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It's true that the e-mails reveal CRU climate scientists were dismissive of skeptics, often in harsh terms, but that's not unusual for scientists. Science is a rough arena, as anyone who has ever survived a doctoral examination knows, and scientists aren't shy about attacking ideas they believe are wrong especially in private communication. Still, Jones et al. could have been more open and accepting of their critics, and if it turns out that e-mails were deleted in response to the Freedom of Information request for data, heads should roll. (Jones maintains that no e-mails or documents were deleted.)
Ultimately, though, we need to place Climategate/Swifthack in its proper context: amidst a decades-long effort by the fossil-fuel industry and other climate skeptics to undercut global-warming research often by means that are far more nefarious than anything that appears in the CRU e-mails. George W. Bush's Administration attempted to censor NASA climatologist James Hansen, while the fossil-fuel industry group the Global Climate Coalition ignored its own scientists as it spread doubt about man-made global warming. That list of wrongdoing goes on. One of the main skeptic groups promoting the e-mail controversy, the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change, was recently revealed to have links to the energy company Exxon-Mobil, which has long funded climate-change deniers. "This is being used to confuse the public," says blogger James Hoggan, whose new book Climate Cover-Up details Exxon-Mobil's campaign. "This is not a legitimate scientific issue."
5. Will the controversy derail efforts to curb warming? Although the e-mails have no bearing on the scientific case for climate change, they'll likely have a major political impact. At the very moment when countries around the world including the U.S. seem poised, finally, to begin to control greenhouse-gas emissions, the controversy created by the e-mails allows skeptics to roll some of the momentum back, at least by injecting doubt among a confused public.
That strategy might be working. A survey published on Dec. 3 by the conservative-leaning polling group Rasmussen Reports found that 52% of Americans polled believe there remains significant disagreement within the scientific community over global warming, and that 84% of Americans believe it is at least somewhat likely that some scientists have falsified data to support their theories on global warming. Unfortunately, scientific truth matters less than public perception a doubtful public is that much less likely to support tough caps on greenhouse-gas emissions.
In the aftermath of the e-mails, climate scientists and advocates will need to rethink how they engage with critics. Judith Curry, an atmospheric scientist at Georgia Tech, wrote in a much discussed blog post that researchers need to make climate data much more open and transparent, and that scientists need to be wary of falling into what she calls "climate tribalism." She argues that mainstream climate scientists are now resorting to the same smear tactics that skeptics have long used against climate scientists something Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the think tank Breakthrough Institute have called "climate McCarthyism."
"Heavy-handed efforts to narrow the scientific debate have seriously damaged the credibility of climate science," says Nordhaus, whose work has come under sharp criticism from many environmentalists. "Environmental advocates and sympathetic scientists have set back efforts to address global warming."
And yet climate scientists cannot be expected to debate with a skeptical monolith. While the largely conservative doubters of man-made climate change are a small minority, they remain immovable. What scientists view as healthy debate, critics tend to see as evidence that the scientific case is still open and the American public, large portions of which are all but scientifically illiterate, are not equipped to make the distinction.
Despite the e-mail controversy, however, momentum on climate-change action is still building. Environmentalists are feeling increasingly hopeful that the Copenhagen summit could produce concrete action on emissions cuts, with U.S. President Barack Obama changing his schedule to arrive on the final day of negotiations. "The clock has ticked down to zero," said the U.N.'s climate chief Yvo de Boer on the first day of the talks. "After two years of negotiation, the time has come to deliver." There's nothing invented about that urgency.