Proffesor Michael Mann says there shouldn’t be any doubt about the validity of climate change research.

This is a direct result of “climate gate”. It leaves an unsure public less sure about a real thing.
By Brian Winter in USA Today

Violent threats are not what bother Michael Mann the most. He’s used to them.

Instead, it’s the fact that his life’s work — the effort to stop global warming — has been under siege since last fall. That’s when Mann suddenly found himself in the middle of the so-called “climategate” scandal, in which more than 1,000 e-mails among top climate scientists — including Mann — were obtained illegally by hackers and published on the Internet.

The e-mails showed some of the scientists sharing doubts about just how fast the Earth’s temperature is rising, questioning the work of other researchers and refusing to share data with the public. Critics, including Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., have seized on the e-mails as proof that Mann and his colleagues deliberately exaggerated the scientific case behind global warming.

In a rare extended interview, Mann acknowledges “minor” errors but says he has been bewildered by the criticism — including a deluge of correspondence sent to his Pennsylvania State University office that, he says, occasionally has turned ugly.

“I’ve developed a thick skin,” Mann says. “Frankly, I’m more worried that these people are succeeding in creating doubt in the minds of the public, when there really shouldn’t be any.”

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Indeed, the controversy has contributed to a fundamental shift in efforts to stop global warming, forcing environmentalists to scale down long-held ambitions and try to win back an increasingly skeptical American public. Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think tank, says recent events may be causing “the death of the global warming movement as we know it.”

Others don’t go quite that far, but there have been setbacks:

• Citing doubts raised by the “climategate” e-mails, state governments in Texas, Virginia and Alabama filed legal challenges last month to stop the federal government from regulating carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. The challenges could force the Obama administration to modify or abandon its plans to regulate carbon emissions from factories and vehicles.

• Senate Democrats including John Kerry of Massachusetts have set aside House legislation that would limit greenhouse gas emissions from factories and other businesses nationwide. They are pursuing a new bill that may instead focus on utility companies, Kerry says.

• After more than a decade of fruitless efforts to negotiate a binding global treaty to cut greenhouse gas emissions, culminating in last December’s summit in Copenhagen, the USA may now pursue a more narrow strategy, State Department climate change envoy Todd Stern said last month. He said future talks might be limited to a smaller group of major polluters such as the USA and China — and leave out small countries that blocked a deal at Copenhagen, such as Sudan.

• The United Nations announced Wednesday that it would bring in an outside panel of scientists to help review an occasional study put together by a U.N. body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The study was regarded as the gold standard of climate science until several errors came to light this year.

It has been a dramatic reversal of fortune for a movement that, just a few years ago, thought it was “invincible,” says Leighton Steward, a geologist and global warming skeptic. “We’ve all been kind of giggling as we watch this thing fall apart,” he says.

An inconvenient error

In Mann’s office at Penn State, the most prominently displayed object is a framed certificate from the IPCC thanking him for his contribution to the Nobel Peace Prize, which the body shared with former vice president Al Gore in 2007.

Mann’s research, which used tree rings, coral and other historical indicators to estimate how temperatures have risen in recent centuries, has been used by the IPCC in its reports.

Mann’s work also was featured in Gore’s 2006 book, An Inconvenient Truth, which accompanied the documentary film of the same name.

In retrospect, Mann says the movie contributed to a “premature elation” among some scientists that they had won the battle for public opinion on global warming. He also says his colleagues and policymakers were too eager to present certain scientific conclusions as “settled” — particularly with regard to possible consequences from climate change, which he says need further study.

In the most notorious error, the IPCC report said global warming could cause glaciers in the Himalayas to melt by 2035. The purportedly impending disaster was cited repeatedly by environmental groups and politicians at the Copenhagen summit — including Bangladesh’s environment minister, Hassan Mamud — as a reason to take urgent action.

About a month after the summit concluded, the IPCC admitted the date was incorrect. It said the information was improperly taken from a report by an outside environmental group, the World Wildlife Fund, and not subjected to usual standards of vigorous scrutiny by other scientists.

Despite the mistakes, Mann says the core argument — that the Earth is warming, humans are at least partly responsible, and disaster may wait unless action is taken — remains intact.

“I look at it like this: Let’s say that you’re in your car, you open up the owner’s manual, and you discover a typo on page 225. Does that mean you stop driving the car? Of course not. Those are the kind of errors we’re talking about here,” Mann says. “Nothing has fundamentally changed.”

Growing public skepticism

On that point, the Obama administration agrees with him. So do most governments around the world.

Carol Browner, the White House’s director on climate and energy policy, says there are “thousands and thousands” of scientists whose work provides evidence of global warming. She told USA TODAY that, based on her frequent visits to Capitol Hill, recent questions over science have not changed a single vote in Congress on climate change legislation.

“It’s easy to misuse these isolated reports of problems to suggest that the science behind global warming is somehow wrong,” Browner says.

However, even the White House has tried to respond to rising public doubts. During his State of the Union Address in January, Obama called for Congress to support climate change legislation for job-creation purposes “even if you doubt the evidence.”

Several polls indicate that the setbacks have contributed to a growing skepticism of climate science in the USA. In a national poll of 1,000 likely voters released last month by Rasmussen Reports, just 35% of respondents said they believed human activity was primarily responsible for global warming, down from 47% in April 2008.

Mead says the backlash has been especially strong because many politicians in the USA and elsewhere had said the content of the IPCC report was “unequivocal” and used it to support legislation that could dramatically alter the way the world produces and consumes energy.

“The fundamental problem is that these scientists are asking people to change the way the entire world’s economy works based on what they’re telling us. If you’re going to do that, you had better come to the table with a certain amount of competence,” Mead says.

Tim Wirth, a former U.S. senator who is now president of the United Nations Foundation, defends the IPCC, stating it has an annual budget of “only” about $3 million and relies almost entirely on volunteers to produce and fact-check its content.

Wirth says the organization would be aided by adding more scientists to its full-time staff. Yet he also criticizes what he called “K Street (Washington) PR firms … who are hired to examine every (detail) of the IPCC report and find problems and then get them out into the public domain.”

“It’s not a fair fight,” Wirth says. “The IPCC is just a tiny secretariat next to this giant denier machine.”

Mann says the controversy will probably result in “closer scrutiny of what scientists do. As long as that’s done in good faith, that’s a positive.”

Dispute among scientists

Others say the long-term damage to the movement will be more substantial.

Inhofe says public opinion is shifting so dramatically that even the scaled-down climate legislation proposed by Kerry and others will not pass Congress.

“People are waking up to how all these scandals have shot holes through the global warming propaganda,” says Inhofe, one of Congress’ most vocal critics of climate change science.

Inhofe’s Senate website lists more than 700 scientists who disagree with the IPCC report. Many of them agree that the Earth is warming but argue that other factors, such as solar flares or ocean temperatures, play a bigger role than human activity.

Browner and Obama have said the EPA may try to regulate carbon emissions if legislation fails. Yet Inhofe says energy companies and others may use the scientific controversies as a basis for legal action to try to stop such efforts.

Meanwhile, the stalemate has allowed countries such as China to race ahead of the USA in clean technology and other “green” sectors, says Stern, the State Department envoy.

“They’ve passed us,” Stern says. He notes that more than 100 nations have signed the non-binding deal to cut emissions that came out of Copenhagen, signaling intent to take the threat from global warming seriously.

Browner says the White House will keep trying to marshal support for climate legislation because of its importance to job creation and national security. She says Obama’s recent decision to provide more than $8 billion in federal loan guarantees for nuclear power plants was aimed partly at winning over moderate legislators in Congress.

Asked about politics, Mann shrugs.

He says he has been exasperated by the way some politicians, including Inhofe, have portrayed this winter’s snowstorms on the East Coast as undermining the case for global warming, while largely ignoring a recent announcement from NASA that the previous decade was the warmest on record.

Citing climate data, Mann says “there’s a better than 50-50 chance” that 2010 will be the hottest year ever. That, more than any political statement, could refocus the debate, he says.

“If we don’t act on this, it’s not a failure of science,” Mann says. “It’s our failure as a civilization to deal with the problem.”


“Climategate,” which erupted last fall when hackers obtained more than 1,000 e-mails from a British university, continues to have repercussions for policymakers and scientists such as Michael Mann.

The e-mails show that Phil Jones, then-director of the influential climate unit at England’s East Anglia University, refused to share his global temperature data, a key component of scientific evidence that the Earth is warming.

In another message, Jones asked Mann to delete potentially sensitive e-mails to prevent them from being published by global warming skeptics who had filed a request for such messages under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act. Another e-mail referred to a “trick” Mann used to process temperature data.

Climate change skeptics including Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., alleged the e-mails showed scientists conspiring to manipulate temperature data and suppress opposing views from other scientists.

Jones admitted writing “awful” e-mails. He left his post pending an internal probe and was questioned last month by British parliamentarians seeking to assess the damage done to climate science.

Mann says the “trick” mentioned by Jones refers to a widely accepted method of displaying data. Mann has distanced himself from some of Jones’ other comments and says he did not heed the request to delete e-mails.

An internal probe by Penn State cleared Mann last month of allegations that he withheld data or tried to suppress opposing views. The university says a separate probe will convene in coming weeks to determine whether Mann’s actions undermined faith in the science of climate change.

Inhofe seeks a congressional investigation of the episode.


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