The climate change controversy is descending into a world of slanders, distorted data, and a debate that holds little more scientific content than “he said, she said.” Professional skeptics realize that they don’t have to win the debate; they only have to add to the existing doubt in people’s minds.
Unfortunately, climate-change scientists are getting sucked in, feeling the need to also up the ante on emotional appeals rather than let the facts speak for themselves. There is no better example than the climate change conference held in December 2009 in Copenhagen to come up with a treaty that would succeed the Kyoto Protocol. The organizers played on the emotions of participants by starting the event with a four-minute video produced for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark.
The film begins with a young girl playing outside her apartment building and then going home for dinner. We next see her watching television, mesmerized by news of climate disasters. In a voiceover, she hears Dr. Rajendra Pachauri warn that unless carbon dioxide levels are reduced, the costs will be borne by “the Earth, this generation, and the next generation.”
That night, clutching a stuffed animal (a well-loved polar bear), she has a terrifying nightmare. The ground cracks open and her stuffed animal falls into a deep fissure. Before she can retrieve her bear, however, a sheet of water rushes toward her. Soon, it becomes a torrent, and she runs to a single, leafless tree. Just as the flood laps at her feet, she grabs a low branch to save herself from being washed away. There she hangs, vulnerable and terrified. The girl awakens, screaming, and her father rushes in to comfort her.
Recovered from her ordeal, she dashes to the rooftop of her apartment building, and, under an angry sky, makes an appeal directly to camera: “Please save the world,” which is inter-cut with other children repeating the same message in different languages.
After the film, Dr. Pachauri addressed the conference on the conclusions from the latest IPCC report. None of it was good news. He told the conference, “[W]arming of the climate system is unequivocal” and “[M]ost of the observed increase in temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic GHG [Greenhouse gas] concentrations.” He was drawing on an IPCC report that concluded with a 90% certainty that humans were to blame. He then discussed the consequences of inaction: rising sea levels that will eventually inundate low-lying countries, like Bangladesh, and submerge some islands; water shortages; extinction of 20-30% of all species; increasing frequency of heat waves; more intense cyclones; and a host of other calamities.
Speaking just under 15 minutes, he spent a considerable part of his precious time defending the integrity of the IPCC, which diverted him from concentrating on his main message. But he felt he had little choice other than to answer his critics, who had found a new issue a month earlier with which to hammer the IPCC.
A fuss had been created when thousands of e-mails were skimmed off the server from one of IPCC’s main institutes, the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit. The break-in had been engineered by a hacker in Russia, although it is unclear who had arranged the theft.
Within days the right-wing blogosphere lit up with posts from skeptics. Selectively quoting from the e-mails, they accused the scientists of hiding, manipulating, and suppressing inconvenient evidence that the world was not warming. They alleged a conspiracy where none existed.
What these e-mails do reveal is that climate researchers were intimidated, even shell-shocked, from a constant barrage regarding their science and occasional spiteful attacks on their personal integrity. Not used to working in such a politically-charged atmosphere, they became defensive and betrayed a natural animosity in personal correspondence to those who had questioned their integrity.
Nevertheless, the mainstream media soon picked up the affair and dubbed it “Climate-gate.” By the time the Copenhagen meeting started, the community of professional skeptics was in full flight, urging delegates to question the credibility of the IPCC and the science contained in its reports. In an attempt to counter the festering sore of Climate-gate, Dr. Pachauri told delegates, “The IPCC assessment process is designed to ensure consideration of all relevant scientific information from established journals with robust peer review processes, or from other sources which have undergone robust and independent peer review.”
The problem was that the IPCC had not always been scrupulous in only referring to peer-reviewed articles in its assessments, which skeptics were quick to pick up. So rather than presenting a persuasive and objective report, some IPCC have risen to the bait and tried to match the emotional case being made against them by marshaling whatever evidence was at hand to bolster their case. By the end of the conference, it became clear that Climate-gate had weakened the resolve of delegates to take strong actions to reverse global warming, and while other conferences have been held since, each has failed to come up with an effective treaty.
It is probably time to revamp the IPCC to restore its credibility and for climate scientists to take a deep breath and return to the fray, but with a measured case and avoid the temptation of trying to influence the political debate, which, I believe, explains the sins of the past.