The Sciences

How the Global Warming Story Changed, Disastrously, Due to "ClimateGate"

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyDec 9, 2009 5:57 PM

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I've contributed another post to the Science Progress blog; it's about how climate skeptics and deniers have been winning the PR battle the past two years, with science defenders and advocates still far too disorganized and ineffective. Here's a sampling:

The new skeptic strategy began with a ploy that initially seemed so foolish, so petty, that it was unworthy of dignifying with a response. The contrarians seized upon the hottest year in the global temperature record, 1998—which happens to have been a powerful El Nino year, hence the record—and began to hammer the message that there had been “no warming in a decade” since then.

It was, in truth, little more than a damn lie with statistics. Those in the science community eventually pointed out that global warming doesn’t mean every successive year will be hotter than the last one—global temperatures be on the rise without a new record being set every year. All climate theory predicts is that we will see a warming trend, and we certainly have. Or as the U.S. EPA recently put it, “Eight of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2001.” But none of them beat 1998; and so the statistical liars, like George Will of the Washington Post, continued their charade.

The public was quite vulnerable to such messages: Americans don’t know climate science very well, and the notion that temperatures aren’t actually “rising” after all must have spurred many doubts. Indeed, I suspect the “no warming since 1998” line of attack helped contribute to an alarming finding released in October by the Pew Research Center: the proportion of Americans agreeing there is “solid evidence the earth is warming” had declined to 57 percent, from 71 percent a year and a half earlier. And those attributing warming to human activities—the robust scientific consensus view—had dwindled from 47 percent to 36 percent over the same time period.

This blow, however, was nothing compared to the “ClimateGate” saga of November, in which a bevy of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom were illegally obtained and exposed, thus generating a dramatic scandal over the climate scientists’ alleged attempts to silence skeptics and thwart freedom of information requests....“ClimateGate” generated a massive wave of media attention, blending together the skeptics’ longstanding focus on undercutting climate science with a new overwhelming message of scandal and wrongdoing on the part of the climate research establishment. This story was not going to go away, and even as scientists put out statements (most of them several days late) explaining that the science of climate remains unchanged and unaffected by whatever went on at East Anglia, the case for human-caused global warming was dealt a blow the likes of which we have perhaps never before seen.

You can read the full post here

. As you can see, I'm pretty down on what has happened, but I believe it also reinforces the message of Unscientific America--we have really got to realize what we are up against, and privilege communication in a truly new and radical way--or else we'll keep getting it handed to us.

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