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Observations

Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

Climate change cover-up? You better believe it

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Was Sen. James Inhofe right when he declared 2009 the year of the climate contrarian? A slew of emails stolen from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit highlight definite character flaws among some climate scientists—including an embarrassing attempt to delete emails that discussed the most recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—while also exposing what looks like a failure of scientists to acknowledge a halt to global warming in the past decade.


Sadly for the potential fate of human civilization, rumors of the demise of climate change have been much exaggerated. The past decade recorded nine of the warmest years in recent history as well as the rapid dwindling of Arctic sea ice, surely the result of imminent global cooling if climate change contrarians are to be believed. After all, one of the most "damaging" emails in question from Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., is actually mourning the paucity of Earth observation systems and data in the past decade, such as satellites (gutted by a lack of funding and launch miscues in recent years) to monitor climate change in the midst of natural variability.


The "Copenhagen Diagnosis" released today reveals that by any objective measure—melting ice sheets, greenhouse gas concentrations, sea level rise—the climate is warming faster than anticipated. And when the natural variability induced by massive climate systems such as oscillations over decades in ocean temperatures, currents and even sunspots reverts to the mean, the roughly three warming watts per square meter added by greenhouse gases will still be there to drive climate change.


You can judge the emails for yourself at this wonderful searchable database. While the revelations about pressuring the peer review process and apparent slowness in responding to an avalanche of requests for information unveil something below impressive scientific and personal behavior, they can also be seen as the frustrated responses of people working on complex data under deadline while being harassed by political opponents.


Note the adjective there. Political, not scientific, opponents. Because the opposition here is not grounded in any robust scientific theory or alternative hypotheses (all of those, in their time, have been shot down and nothing new has been offered in years) but a hysterical reaction to the possibly of what? One-world government? The return of communism? If that's the fear, perhaps someone can explain why the preferred solution to climate change offered by former proponents of inaction is nuclear power. Has there ever been a nuclear reactor built anywhere in the world that didn't rely on government to get it done? Sounds like socialism, doesn't it? Hello France? USSR? USA?


The problem is not the behavior of climate scientists or their results. The problem is fear of the actions required to actually deal with the findings of climate science, and it has turned the field into a contact sport as Stephen Schneider of Stanford University puts it in the title of his new book. For example, we might decide to start cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, perhaps by restraining our burning of fossil fuel, or at least capturing and storing the carbon dioxide emitted in that process. It would appear, in fact, that the Obama administration will actually bring to the climate conference in Copenhagen some kind of a proposal to reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.


That's not something some folks want to see, primarily those working in the fossil fuel extraction and/or burning business.


There is, in fact, a climate conspiracy. It just happens to be one launched by the fossil fuel industry to obscure the truth about climate change and delay any action. And this release of emails right before the Copenhagen conference is just another salvo—and a highly effective one—in that public relations battle, redolent with the scent of the same flaks and hacks who brought you "smoking isn't dangerous."


As physicist and climate historian Spencer Weart told The Washington Post: "It's a symptom of something entirely new in the history of science: Aside from crackpots who complain that a conspiracy is suppressing their personal discoveries, we've never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance. Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers." Well, probably they did, but point taken.

Image: University of East Anglia

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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