As Copenhagen summit nears, 'Climategate' dogs global warming debate

Climate experts insist leaked e-mails don’t undercut the science showing a warming planet. But public concern about global climate change is waning as delegates prepare to craft an international agreement at Copenhagen.

By , Staff writer

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    Smokes billow from a chimney of a chemical plant in China. With only ten days until the Copenhagen climate summit, world leaders are struggling to put together a deal.
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As major Western powers rush to break a deadlock over a new global emissions treaty ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit in 10 days, world leaders face another problem: Waning public concern over man-made global warming.

The leak of embarrassing, and in some cases troubling, emails from a major global climate center, East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit (CRU), has given fuel to skeptics of human-caused global warming, putting even more pressure on leaders to get a deal (or at least the beginnings of one) in Copenhagen.

Among the ideas floated to break a deadlock: A satellite system by which nations could be monitored for their carbon dioxide emissions. Also, a $10 billion global climate fund that would subsidize efforts by poorer nations to cut carbon emissions.

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On the global stage, wealthier nations like the US are loathe to damage their own economies with emissions caps while developing nations, which tend to be among the most polluting, won’t face the same curbs.

Developing countries, meanwhile, complain they don’t have the resources to implement carbon-emission cuts nor prepare for the effects of global warming, such as sea-level rise and drought.

Reduced expectations for Copenhagen

Expectations for a deal at Copenhagen have been scaled back dramatically, though British prime minister Gordon Brown said a treaty could be forthcoming within months.

Mr. Brown’s so-called “Launch Fund” would allow the globe to “get moving on climate change as quickly as possible,” he said. “Together the collective power of the Commonwealth must be brought together to tackle a new historic injustice, that of climate change.”

But even as UN climate scientists issued a report Tuesday about accelerating warming ahead of the Danish summit, the science behind sometimes apocalyptic alarms is suddenly being broadly questioned.

The Nov. 20 release of over 1,000 emails between climate scientists via an apparent hacking attack is raising questions about mentions of “tricks” by scientists to buttress the warming theory.

To be sure, the emails don’t appear to be a smoking gun that disproves global warming, or even man's role in that warming. But they do throw new doubts on the integrity of scientists who control historic climate data, the debate and, climate change policy, critics say.

One oft-cited example: While climate scientists say skeptics shouldn’t be believed because their data isn’t published in peer-reviewed journals, some of the revealed emails show climate scientists actively lobbying to have skeptics denied publication, even threatening to boycott some publications if they don’t keep skeptical studies out.

And while many scientists disregard the lack of warming since 1998 as a predictable blip in the general trend, one scientist noted in a leaked email: "The fact is we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it's a travesty that we can't."

Skeptical lawmakers dig into 'Climategate'
The “Climategate” documents spurred Sen. James Inhofe (R) of Oklahoma, a vocal skeptic, and other congressional Republicans to begin a probe into the findings of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and whether contradictory data was suppressed in the research. Reports from the UN agency are the primary basis for US policy direction on climate change, including new Environmental Protection Agency rules and proposed legislation to curb carbon dioxide emissions in the US.

“The furor over these documents is not about tone, colloquialisms or whether climatologists are nice people,” writes the business-friendly Wall Street Journal. “The real issue is what the messages say about the way the much-ballyhooed scientific consensus on global warming was arrived at, and how a single view of warming and its causes is being enforced. The impression left … is that the climate-tracking game has been rigged from the start.

The chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, stood by his panel's 2007 findings last week. That study is the foundation for a global climate response, including carbon emission targets proposed this week by both the US and China.

So far, climate scientists say nothing in the leaked emails takes away from the fact that the climate change evidence is solid. In fact, a new study in the journal Science shows the polar ice cap melting is happening at a faster rate than predicted just a few years ago.

In a teleconference call with reporters this week, one of the scientists whose emails were leaked, Pennsylvania State University paleoclimatologist Michael Mann, said that “regardless of how cherry-picked" the emails are, there is "absolutely nothing in any of the emails that calls into the question the deep level of consensus of climate change."

Leaked e-mails part of a 'smear campaign'

This is a "smear campaign to distract the public," added Mann, a coauthor of the Copenhagen Diagnosis, the report on climate change released this week ahead of the Copenhagen. "Those opposed to climate action, simply don't have the science on their side," he added.

Professor Trevor Davies of the East Anglia CRU called the stolen data the latest example of a campaign intended "to distract from reasoned debate" about global climate change ahead of the Copenhagen summit.

But the problem for scientists and policy-makers isn’t as much as what the emails actually reveal -- though some of it is certainly vexing -- but how it will play in Peoria or Copenhagen.

Recent studies show that, while many Americans worry about global warming, their concerns are receding.

Researchers, including Mann, say the blame lies with skeptics trying to undermine hard science about the plight of the globe and mankind. They've turned "something innocent into something nefarious," Mann said last week.

But even some climate scientists at East Anglia, the CRU that got hacked, worry that tribal and political attitudes among scientists may undermine public support for climate change legislation. Citing momentum, however, UN chief Ban Ki-moon told a summit in Trinidad and Tobago Friday that “success in Copenhagen is in sight.”

The New York Times quoted East Anglia climate scientist Mike Hulme saying the leaks hint that “some areas of climate science has become sclerotic … too partisan, too centralized.”

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