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ENVIRONMENT: Violent Backlash Against Climate Scientists

Stephen Leahy* - Tierramérica

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Mar 9 2010 (IPS) - Climate change science has come under full-scale attack in a last-ditch effort to delay or prevent action by the U.S. government against global warming, experts warn.

Orizaba Peak, in Mexico. Glacier melt is among the clearest evidence of climate change. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

Orizaba Peak, in Mexico. Glacier melt is among the clearest evidence of climate change. Credit: Mauricio Ramos/IPS

U.S. Senator James Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma and climate change denier, in late February released a list of leading climate scientists he wants prosecuted as criminals for misleading the government. Those scientists are receiving hate mail and death threats.

“I have hundreds” of threatening emails, Stephen Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University in California, told Tierramérica.

He believes scientists will be killed over this. “I’m not going to let it worry me… but you know it’s going to happen,” said Schneider, one of the most respected climate scientists in the world. “They shoot abortion doctors here.”

This backlash against the evidence of climate change and the scientists themselves is not just a U.S. phenomenon. It is happening in Canada, Australia, Britain, and, to a lesser extent, in other European countries.

On the surface, this campaign is about a few errors in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2,800-page report released in 2007 and some 10-year-old personal emails stolen from Britain’s University of East Anglia.

But deeper down, this is the last big effort by the fossil fuel industry to delay action on fighting climate change, just as the tobacco industry successfully delayed understanding of the harmful effects of smoking for several decades, says Schneider.

“We’re up against the multi-billion-dollar fossil fuel industry and the haters of government. They spin and spin and cast doubt on the credibility of science,” he said.

The media are an accomplice in this, he said, because they have failed to put wild claims into context and continue to interview people like Inhofe and others who have no evidence or credibility on these issues.

“I’m pretty damn angry that media companies are putting profits ahead of truth. The media are deeply broken… That’s a real threat to democracy,” Schneider said.

There is no solid scientific dispute over the simple physics that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-effect gases warm the earth’s atmosphere, and that emissions of these gases from human activities are largely responsible for the increased temperatures over recent decades.

There is also little debate over the observable reality that the Arctic ice is disappearing, glaciers are retreating, weather extremes are more frequent, and spring comes sooner.

At the end of 2009, documents obtained by Internet hackers from the archives of the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia were released, and presumably revealed the manipulation of data in order to present climate change as a phenomenon caused by human activity.

The event caused a stir, and the researchers who were at the centre of the controversy said their email accounts had been subject to cyber attacks and that their contents had been presented out of context.

The IPCC, which in 2007 won the Nobel Peace prize alongside former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore, did make some mistakes. Critics seized on an acknowledged error buried deep in one of the IPCC reports that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035 or earlier.

This assertion was not based on evidence and was “an egregious error,” said Schneider. The ensuing frenzy to find other errors in the IPCC’s 4th Assessment Report turned up three trivial errors that in no way affect the report’s findings.

However, IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri announced on Feb. 27 that the nations party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) agreed to set up an independent review.

“Meanwhile, we stand firmly behind the rigour and robustness of the 4th Assessment Report’s conclusions,” Pachauri said in a statement.

“The Report’s key conclusions are based on an overwhelming body of evidence from thousands of peer-reviewed and independent scientific studies,” he said.

Andrew Weaver, a climatologist at Canada’s University of British Columbia and a lead author of the IPCC reports, said, “I think the review is a careful and measured response in light of all the rubbish out there.”

The IPCC review will likely be conducted by the world’s most senior scientists, appointed by the national academies of science in various countries. It will take many months to put a review panel together and conduct the review, Weaver told Tierramérica. “I don’t know what more could be done to improve the process. It is incredibly rigorous,” he said.

Few in the public, including those criticising the IPCC, have little idea how the organisation works. Based in Geneva, the IPCC was established in 1988 to “assess scientific, technical and socioeconomic information relevant for the understanding of climate change.”

It has a decentralised structure, with few staff, and virtually all work is carried out by thousands of independent scientists and other experts from around the globe who volunteer their time and services.

Every four to five years, thousands of the peer-reviewed reports and studies on climate are collected, assessed, and synthesised so policy makers can understand the current state of climate science.

Governments that are part of the UNFCCC vote to accept each Assessment Report. Only if all countries agree are the findings and conclusions of the IPCC accepted. This process itself means the IPCC is slow-moving, cautious and conservative.

Until recently, nearly all criticism of the IPCC had been about its under-estimations of the risks of climate change and inability to keep up with the latest science.

But some powerful U.S. corporate lobbyists have been relentless in their attacks on the IPCC for at least 10 years. Oil industry giant Exxon has long funded such groups and even lobbied the George W. Bush administration (2001-2009) to push out the former head of the IPCC, World Bank climatologist Robert Watson.

The Bush administration complied and replaced Watson with economist Rajendra Pachauri – the man that the same lobbyist groups want to resign now.

“We’re in a bizarre time, powered by greed and fear. The general public is more confused than ever,” said Weaver. “And good scientists are saying to themselves, ‘Why would I want to participate in the IPCC?”

(*This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme and the World Bank.)

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  • Thomas Jefferson

    Does it not seem odd to anyone that one of the primary editors of the 1995 Madrid Summary for Policy Makers on Climate Change, one Robert Watson, is also a member of the World Bank?