Heated politics of disbelief

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — Last November we had “Climategate,” in which somebody hacked into the e-mails at the University of East Anglia and discovered that professor Phil Jones, head of the university’s Climate Research Unit (CRU), had been trying to exclude scientific papers he regarded as flawed from being considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

“I can’t see either (paper) . . . being in the next (IPCC) report,” Jones wrote in 2004. “Kevin (one of Jones’ colleagues) and I will keep them out somehow — even if we have to redefine what peer-review literature is!” Bad Phil!

Scientists can be rather unworldly, but within their own little world they are highly competitive and capable of considerable nastiness toward their competitors. (Q: Why are scientific politics so nasty? A: Because the stakes are so small.) It is not clear whether Jones was being serious or only mock-serious in his e-mail, but he certainly could have been planning to do exactly what he said.

Jones was forced to step down as head of the CRU, the hacker (probably a Russian) walked away counting his money — and the blogosphere lit up like a Christmas tree with claims that this incident proved that climate change was a fraud.

Now we have “Glaciergate,” in which it is revealed that a prediction in the last IPCC report that the Himalayan glaciers could all disappear by 2035 was wildly exaggerated. Some of the biggest glaciers in the Himalayas are so massive and so high that it would actually take them 300 years to melt.

It was a grievous error, and the way it got into the IPCC’s 2007 report only compounded the offense. It was based on a casual remark by a single Indian scientist, Syed Hasnain, that found its way into a World Wildlife Fund study, which gave it the respectability of appearing in print, and thence into the IPCC’s 2007 report.

Very unprofessional, and particularly so on the part of IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri, who initially dismissed the work of the geologists who challenged the IPCC’s assertion about glaciers as “voodoo science.” The blogosphere went wild — and a recent opinion survey in the United States showed that only 57 percent of adult Americans accept the scientific evidence for global warming, down from 77 percent two years ago. Worse yet, only 36 percent of Americans believe that human activity is the primary cause of the warming.

People who know science and scientists will be disappointed both by the behavior of Phil Jones and by the glacier incident, but they will not be surprised. This sort of thing happens from time to time, because we are dealing with human beings. But it does not — as the denial brigade insists — discredit the whole enterprise in which they are engaged.

Not all Himalayan glaciers will be gone by 2035, but a lot of the ones at lower altitudes will — including some of the ones that keep the great rivers of Asia full in the summertime. That is important, because when they are gone, people start to starve.

We have all met people who are clever in theory but stupid in practice, like Foolish Phil. The weight of the evidence rests overwhelmingly on the side of those who argue that climate change is real and dangerous. Ninety-seven or 98 percent of scientists active in the relevant fields are convinced of it; all but a couple of the world’s 200 governments have been persuaded of it; public opinion accepts it almost everywhere except in parts of the “Anglosphere.” The U.S., and to a lesser extent Australia, Britain and Canada, are the last bastions of denial.

From being the least ideological countries 50 years ago, when much of the rest of the planet was drunk on Marxist theories, these countries have become the most ideological today. Disbelief in climate change has been turned into an ideological badge worn by the right, and evidence is no longer relevant.

This wouldn’t matter much if the countries in question were Bolivia, Belgium and Burma, but one of them is really important. Without the U.S., we are not going to get a worthwhile global agreement on cutting greenhouse gas emissions. It is starting to look like we won’t have the U.S. on board.

President Barack Obama will do what he can, but his chance of getting even a very modest bill on emissions cuts through the Senate this year has just dwindled to near zero. The American public, worried about its jobs and its health care, doesn’t want to hear about it — and if it does hear, it doesn’t believe.

If the U.S. is out of the game, then China is out too. Without the participation of the world’s two biggest polluters, jointly accounting for almost half of the human race’s carbon dioxide emissions, there’s not much point in trying for another Kyoto Protocol-style deal, even a much better one. If you have any money lying around, put it on geo-engineering techniques for keeping the heat down. We’re going to need them.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.