Climategate is a tempest in a teapot, but it may lead to worst tempests

Dec 06 2009 Published by under Politics, Science, science & society

The Tennessean has been publishing numerous letters to the editor and editorial columns talking about how "climategate" supposedly shows that anthropogenic global warming is a fraud. It's extremely frustrating. That conclusion can only be drawn from a deep misunderstanding about how science works and the language of scientists used in the e-mails, but sadly it seems that newspapers are interested more in presenting "both sides" than getting to the truth of it. Today, there is an egregious column from David Lipscomb professor Richard Grant repeats the same tired arguments global warming denialists have already been using, and completely misunderstands the impacts of the supposed revelations from the leaked University of East Anglia emails.

It's very frustrating myself to watch this happen. The people who are trumpeting about this are ignorant about science. When I read the excerpts from the emails that are supposedly the smoking gun about climate change being a fraud, I do not see anything extremely alarming. What's more, even if I did, the evidence for climate change has not come completely from the University of East Anglia; it has come from all over the place. If it hadn't, scientists would not be accepting it as strongly as they do! And, yet, the newspaper coverage of this is covering the scandal, the controversy... it does not seek to illuminate the truth of the situation, to explain what is really going on. And, this of course lends fuel to the politicians who are exploiting global warming denialism for their own ends. (To be fair, there are also politicians who exploit the fact of human-caused global warming for their own ends! That doesn't make the conclusions wrong, however.) It is sad to me to see so many in our population being manipulated in a way that will allow us as a society to act in ways that may very likely cause us tremendous pain in future decades.

Here is the text of a letter to the editor I wrote to the Tennessean in response. I don't know if it will get published; I hope it does, of course, because many more people read the Tennessean letters to the editor than this blog.

The numerous letters and columns that have been written suggesting that "climategate" undermines conclusions about anthropogenic global warming are all getting it very wrong. There are two important points.

First, no matter what the researchers said when venting frustrations in private e-mail, their final actions in what data was published showed no misconduct. Nothing was suppressed, nothing was fudged. The impact of the supposedly revealing emails is vastly overstated by those who deny man-made global warming.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, even if we throw out all of the climate data and conclusions from the researchers in question, the conclusions still stand. This is an important point about how science works. Cold Fusion generated a lot of headlines in the 1980's when first reported, but ultimately didn't stand because no independent scientists could reproduce the results. With climate change, there are multiple independent teams who have data that all point to the same conclusions. Even if something were to cast doubt on conclusions of the University of East Anglia, that does not in any way affect the independent data of the USA's NOAA, for example.

The climate change data is still robust. The leaked emails only show informal communication using the jargon scientists use, and normal human frustration with how obstinate so many seem to be against accepting the fact of man-made global warming. Given how science works, these emails do not in any way undermine those conclusions. It is only at our peril that we use these leaked emails to further political ends.

5 responses so far

  • The Giant says:

    Yes, the climate is changing as it has for 4.5 billion years! What is called into question is whether man (humans) are the cause of the current cycle. The released emails show that there is a willing group of scientist who live on grants (!) to be somewhat willing to make conclusions and then find the data ( or bend) the data to support same. I, more often then I want to admit, said that particular soil will not sustain bearing or support to be proven wrong by actual physical action. You, I know, are a totally ethical person - that does not mean every scientist checks his/her ideology or desire for both peer recognition and grant money at the door. This has become a political issue and is being driven totally by politicians. Follow the money!

  • rknop says:

    You need to stop watching Fox News. It distorts reality.

    The leak means nothing. Not only what was finally published ethical, regardless of what was said in private email ahead of time, but also the emails were not understood. When scientists talk about using a "trick", it does not mean a deception-- it means a clever technique. I use the term all the time myself. What's more, even if you throw out the data from that one place, there's data from other places.

    The evidence for anthropogenic global warming is extremely strong. I would love nothing more than in 30 years to have people come back and rub in my face that I was wrong about this. But if we do allow this to turn into a political issue, if we allow things like this to lead us to inaction, there's a good chance that we're going to be in a whole lot of trouble in coming decades. Do we want to take that risk?

    Follow the money... there's WAY more money in maintaining the status quo for energy companies and anybody else who might have to adapt in order to mitigate climate change than there is in grant money for researchers.

  • The Giant says:

    Too late! It has become a political issue. Also, I listen to CBS more than Fox and without Dan Rather there are some people there and on ABC who are willing to say that not only is it political but there are some Climotologists(Colorada state) who are questioning a lot of the data.

  • rknop says:

    There are also astronomers who question the Big Bang and biologists who question Evolution... that doesn't mean that we should think that there's a huge scientific controversy about either.

    The news portrays this as more of a conflict than it really is. The consensus among climatologists is pretty strong.

  • rknop says:

    Also, it's a political issue only because those who deny the evidence of anthropogenic global warming have made it into a political issue. The *politics* are fairly well balanced on both sides, giving people the impression that it's a big debate.

    But it's not a controversial scientific issue. Yes, there is a very small minority of climate scientists who disagree with the general consensus. But the science is pretty clearly settled that global warming is happening, and that a large part of it in recent decades is due to us.

    That it's become a political issue in no way affects the conclusions of the science. And it's very unfortunate that we're allowing this to be a "debate" about whether to do anything, instead of a debate about the best way to address the problem. Even if we don't have 100% proof, the potential consequences are very severe, and the extent of the scientific confidence on the matter means that we should be taking the issue very, very seriously, and not dicking around debating it and finding our favorite talking heads and seeking out the rare scientist who will comfortingly tell us that we shouldn't worry and thus shouldn't do anything that might challenge our current economy.

    It's irresponsible. It's bordering on evil.