Winning Hearts and Minds on Climate Change: Climategate, EPA Announcement and Copenhagen

Proponents of rigorous regulation of greenhouse gas emissions finally have the international stage today as all attention shifts to Copenhagen.  And the EPA has chosen this opening day to announce the finalization of  its finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health and welfare and therefore must be regulated under the Clean Air Act.  Moreover 56 of the world’s newspapers — led by The Guardian — issued a joint editorial today urging international action to control greenhouse gas emissions.  One important question for me is whether all this attention will reverse some of the damage done by ClimateGate.

I’ve been puzzling for a week or so about the effect that ClimateGate is likely to have on both domestic and international efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions.  ClimateGate is the name given to the hacked emails from University of East Anglia scientists from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU).  The CRU collects much of the temperature data on which the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  relied in its 2007  report concluding that global warming is “unequivocal.”  The blogosphere has been abuzz since the emails were released over whether they’re substantively damaging or merely a major PR problem.  RealClimate, for example, says that the emails contain no great smoking gun:

Most interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariuosly funding climate research, … no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords.

By contrast, some climate skeptics call Climategate “the final nail in the coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming.’  And other observers, including credible climate researchers, raise concerns about whether climate data are appropriately transparent.

Most observers agree that the emails do not undermine the scientific case for global warming – indeed in addition to the temperature data collected by the British scientists many independent pieces of evidence confirm the trend and CRU is not the only organization that analyzes temperature data..  But the real damage from ClimateGate is likely to be a different problem:  undermining  public belief in the need to control greenhouse gas emissions.  One of the most disturbing signs of this problem is  a poll released last week showing that 59 percent of Americans polled “say it’s at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified research data to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming.”  Fully 35 percent think such falsification is “very likely.”  Only 46 percent of those polled believe that global warming is a major problem.  And Americans are not alone in their climate skepticism.  Close to half of Britons polled last week do not believe there’s a connection between human activity and climate change, though 52 percent do.

These polling data raise two questions for me.  First, can the Copenhagen focus reverse public opinion?  And if not, will the public’s skepticism hinder both domestic and international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?   I’d be interested in reader reaction to these questions.

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Reader Comments

One Reply to “Winning Hearts and Minds on Climate Change: Climategate, EPA Announcement and Copenhagen”

  1. “Climategate” started out when there appeared on the Internet a collection of e-mails of a group of climatologists who work in the University of East Anglia in England. These documents reveal that some climatologists of international preeminence have manipulated the data of their investigations and have strongly tried to discredit climatologists who are not convinced that the increasing quantities of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are the cause of global warming.

    It is true that a majority of the scientists who study climatic tendencies in our atmosphere have arrived at the conclusion that the world’s climate is changing, and they have convinced a group of politicians, some of whom are politically powerful, of the truth of their conclusions.

    A minority, however, is skeptical. Some believe that recent data that suggest that the average temperature of the atmosphere is going up can be explained by natural variations in solar radiation and that global warming is a temporary phenomenon. Others believe that the historical evidence indicating that the temperature of the atmosphere is going up at a dangerous rate is simply not reliable.

    Such lacks of agreement are common in the sciences. They are reduced and eventually eliminated with the accumulation of new evidence and of more refined theories or even by completely new ones. Such debates can persist for a period of decades. Academics often throw invective at one another in these debates. But typically this does not mean much.

    But the case of climate change is different. If the evidence indicates that global warming is progressive, is caused principally by our industrial processes, and will probably cause disastrous changes in our atmosphere before the end of the twenty-first century, then we do not have the time to verify precisely if this evidence is reliable. Such a process would be a question of many years of new investigations. And if the alarmist climatologists are right, such a delay would be tragic for all humanity.

    The difficulty is that economic and climatologic systems are very complicated. They are not like celestial mechanics, which involves only the interaction of gravity and centrifugal force, and efforts to construct computerized models to describe these complicated systems simply cannot include all the factors that are influential in the evolution of these complicated systems.

    All this does not necessarily indicate that the alarmist climatologists are not right. But it really means that if global warming is occurring, we cannot know exactly what will be the average temperature of our atmosphere in the year 2100 and what will be the average sea level of the world’s ocean in that year.

    It also means that we cannot be confident that efforts by the industrialized countries to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will have a significant influence on the evolution of the world’s climate.

    Alas, the reduction of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would be very costly and would greatly change the lives of all the inhabitants of our planet–with the possibility (perhaps even the probability!) that all these efforts will be completely useless.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

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Ann Carlson

Ann Carlson is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law and the co-Faculty Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School…

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