A Turning Point in Attack on Climate Science

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On May 5, in an unusually aggressive response to what they saw as an academic witch hunt, the University of Virginia Faculty Senate condemned state Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s demand to turn over six years of documents related to the work of Michael Mann, a former UVa climate scientist.

Two days later, members of the National Academy of Sciences published a letter in the journal Science that focused on the “political assaults” directed at climate scientists. The letter, signed by 255 of the nation’s leading scientists, called for “an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecutions against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.”

Both actions are the latest and arguably the most influential steps yet mustered by academia and science to counter the global campaign to discredit climate research, a crusade that drew much of its energy this year by what looks like an unprosecuted crime: the theft and public release last November of thousands of email messages exchanged by scientists at the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in England, a top climate research group.

Change The Conversation
The UVa faculty and the National Academy members spoke out to specifically change the vector in the fierce competition between climate advocates and skeptics about the value of climate science. And though it is early, it looks as though the tactical strategy worked, in large part because the UVa Faculty Senate and NAS scientists struck at the very moment that the skeptics had overreached.

Though Brian Gottstein, director of communication for the attorney general’s office, told reporters that Mann’s involvement with East Anglia researchers indicated that “some climate data may have been deliberately manipulated to arrive at pre-set conclusions” and that “the use of manipulated data to apply for taxpayer-funded research grants in Virginia is potentially fraud,” almost every other observer understood that Cuccinelli’s investigative demand was starkly political and not all connected to checking scientific accuracy.

The Washington Post said the investigation involved a “dangerous disregard for scientific method and academic freedom.” The UVa Faculty Senate said the Virgina attorney general’s “action and the potential threat of legal prosecution of scientific endeavor that has … a chilling message to scientists engaged in basic research involving Earth’s climate and indeed to scholars in any discipline. Such actions directly threaten academic freedom and, thus, our ability to generate the knowledge upon which informed public policy relies.”

“Society has two choices,” wrote the National Academy members in their letter. “We can ignore the science and hide our heads in the sand and hope we are lucky, or we can act in the public interest to reduce the threat of global climate change quickly and substantively. The good news is that smart and effective actions are possible. But delay must not be an option.”

An Overreach
For years fossil fuel industry executives and their allies in state Legislatures, Congress, the media, and free market think tanks have waged a persistent campaign to discredit the global scientific consensus that the world was warming, that the causes were largely due to man-made emissions from burning fossil fuels, and that if the trend persisted the consequences to Earth’s environment and economy could be catastrophic. The organized skepticism delivered results. One was to prompt journalists to seek “other side” quotations when reporting on new physical evidence of climate change or new reports from climate scientists.

But last November, the release of the stolen cache of emails from East Anglia University was followed by a carefully and well-orchestrated global message campaign by critics of climate science that focused on the not always graceful way that scientists communicated. Skeptics cherry picked the messages to bolster their argument that neither the scientists nor the science could be trusted. And if that was so, they argued, why should the U.S. or any other nation fashion a new regulatory framework to reduce carbon emissions to solve a problem that might not exist at all?

The email messages also provided justification for climate science reporters from mainstream news organizations to probe and find a few inaccuracies in important climate science studies, among them the exhaustive United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 with former Vice President Al Gore.

The IPCC acknowledged the errors — the rate of melting of Himalayan glaciers, for example, was overestimated by a decade or two — but argued that the original consensus about the causes and consequences of climate change were scientifically sound. Still, skeptics had drawn blood and pursued their work by targeting specific scientists, among them Michael Mann, a former researcher at the University of Virginia who now works at Penn State University and had been in active contact with colleagues at East Anglia University.

Blizzard of FOIAs
Since the disclosure of the hacked emails Mann and a number of other climate scientists have spent much of their professional time responding to Freedom of Information Act requests for notes, other emails, and research conducted while they were in the employ of state-funded or federally-funded research centers.

Those who filed the FOIA requests asserted that they were intent on discovering the accuracy of climate research findings. Scientists and their supporters fired back that the FOIA process was an attempt by climate skeptics to discover other instances of candid communications between scientists that might prove embarrassing, as well as damaging to scientific credibility.

Meanwhile Pennsylvania State University, the British government, and other groups established independent scientific panels to study the conduct of scientists who wrote some of the email messages, and whether the credibility of climate science was eroded. In every case, including an evaluation by a panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences, the independent groups found that climate scientists conducted themselves and their work with high standards of scientific principals and ethics. Each concluded that the stolen East Anglia emails revealed interesting twists and turns in how scientists communicated, but the emails in no way compromised the validity of scientific research on the hazards of climate change, or its causes.

On February 3, 2010, for instance, a panel established by Penn State to investigate Mann’s conduct and research published its finding that Mann had acted properly in his role as a scientist and researcher. On April 12, an independent British scientific panel investigating research results and conduct at the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University found that “CRU did a public service of great value by carrying out much time-consuming meticulous work on temperature records at a time when it was unfashionable and attracted the interest of a rather small section of the scientific community. CRU has been among the leaders in international efforts to determining the overall uncertainty in the derived temperature records and where work is best focussed to improve them.”

In addition, studies by the Goddard Institute of Space Studies, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other government groups consistently concluded that global temperatures continue to rise, that the first decade of the 21st century was the warmest on record, and that physical evidence of the warming was appearing almost everywhere.

Virginia AG’s Agenda
Those conclusions, though, did not deter Virginia Attorney General Cuccinelli, who on April 27 filed a “civil investigative demand” under the Virginia Fraud Against Taxpayers Act requiring the University of Virginia to turn over documents related to Dr. Mann and his research from 1999-2005.

Such zealousness often marks the moment when an opposition movement built solely on ideology begins to crumble under the weight of real evidence of hazards and public opinion. An analogy is the property rights movement, which gained influence in state Legislatures and in Congress in the 1990s on the basis that government oversight of the environment was an intrusion in what conservatives asserted was their right to do with their own property what they deemed fit. The movement began to break down in the late 1990s when conservative governors and their anti-regulatory environmental agency chiefs ignored the law and failed to guard against environmental hazards, asserting their action could be seen as a “taking” of private property under the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution.

In Michigan, for instance, state oil and gas regulators declined to carefully oversee maintenance work at natural gas wells in populated areas because it would interfere, they said, with the property rights of well owners. The result was that 11 people in Manistee, Michigan were injured in 1996 by a deliberate release of dangerous hydrogen sulfide gas from a well in their neighborhood. The incident was a turning point that significantly diminished the influence of property rights advocates in local and state elections, and in state policy making.

Cuccinelli was elected Virginia’s attorney general on the basis of his ardent support of extreme conservative views. He has filed federal lawsuits over clean energy policies and the Democratic-authored health care reform law. He has written to Virginia’s public college presidents telling them not to enforce policies that protect the rights of gays.

His pursuit of the climate investigation may delight allies in Virginia’s Tea Party, but the responses by the UVa faculty and the members of the National Academy of Sciences could cause a backlash among less conservative voters who see the probe as an overreach by a powerful government officer. Cuccinelli’s demand for documents is a hunt, but not one that benefits science or that most citizens are likely to support.

– Keith Schneider

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