The Costs of a Climate of Fear

By Halpern, Michael | Academe, November/December 2010 | Go to article overview

The Costs of a Climate of Fear

Halpern, Michael, Academe

When scientists are attacked professionally and personally, independent science and the public suffer.

Ben Santer answered his doorbell one evening to find a dead rat on his doorstep. He looked up and saw a man driving away, shouting obscenities out the car window. It would be one thing if this were an isolated incident. But Santer had been harassed before. A groundbreaking climate scientist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he was a lead author of the 1995 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which for the first time attributed global warming to human activity. Santer's research had earned him high esteem from scientists and contempt from those who did not accept his conclusions.

The funders of climate-change skepticism are engaged in a full-throttle effort to sow seeds of doubt among the public and policy makers, much as tobacco companies did decades ago. Without science on their side, these groups seek to manufacture controversy by attacking scientists conducting important research.

Muddying the Waters

Santer-and dozens of other climate scientists-have received threatening letters and e-mails for years. Their names have been dragged through the mud in congressional hearings, on newspaper editorial pages, on talk-radio shows, and in their home communities by those seeking to distract and mislead the public.

Despite the continued harassment, however, scientists were still winning in the court of public opinion. The majority of the public understood that the overwhelming body of evidence supports the theory that the earth is warming and that humans are contributing significantly to the warming. Scientists and the organizations that represent them had made significant headway in helping the public and policy makers better understand what is happening and what can be done to mitigate and adapt to changes in the earth's climate.

Then came November 2009. Computer hackers broke into servers at England's University of East Anglia and downloaded thousands of messages sent among scientists who study climate change. Shortly before critical international climate-change negotiations were set to begin in Copenhagen, the e-mail correspondence was released, and climate-change deniers pounced like hungry wolves. "The Evidence of Climate Fraud," read one headline. "Climategate: The Final Nail in the Coffin of 'Anthropogenic Global Warming'?" read another. The conservative blogosphere went into a frenzy, and soon the story spread to the mainstream media, focused on one central question: had scientists conspired to exaggerate the threat or causes of global climate change?

Groups seeking to confuse the debate combed through thousands of the scientists' personal e-mail messages. And what did they find? Scientists expressing frustration to each other about how their work was being hampered by a constant barrage of requests for data; discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of various statistical techniques; and private jokes about what the scientists would like to do to climate-change skeptics. In other words, they found scientists expressing human emotions and exploring ideas.

Lost in the shuffle, of course, was the fact that nothing in the stolen e-mail messages undermined the scientific consensus on climate change. Yet the so-called scandal, and the confusion it caused, muddied the waters around the critical 2009 Copenhagen conference. For opponents of climate change, it was mission accomplished, at least until the scientific community could regroup. Scientists are not political operatives or paid pundits. They are unprepared for the down-and-dirty world of the blogosphere, where standards of evidence and accountability are low. The twenty-four-hour news environment, and the necessity of responding immediately, succinctly, and with complete conviction, disadvantages scientists, who are trained to resist statements of utter certainty. It's just not a fair fight. …

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