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Expired · 7th January 2010
Ray Grigg
The world has recently been abuzz with an event dubbed "Climategate", the November 17th posting on the internet of thousands of hacked e-mails from a few scientists associated with the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU). In the electronic ether of nearly instant communication, global warming skeptics took about two days – could they have been forewarned? – to measure the significance of the personal communication between these scientists. For people who already doubt that the climate system is warming and that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are the cause, the e-mails were ammunition for a concerted attack on the science, its conclusions and even the basic premise.

The timing, a few days before the opening of international discussions in Copenhagen to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, could not have been worse – or better for those who happen to doubt the science. And the timing may not have been a coincidence. The delicate and complex task of negotiating binding agreements among 192 nations with diverse values, interests and economies was difficult enough, even under the momentum of evidence presented by credible scientists who were believed to be rigorous and scrupulously honest.

The skeptics now contend that neither the scientists nor the science have credibility. But, as usual, everything is more complicated than it initially seems. First, consider the science.

Science is never really certain about anything; it is inherently an ongoing process of doubting, testing and refining. Final answers do not exist in science. The best it can do is estimate explanations with diminishing degrees of uncertainty. Apply this principle to the incredibly complex dynamics of Earth's climate and even the best information still yields estimates. The computer modelling that predicts future climate will always be somewhat inaccurate. Even raw data – where and how it is obtained – is subject to controversy and interpretation. When such disagreements invariably exist between scientists, misunderstanding between the scientific community and the lay public is inevitable. No wonder some people still doubt global warming.

Yet the overwhelming consensus of literally thousands of scientists from diverse disciplines is that "the warming of the climate system is unequivocal", in the words of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This conclusion is not only derived from the CRU at one university but from many other research centres that are also interpreting the same vast amounts of historical data. Global warming, given the contentious character of science itself, is almost as close to fact as gravity. But skeptics will always be able to use contentious scientific details to generate public doubt.

As for the suspected credibility of scientists by skeptics, this, too, is more complicated than it initially seems.

Scientists have come under incredible pressure as their science has been politicized. Their findings are guiding public policy involving trillions of dollars. Indeed, scientists have become defacto oracles whose pronouncements are expected to direct political decisions that will save the world's ecologies, shape national economies and determine the future of billions of people. Caught between the critical political importance of their findings and the skeptics who doubt not only the evidence but even the basic premise, scientists are in an untenable position. Not surprisingly, some of them have adopted a bunker-like mentality of being under seige. They are trying their best to understand an extremely complex climate system that seems to be in radical transformation, trying to stay calm in the centre of a political maelstrom, and trying to defend themselves from picayune skeptics who often seem more interested in ideological causes than science. As Professor Phil Jones of the University of East Anglia has noted in one of his e-mails, the climate skeptics "have been after the CRU station data for years" (Globe & Mail, Dec. 5/09), presumably to obfuscate rather than clarify. Although this defensiveness is both bad science and an unwise strategy, it is perfectly understandable in psychological terms.

Dr. Andrew Weaver, a University of Victoria associate of Professor Jones in climate science, is also familiar with the pressure and tactics. His office has been broken into twice in recent months, his papers rummaged through and a computer – a broken one – stolen. Attempts have been make to hack into his colleagues' computers as well as those at Uvic's Canadian Centre for Climate Modelling and Analysis. A university spokesperson describes "incidents in which people impersonated network technicians to try to gain access to campus offices and data" (National Post, Dec. 4/09). As Dr. Weaver observes, "They're trying to find anything. They don't care what it is.... The key thing is to try to find anybody who's involved in any aspect of the IPCC and find something that you can...take out of context" (Ibid.).

One example, Professor Jones writes in one of his e-mails, "I've just completed Mike's trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e. from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 to hide the decline." Skeptics take this as damning evidence of manipulation. The context suggests that the "trick" is a commonly used adjustment of an algorithm to remove nonsensical data, and that the "decline" refers to the quality of data, not to a fall in global temperatures (Globe & Mail, Dec. 5/09).

Conspiracy theorists, anti-government ideologues and countries such as Saudi Arabia with a vested economic interest in maintaining high global oil consumption, are all quick to jump to conclusions that will scuttle any possible emission agreements in Copenhagen. Says Mohammad al-Saban, summarily dismissing decades of work by thousands of scientists, "It appears from the details of the scandal that there is no relationship whatsoever between human activities and climate change," (Ibid.).

"Climategate" has created a mess that will eventually be untangled. The best strategy for now is to stay calm, trust the existing science, and take the precautionary measures expected of any rational people wholly dependent on a stable and normal climate.