As the prominence of climate change grew and the evidence became stronger, attacks escalated. In 2009, just weeks before the Copenhagen climate summit, hackers broke into the servers of the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit in the U.K. and publicly posted hundreds of private e-mails from climate scientists involved with the IPCC's Fourth Assessment report. Deniers seized on these messages, taking a few barbed comments out of context (in one, for instance, Santer wrote that if he ran into Pat Michaels – a well-known shill for the fossilfuel industry – he would "be tempted to beat the crap out of him") and claimed they now had their smoking gun, proof of a global conspiracy among scientists to keep out information that didn't fit their thesis that the Earth was warming. The substance of the e-mails was subsequently investigated by five agencies, all of whom cleared scientists of any professional or personal misconduct. And not surprisingly, the hackers who broke into the East Anglia servers and stole the e-mails were never found.
"For a lot of scientists, ClimateGate was a real awakening," says Naomi Oreskes, a science historian at Harvard and co-author of Merchants of Doubt, which chronicles the fossil-fuel industry's long battle to undermine climate science. "It was clear that if you were going to work on climate change, you were a public figure. And it was no longer enough to just do the science. You also had to go out and explain it to people – and defend it." By then, Santer reports, he was receiving countless death threats.
"Most of the world does not have a problem with denial of climate change," says Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. "It's only an issue in Australia, Canada and, most significantly, the United States." Although the U.S. population as a whole is moving toward accepting the reality of climate change, Congress remains a scientific backwater. One recent analysis by the Center for American Progress found that almost a third of the 535 members of the House and Senate are climate deniers. Not coincidentally, those 161 reps have taken more than $54 million in political contributions from the fossil-fuel industry.
But lately, climate activists are less shy about calling out deniers. Organizing for Action, the successor of President Obama's 2012 re-election campaign, recently created the Congressional Climate Change Awards, honoring 135 members of Congress, including Dana Rohrabacher, Steve King and House Speaker John Boehner, for "exceptional extremism and ignoring the overwhelming judgment of science." And of course it doesn't hurt that President Obama has broken his silence about climate change and seems determined to make it part of his agenda in the second term.
But the biggest change is in the public profile of scientists themselves. Leading the charge is Michael Mann, an IPCC veteran and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, who has become a presence on TV talk shows and is author of a must-read book about the politics of climate science, The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars. Mann is taking the unprecedented step of suing the conservative National Review for defamation after the magazine's blog quoted a story that called Mann "the Jerry Sandusky of climate science" because he "molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science."
Mann can't talk about the pending lawsuit, but he points out that "concerted industry-funded attacks on our science" by deniers have mobilized many scientists to fight back. In Mann's view, ClimateGate and other denier campaigns are deliberately designed to erode the credibility of scientists: "Public polling shows that scientists are among the most trusted messengers around when it comes to issues such as climate change," Mann says. "So clearly this was an effort by fossil-fuel-industry front groups and advocates to go right at that. It was a deeply cynical effort to undermine the public faith in scientists and science."
The war over the IPCC's fifth assessment officially got under way in August, after a draft report of the "Summary for Policymakers" of the Working Group I report was leaked to the media. Deniers immediately seized on two issues to create controversy and undercut the findings of the report.
The first has to do with "equilibrium climate sensitivity," which is the amount the climate is likely to warm in response to rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere. In a leaked draft of the Fifth Assessment, scientists slightly lowered the range of possible warming from the previous assessment. Some media outlets – including The Economist, which should have known better – seized on this data to suggest that this is "one sign [that] suggests [the new assessment] might be less terrifying than it could have been." In fact, as prominent climate blogger Joe Romm pointed out, these arcane, highly technical numbers are "far less interesting and consequential subject than the fact that we are headed way, way past [emissions targets] or that the real-world slow feedbacks are expected to make a very big contribution to warming this century." To put it another way: In the real world, climate sensitivity means zip.
But that's how the denier game works: They seize on small errors and inconsequential factual inconsistencies in a piece of climate research and use it to discredit the science and reassure people that climate change is no big deal. In the 2007 Assessment, for instance, the authors and reviewers overlooked a sentence that asserted Himalayan glaciers would vanish by 2035 – an obvious misstatement, which deniers seized and used to suggest that the entire assessment was bunk. "You didn't have to be a scientist to know that's not true," says Watson. "It was simply an error that slipped through, and deniers tried to use it to invalidate the findings of the entire report." It's like finding a misspelling in the Manhattan phone book and then declaring the whole book useless.
The second issue that has come up is the question of a "hiatus," or pause in surface-temperature warming. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, winner of a climate-denier award from Texas green groups, recently proclaimed that "there has been no recorded warming since 1998." Not exactly, Ted. According to the IPCC draft report, the rate of warming at the planet's surface is lower over the past 15 years, but warming has not stopped. In fact, since the 1950s, each successive decade has been hotter than the last, and the 2000s were the hottest decade since modern record-keeping began in 1880. Scientists have a variety of explanations for this, including the fact that more heat is being transferred deeper into the ocean and that volcanic eruptions have blocked sunlight. "We never expected warming to be linear," says Kevin Trenberth, senior scientist at the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado.
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