of concatenating data sets, one that has been discussed openly in scientific journals for years. Further, the British unit is just one of four groups around the world, including NASA, that compiles records of global temperatures and all four offer conclusions about warming that are virtually identical. As for claims that the CRU is hiding information, fully 95% of its climate data are available to the public.
But the e-mails shed an unflattering light on climate science and some of the political jockeying that goes on within the community, not to mention the very personal debates that can sometimes break out among opponents. If Jones is found to have actively encouraged his scientists to dodge Freedom of Information Act requests, which some of the e-mails suggest, he should almost certainly resign from his post. But it is vital to remember that the e-mails, which remain incomplete and out of context, do not overthrow all of climate science. "There remains after the dust settles on this controversy a consensus on the key characteristics of the climate question," said White House science adviser John Holdren at a congressional hearing on Dec. 2.
And yet the e-mails will weaken the fight against climate change, while also helping to explain why skepticism seems to be on the rise. It doesn't take a conspiracy theorist to note that the e-mails which were stolen, after all were released right before the Copenhagen summit. Despite continued bickering and disagreement, the world is now closer to acting on global warming than it has ever been. Three years ago, under former President George W. Bush, the chances of a U.S. cap-and-trade bill's passing were so remote that the potential political influence of climate-change advocates seemed nonexistent. That's no longer the case. So it's not surprising, then, that the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce is spending millions to fight cap and trade, in part by casting suspicion over the science of climate change. "Basically what they're doing is trying to sell doubt," says Hoggan. "If you can produce enough doubt, you don't need a logical counternarrative. You just undermine any effort to deal with this."
Even a small amount of doubt is enough to shatter consensus. That is why a number of researchers have suggested in the wake of the CRU e-mail hack that climate scientists be more open with their data and engage with critics in the future. "Climate McCarthyism" as Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the Breakthrough Institute have called the knee-jerk attacks by some climate-change advocates on those who deviate from the green mainstream must stop. That may not seem fair industry groups have played dirty for years smearing climate scientists but researchers will need to be above reproach. "Scientists need to consider carefully skeptical arguments and either rebut them or learn from them," wrote Judith Curry, an atmospheric scientist and climate researcher at Georgia Tech, on the blog Climate Audit.
That advice was surely heard at East Anglia University, which announced on Dec. 1 that Jones would temporarily step down while the school carried out an investigation into the e-mails. Shortly afterward, Penn State University announced that it would carry out its own investigation of the e-mails; prominent Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann was another high-profile figure in Climategate. "What is most important is that CRU continues its world-leading research with as little interruption and diversion as possible," said Jones in a statement. "After a good deal of consideration, I have decided the best way to achieve this is by stepping aside from the director's role during the course of the independent review."
At the same time, the public that includes the media should learn to think like scientists. Scientists debate, often furiously. That is the nature of the scientific method, and it can be ugly, as the hacked e-mails, many of which insult climate skeptics, demonstrate. But scientists also know that continued debate and disagreement over the smaller points whether in climate science, medicine or any other scientific field do not necessarily threaten the overall argument. "Scientists are brutal in their criticism," said Holdren. "Science is rough."
But unless the public's scientific literacy is improved, science itself risks becoming a political debate, like everything else today, with no room for objective data or authority. "Right now for many people, their ideology is driving their view of science," says Hoggan. "Ideology decides what makes a fact a fact." Now that is a real scandal.