Climate Science Under Attack: Who Speaks and Why?

04-27-10 Fish Wildlife Service 473px-Rachel-Carson

By Larry J. Schweiger

The following editorial will be published in the upcoming issue of National Wildlife Federation’s National Wildlife magazine:

The famed Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes understood that great revelations create great enemies. He once warned: “You never need think you can overturn any old falsehood without a terrible squirming and scattering of the horrid little population that dwells under it.”

Based on many observations and calculations, Galileo discovered that the Sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the universe. Pope Urban VIII deemed the discovery heretical and launched an inquisition that ended with Galileo receiving a life-sentence “house arrest” in 1632.

Sadly, it seems that important scientific findings can be just as contentious today as in the 17th century. This is especially true when those discoveries bump up against and threaten to overturn profits. Consider these examples:

In 1962, Rachel Carson wrote her now famous book Silent Spring, warning that DDT was harming bird life. For the remainder of her days, she was attacked relentlessly by DDT manufacturers and their hired critics.

In the late 1970s, Dr. Herbert L. Needleman, a Pennsylvania medical researcher and toxicologist, discovered that urban children who had been exposed to atmospheric lead from vehicle emissions and lead paint had significantly impaired mental development. His research subsequently was attacked by oil and chemical interests that were making a profit peddling leaded gasoline and lead-based paint.

Reflecting on his painful experience, Dr. Needleman wrote recently: “For researchers who operate at the intersection of basic biology and toxicology, following the data where they take you—as any good scientist would—carries the risk that you will be publicly attacked as a crank, charged with scientific misconduct or removed from a government scientific review panel. Such a fate may seem unthinkable to those involved in primary research, but it has increasingly become the norm for toxicologists and environmental investigators. If you find evidence that a compound worth billions of dollars to its manufacturer poses a public health risk, you will almost certainly find yourself in the middle of a contentious battle that has little to do with scientific truth.”

In an effort to cast doubt on last December’s Climate Conference in Copenhagen, unidentified deniers hacked into a computer server at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit and stole tens of thousands of emails, then carefully parsed the words to craft a story they dubbed “Climategate” just days before the meeting. The contrived storyline suggested a deliberate and systematic attempt to manipulate data by two leading climate scientists: Phil Jones, who heads the East Anglia Climate Research Unit, and Michael Mann, the director of Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Center researcher who studies ancient tree rings patterns as a proxy for climatic conditions. The distortions created by the hackers accomplished their intended purpose to slow progress at Copenhagen.

In a sermon written 150 years before the creation of the Internet, the influential British clergyman Charles Spurgeon warned: “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.” At the speed of electrons flying through cyberspace, charges about the work of these two climate scientists disseminated all over the Internet and in the media. Unlike Watergate, where the authorities and the media sought to discover who did the break in, many in the media— especially Fox News—replayed the storyline as created by the thieves and continue to falsely report the science of climate change.

Long after the Copenhagen conference failed to develop a treaty, the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee conducted an investigation and, in part, concluded: “We are content that the phrases such as ‘trick’ or ‘hiding the decline’ were colloquial terms used in private emails and the balance of evidence is that they were not part of a systematic attempt to mislead. Likewise the evidence that we have seen does not suggest that Professor Jones was trying to subvert the peer-review process.”

As a result of 47 emails anonymously posted on a rented Russian file server, Michael Mann became the focus of an academic investigation. On February 3, 2010, that investigation concluded that there exists no credible evidence that Dr. Mann had or has ever engaged in, or participated in, directly or indirectly, any actions with an intent to suppress or to falsify data.”

Watching this affair unfold, I am reminded Rachel Carson’s response to her chemical industry sponsored critics. “I recommend,” she said, “that you ask yourself: Who speaks? And why?” We would be wise to listen to her advice and look behind the curtains.