Will clash of science and politics undermine Copenhagen summit?

Climategate emails could have huge impact on summit, says Saudi Arabia’s lead climate negotiator. Others say the controversial leaked emails provide an opportunity to educate the public about climate science.

Bob Strong/Reuters
Visitors look at an art installation representing the planet in downtown Copenhagen, Denmark, which hosts the United Nations' climate change conference next week.

The underlying question behind a growing number of probes into the so-called climategate emails is simple, but vexing: Did politics -- especially a quest to eliminate uncertainty from findings that indicate man’s role in global warming -- creep into the scientific method?

And if so, what does it mean for the Copenhagen Summit that begins this coming week, where nations hope to hammer out a deal to control greenhouse gas emissions in a way that won’t pick economic winners or losers?

“While the ultimate political impact of the climate-gate scandal remains to be seen, it raises serious and disturbing questions on the validity of the science used to measure climate change,” Rep. John Sullivan (R) of Oklahoma tells the Hill newspaper.
The leaked (or hacked, it’s still not clear) emails -- which most seriously hint at attempts to keep adverse views out of the public eye -- have sparked a number of investigations.

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, who heads the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, called questions brought up by the emails “a serious issue” that the UN will “look into in detail.”

Phil Jones, the head of East Anglia University’s Climatic Research Unit where the emails originated, has stepped down temporarily as the university looks into whether the key science produced by the center to bolster influential UN reports was compromised. Pennsylvania State University has also begun an inquiry into whether paleoclimatologist Michael Mann, a co-author of last month’s Copenhagen Diagnosis document that upheld major climate change tenets, made any scientific missteps in his research.

White House still sees serious climate threat

The White House and Congress have balked at investigating the issue. White House science adviser John Holdren says the revelations have not swayed the administration belief that global warming is a serious threat that needs policy prescription, including a cap-and-trade bill that would reduce US carbon emissions by up to 20 percent by 2020.

There appears to be no so-called smoking gun in the emails that disproves the theory of human-influenced climate change.

“There is so much information that tells us the planet has been warming,” Gavin Schmidt, a climate modeler at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said during a teleconference call with reporters Friday. “No independent study is going to come up with anything other than what we’ve already concluded.”

But allegations that influential climate scientists worried about the political implications of their studies -- one email called the lack of warming in the last decade “a travesty” -- is disconcerting to many in the scientific community, especially since it now throws doubt on key findings.

Political pressure to reduce uncertainty

Politicians say, “ ‘We need to reduce the uncertainty,’ and I think that’s contributed to a certain mind-set where [climate scientists] try to reduce the uncertainty” when they talk about their research, Judith Curry, chair of the school of Earth and atmospheric sciences at Georgia Tech, told the Washington Post. “I’m a little bit worried about that political pressure.”

But if scientists faced political pressure to produce results that would support the global warming theory, what will happen now as the debate is cresting on the eve of the Copenhagen summit?

“Those opposing action will throw everything including the kitchen sink into the debate,” Princeton University atmospheric scientist Michael Oppenheimer told Scientific American. “Do I think it will have a significant effect on the judgment of lawmakers or public opinion? No, I don’t, but you never know with these things.”

With public support for the global warming theory waning (though a majority of Americans still believe action is needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions), the controversial emails are providing fodder for skeptics who want to undermine a deal in Copenhagen.

What impact on Copenhagen?

Mohammad Al-Sabban, Saudi Arabia’s top climate negotiator, told the BBC that climategate will have a “huge impact” on the summit, pointing out that his government -- which has a strong interest in the future of fossil fuels -- will only accept “no-cost” proposals since “it appears … that there is no relationship between human activities and climate change.”

But Joseph Romm of the Energy Collective tells the BBC that since the dustup is being “lapped up mostly by people who never understood or believed the science to begin with [it’s a good chance for the] too reticent, too-insular scientific community to explain climate science to the broader public.”

The Financial Times says the infamous emails, in fact, strengthen the case for action against global warming, but also sees it as a warning to scientists to refrain from trying to sway the political debate.

“Although the dividing line between research and campaigning can be hard to distinguish, scientists must try to respect it,” the FT editorializes. “Their value rests above all in the ability to provide evidence as objectively as possible. Politicians, businesses, and environmental groups can then pick up the scientific evidence and base policies on it.”

See also:

'Climategate': leaked emails push scientists toward transparency

Storm continues to swirl around Climategate, as multiple investigations get under way

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