Bickering and defensive, climate researchers have lost the public’s trust. Blame economic worries, another freezing winter, or the cascade of scandals emerging from the world’s leading climate-research body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But concern over global warming has cooled down dramatically.
In über-green Germany, only 42 percent of citizens worry about global warming now, down from 62 percent in 2006. In Britain, just 26 percent believe climate change is man-made, down from 41 percent as recently as November 2009. And Americans rank global warming dead last in a list of 21 problems that concern them, according to a January Pew poll.
The shift has left many once celebrated climate researchers feeling like the used-car salesmen of the science world. In Britain, one leading scientist told an interviewer he is taking anti-anxiety pills and considered suicide following the leak of thousands of IPCC-related e-mails and documents suggesting that researchers cherry-picked data and suppressed rival studies to play up global warming. In the U.S., another researcher is under investigation for allegedly using exaggerated climate data to obtain public funds. In an open letter published in the May issue of Science magazine, 255 American climate researchers decry “political assaults” on their work by “deniers” and followers of “dogma” and “special interests.”
This is no dispute between objective scientists and crazed flat-earthers. The lines cut through the profession itself. Very few scientists dispute a link between man-made CO2 and global warming. Where it gets fuzzy is the extent and time frame of the effect. One crucial point of contention is climate “sensitivity”—the mathematical formula that translates changes in CO2 production to changes in temperature. In addition, scientists are not sure how to explain a slowdown in the rise of global temperatures that began about a decade ago.
The backlash against climate science is also about the way in which leading scientists allied themselves with politicians and activists to promote their cause. Some of the IPCC’s most-quoted data and recommendations were taken straight out of unchecked activist brochures, newspaper articles, and corporate reports—including claims of plummeting crop yields in Africa and the rising costs of warming-related natural disasters, both of which have been refuted by academic studies.
Just as damaging, many climate scientists have responded to critiques by questioning the integrity of their critics, rather than by supplying data and reasoned arguments. When other researchers aired doubt about the IPCC’s prediction that Himalayan glaciers will melt by 2035, the IPCC’s powerful chief, Rajendra Pachauri, trashed their work as “voodoo science.” Even today, after dozens of IPCC exaggerations have surfaced, leading climate officials like U.N. Environment Program chief Achim Steiner and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research head Joachim Schellnhuber continue to tar-brush critics as “anti-Enlightenment” and engaging in “witch hunts.”
None of this means we should burn fossil fuels with abandon. There are excellent reasons to limit emissions and switch to cleaner fuels—including an estimated 750,000 annual pollution deaths in China, the potential to create jobs at home instead of enriching nasty regimes sitting on oil wells, the need to provide cheap sources of power to the world’s poorest regions, and the still-probable threat that global warming is underway. At the moment, however, certainty about how fast—and how much—global warming changes the earth’s climate does not appear to be one of those reasons.