The Great Climategate Debate

moderator: Henry D. Jacoby, Sloan School of Management, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Kerry Emanuel, Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Judith Layzer, Department of Urban Studies and Planning, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Stephen Ansolabehere, Department of Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Ronald G. Prinn, Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Richard Lindzen, Deptartment of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Aug. 7, 2012,   recorded: December 2009,   views: 3117

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The hacking of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit in November rocked the world of climate change science, energized global warming skeptics, and threatened to derail policy negotiations at Copenhagen. These panelists, who differ on the scientific implications of the released emails, generally agree that the episode will have long-term consequences for the larger scientific community.

“What we have here,” says Kerry Emanuel, are “thousands of emails collectively showing scientists hard at work, trying to figure out the meaning of evidence that confronts them. Among a few messages, there are a few lines showing the human failings of a few scientists…” Emanuel believes that “scientifically, it means nothing,” because the controversy doesn’t challenge the overwhelming evidence supporting anthropogenic warming. He is far more concerned with the well-funded “public relations campaign” to drown out or distort the message of climate science, which he links to “interests where billions, even trillions are at stake...” This “machine … has been highly successful in branding climate scientists as a bunch of sandal-wearing, fruit-juice drinking leftist radicals engaged in a massive conspiracy to return us to agrarian society…”

Richard Lindzen professes he has “no idea” what Emanuel is talking about -- if a “machine” exists, it’s on the “other side,” marginalizing those who disagree on the science. The release of emails is likely due “to a whistleblower who couldn’t take it anymore.” Lindzen sees evidence in the correspondence of “things that are unethical and in many cases illegal,” including the refusal to allow outsiders access to data, and the willingness to destroy data rather than release it. He believes that since it’s hard to read the documents “and not conclude that bad things are going on,” this will have a negative impact on “popular support for science.” There are “scandals, cheating and arguments” over research dealing with tiny increments of temperature change, Lindzen speculates, because so many scientists and ordinary people are invested in the idea of dramatic, human-based warming -- “People are being thrown catastrophes.”

“The imprudent language in the email cache reflects scientists’ enormous frustration with the tactics of their opponents,” says Judith Layzer. Climate change poses a serious new challenge for scientists: “On the one hand, they perceive it as sufficiently urgent that they’re willing to go to great lengths, use language they wouldn’t ordinarily, to try to persuade the public. On the other hand, they face the most sophisticated campaign of skepticism ever assembled, and one that consistently violates protocols they’re accustomed to.” The moderate language of science, with its emphasis on the weight of evidence, can’t compete with attacks that discredit models, “which by their very nature are fishy to nonscientists.” Careless email communications gave the public a harsh reminder that scientists “are human, fallible and not always judicious.”

The email controversy, says Stephen Ansolabehere creates uncertainty about the scientific debate, and will lead to greater scrutiny by the public – which is “healthy.” Since climate change is a grand scale problem with impacts on multiple dimensions of society, the “question we must ask ourselves now is, “Who will police science and how can science maintain credibility as it gets into public debates?” Scientists, as private citizens, are free to engage in political debates, but “must be especially careful about maintaining research standards and methods.” Scientists will find in the future “they must be even more scrupulous about maintaining research standards because more is at stake than getting the next paper published…”

After combing through the emails, Ronald Prinn has reached several conclusions: Some exchanges dealing with modeling natural variability in temperatures over hundreds of years were “personal in nature,” and “unprofessional.” The research of the scientists accused of manipulating data is not central to the argument for anthropogenic climate change, nor has it compromised the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, although the public perception of climate science has certainly been affected. Climate researchers, Prinn concludes, “must step back from the tendency to polarization.” More important, they must communicate better to the public that multiple approaches and critical analyses are the norm in climate science and that legitimate science is found in peer-reviewed literature, “not in blogs or in opinion pieces that go into newspapers.”

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