Every time I post about ClimateGate, it seems, Sheril brings me back down a few notches by pointing out that even if this scandal does not change the science of climate change one whit, it nevertheless has major implications for public opinion and the framing of the issue. Indeed, in the public arena, “ClimateGate” hurts badly the cause of curtailing our greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to the way the incident has been spun and used, quite effectively, to suggest that the science of climate is all bogus.
I really don’t disagree with Sheril’s points; rather, I would add the following to them. Back when Bush was president and in power, I and others gained immense momentum by demonstrating–including through internal emails and the like–how the administration and the fossil fuel industry had conspired to undermine the legitimate science of climate change. As Matthew Nisbet would have put it, we therefore successfully exploited a “political wrongdoing” type of framing of the issue; The Republican War on Science helped to crystallize this message.
What’s so insidious about “ClimateGate,” in this sense, is that now the tables have been completely turned. I don’t believe the new charges are nearly as outrageous as the old charges were; I certainly don’t think they support the ridiculous claims about the bankruptcy of climate science they’ve been used to support. But nevertheless, I understand well the power of generating outrage by crusading against those in power and suggesting their malfeasance, wrongdoing, and corruption. Despite the invalidity of their position, you have to credit the Moranos of the world with a brilliant tactical move–and right now, I just can’t say how bad the damage is going to be. All signs at the moment point to massive.
I’ll be saying much more about this tactical side of “ClimateGate” in the coming days.
I’ve been quieter on the blog this week while in Texas–where I must say I’m impressed at both the hospitality and barbecue. But that doesn’t mean I can escape the PR mess that is “ClimateGate.” Out at a local pub last night, surrounded by cheering basketball fans and $2.25 pints, it wasn’t long before a friendly new acquaintance inquired, “So what’s all this stuff on tv about scientists and data?”
I continue to believe that despite however many editorials are published in academic journals, however many science journalists come forward playing defense, and no matter how many scientists calmly (or not so calmly) explain that this email kerfuffle probably only serves to demonstrate that scientists are people too, the damage has been done. The entire episode is an unfortunate case study of our increasingly Unscientific America–an example of how the media distorts a story, partisanship spins the details to suit a particular agenda, and scientists are ill-equipped to manage the PR fallout.
I am saddened to observe the state of broad perception of climate science, but not surprised. Further, this is not “the public’s” fault. It’s up to us in the scientific community to figure out how to stay on message. If we aren’t prepared to speak up for ourselves in a united voice about the state of the planet, others with less noble intentions will. And we won’t like the result.
Another major scientific voice–Nature‘s editorial page–has now come out stating that the Swifthack affair has no impact on the credibility of mainstream climate science:
Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.
The stolen e-mails have prompted queries about whether Nature will investigate some of the researchers’ own papers. One e-mail talked of displaying the data using a ‘trick’ — slang for a clever (and legitimate) technique, but a word that denialists have used to accuse the researchers of fabricating their results. It is Nature‘s policy to investigate such matters if there are substantive reasons for concern, but nothing we have seen so far in the e-mails qualifies.
From people familiar with modern climate science and the robustness of its conclusions, I can confidently predict that this message will continue to be echoed. You can read the full Nature editorial here.
House and Senate Republicans are asking the EPA to withdraw its proposed endangerment finding regarding carbon dioxide over the SwiftHack/ClimateGate issue:
As you are aware, the scandal involves a number of climate change scientists and institutions that have played prominent roles in the development of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, most recently, the Fourth Assessment. EPA heavily relied on the IPCC’s findings and conclusions in its development and justification for the controversial proposed Endangerment Finding. Given the multiple regulatory efforts that hinge on the Endangerment Finding and consequently the integrity of the IPCC reports, it is imperative that EPA act swiftly and with transparency to analyze the numerous questions that have been raised by the disclosure of the emails.
Just yesterday, I showed that the American Meteorological Society, a top scientific organization, does not agree that the CRU affair, even in the worst interpretation, undermines the consensus on climate change:
For climate change research, the body of research in the literature is very large and the dependence on any one set of research results to the comprehensive understanding of the climate system is very, very small. Even if some of the charges of improper behavior in this particular case turn out to be true — which is not yet clearly the case — the impact on the science of climate change would be very limited.
It’s simple: These Republicans (Sensenbrenner, Vitter, Issa, and others) are attempting to leap far beyond the legitimate implications of this scandal and use it for totally unwarranted political purposes.
Over at the rightwing Wall Street Journal editorial page, Daniel Henninger is invoking Galileo and painting the Swifthack episode as an “epochal event”:
The East Anglians’ mistreatment of scientists who challenged global warming’s claims—plotting to shut them up and shut down their ability to publish—evokes the attempt to silence Galileo. The exchanges between Penn State’s Michael Mann and East Anglia CRU director Phil Jones sound like Father Firenzuola, the Commissary-General of the Inquisition.
Alas, there are quite a few things Henninger is forgetting about Galileo. Among other matters, the Tuscan sage doesn’t merely symbolize “dissent in science,” as Henninger puts it. The people who dissented in the history of science, but were overwhelmingly wrong, tend to be forgotten. Galileo dissented and he happened to be overwhelmingly right (about the whole Earth-sun thing, anyway–let’s, er, forget that theory of the tides).
All of which kinda makes for a huge difference between Galileo and the climate skeptics.
Forget “ClimateGate,” this is a far better name.
Michael Mann responds to critics here.
Josh Nelson comprehensively rounds up posts here.
Absolutely hilarious post here about how reading the nasty private correspondence of Isaac Newton calls into question the “calculus myth.” And that doesn’t even take into account Newton’s hidden alchemy writings….
We’ll be continuing to follow this story at the Intersection as it develops.