Hot and Bothered

Posted Dec. 08, 2009, at 5:43 p.m.

For all the hubbub over “climategate,” the incident, in which more than 1,000 e-mails were taken from an English climate change research center, mostly just cemented current positions. Those who believe climate change is not happening, or not caused by humans, said the e-mails show that the idea of a warming planet is a hoax. Those convinced that human activity is causing the climate to change say the incident has been completely overblown.

The truth falls somewhere in between, but the real losers are the planet’s residents, especially those in developing countries who are the least likely to know much about this debate, but the most likely to be affected by climatic changes.

Some of the e-mails, hacked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, show scientists acting less than professionally in some instances. But, generally, they show scientists questioning one another and their research. This is how science is supposed to work: A researcher posits a theory, which is tested and picked apart by colleagues. This process either confirms and strengthens the theory or proves it wrong, which sends scientists back to the drawing board.

The hacked e-mails show scientists wrongly threatening to punch critics and demeaning “the ignorant masses.” Such behavior is deplorable but doesn’t mean the research at the heart of “climategate” is wrong.

More than anything, the e-mails show scientists routinely pushing back against unfounded criticism of their work. It is this, likely, that pushed them to go overboard in trying to strengthen the case for climate change. Doing so was clearly wrong, but when every variation in data is cited by critics as proof that climate change is a hoax, there is a temptation to make trends seem stronger than they are.

As thousands of delegates are gathered in Copenhagen, their work to build an international consensus on ways to deal with rising sea levels, spreading drought, severe weather and other consequences of climate change will likely be sidetracked by the e-mails furor. Rather than focusing on agreements to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, time will be taken to rebuild the case for why such reductions are necessary.

This shouldn’t be the case. Thousands of scientists across the globe are tracking aspects of our changing planet, from ocean temperatures and the thickness of sea ice to changes in permafrost and air temperatures. Data from these multiple sources show that, in general, the earth is warming. Obviously, there will be times of cooling, but the overall trend is upward and at an unprecedented rate.

It would take a great leap of faith — and logic — to assume that humans can spew billions of tons of pollution into the atmosphere without affecting the earth’s climate. Perpetuating this implausible view is the real “climategate.”

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