Climate change debate grows heated


Less than a month after CNN proclaimed “Last Decade Was Warmest Ever,” a headline in Britain’s Daily Mail shouted that a top climate scientist had taken a “U-turn” and now “Admits: There Has Been No Global Warming Since 1995.”

Pity the poor reader, whipsawed in recent weeks by what appear to be conflicting signals on one of the most complex and momentous subjects of our time.

Leading scientists reported their consensus that the Earth continues to warm. Then their own error forced them to admit that a key world report exaggerated the retreat of glaciers in the Himalayas.

No wonder polls show that a growing minority of the public -- flummoxed by contradiction and disinformation -- has come to doubt the scientific consensus that temperatures are on the rise and human activity is likely the principal cause.

The public debate has been redirected, not by new information but by an emboldened political opposition, aided by ideological news outlets and abetted by mainstream journalists reaching for a faux kind of “balance” in their reporting.

Once, we had a global warming discussion dominated by sober if fractious voices from within the halls of academe. Now, we’ve got a snowball fight, where anyone with an opinion and a URL is hurling high, hard ones across the raucous public square.

Climate change naysayers have been making their case for many years. But the fighting took on a new, bare-knuckle quality last November, when an unknown hacker published more than 1,000 e-mails to and from a key research center, at Britain’s University of East Anglia.

Some interested parties (one was -- surprise! -- a climate negotiator for petroleum-centric Saudi Arabia) and many conservative media outlets seized on the memos as proof that climate science was deeply flawed if not an outright fraud.

The truth turns out to be considerably less alarming. The e-mails pulled back the curtain on scientists (their work and reputations under vituperative attack) who could be rude, petty and so dismissive of naysayers they even discussed excluding a couple of dissenting papers from a critical U.N.-backed summary.

Some in the blogosphere and even the mainstream media insisted the e-mails effectively discredited decades of science pointing to man-influenced temperature increases. Those accounts relied on brute assertion and eschewed context -- like the fact that the embattled mainstream scientists ultimately did the right thing and acknowledged their opponents’ dissent.

Less ideological news outlets -- notably Associated Press and the nonprofit -- found bad behavior but not bad science.

The AP described “disturbing” actions such as “an effort to avoid sharing scientific data with critics.” But the news agency concluded that the backbiting did not undercut “the vast body of evidence showing the world is warming because of man-made greenhouse gas emissions.”

Not that those sober reviews remotely slowed the super-charged engines of warming denialists. A close reading of their objections reveal they are most disturbed not by science but its policy implications: More government regulation, carbon limits and taxes could be on the way.

The furor appeared to have calmed a bit, until the scientist at the center of the “Climategate” memos, Phil Jones, gave his first interview. The way some news outlets (notably the anti-climate science Daily Mail of London) cherry-picked and repackaged Jones’ February talk with the BBC would be laughable if the result hadn’t been so misleading.

A fair reading of the Q&A reveals a scientist willing to admit shortcomings and to speak with caution and precision so as not to overstate, or understate, the evidence.

From those earnest words, the Mail conjured the portrait of a stumblebum, seemingly forced to admit that the warming trend has stopped in its tracks. That vast oversimplification (Jones acknowledges that from 1995 to the present temperature increases fell just short of statistical significance) nonetheless became the basis for a misleading headline. That, in turn, fueled a new round of denunciations, from cable TV, to the blogosphere to columnist George Will.

San Diego television station KUSI recently trotted out a global warming documentary rife with old canards. One purports that increasing carbon dioxide really amounts not to a threat but to a sort of 21st century Miracle-Gro, building block for a greener, more fertile, planet Earth. That humdinger had been exposed in the 1990s as part of a coal industry strategy defending CO2-belching power plants.

But it’s not just ideologues who’ve twisted the story. It’s mainstream journalists too, especially those who have bent over to follow one professional admonition -- airing opposing viewpoints without adhering to another: putting the opposition in context.

Journalists had a duty, for example, to point out the new revelation that a U.N.-backed report included an egregiously unsubstantiated claim -- that glaciers in the Himalayas would melt away by 2035.

But too many accounts suggested that the exaggeration discredited the entire report, which included thousands of findings. In reality, the flaws, as Stanford University climate scientist Stephen Schneider said, “don’t eliminate the 99% of conclusions that stand.”

Science ultimately can only be a never-ending series of approximations toward the truth. A colleague reminds me, for instance, that the researchers who first theorized a hole in the ozone layer were once ostracized for beliefs that strayed from the mainstream.

So the naysayers should be given their say, but against the backdrop of a broad consensus that has not yet changed. Our understanding of climate does not hang by the thread of temperatures over a few years but is woven from a far thicker fabric of data that reveal not only decades of temperature increases but retreating ice fields, rising ocean levels and higher overall humidity, to name a few.

The snow hitting the East this winter has dominated the news, but the blizzards can’t blind us to the other storm -- of information that suggests the Earth’s temperatures are going in the opposite direction.

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