The Wrong Way to Close ClimateGate

The Center

[Note: The Center is proud to host guest blogger Jason Delborne who will be sharing his thoughts from Copenhagen. Delborne is an assistant professor in Liberal Arts and International Studies at the Colorado School of Mines.]

Today, the scientific leaders of the IPCC held a “side event” at COP15, presenting the main conclusions from their 2007 report (AR 4), updates on their planned Special Reports on renewable energy sources and extreme climate events, and some clues about their approach to AR 5. But the emails took center stage, as everyone in the room had anticipated.

Just as he did in his remarks during the COP15 opening plenary on Monday, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri explicitly addressed “climategate,” the email scandal in which emails from climate scientists in East Anglia purportedly showed the suppression of dissenting views (climate skeptics) and manipulations of data. In response, Pachauri emphasized the scientific credibility of the IPCC’s findings and process, reminding the audience of the diversity of experts and governments involved in the review process and of the multiple data sets taken into consideration. He also repeatedly framed the story as an “illegal act,” rather than an exposure of questionable conduct, and reminded the audience several times that he assumed that the police were looking into the theft of “private emails” from the “unfairly targeted” scientists who were “victims.”

The defense of the IPCC’s science by Pachauri and his colleagues was quite persuasive to the packed room at the Bella Center. One panelist noted that some of the “skeptical science” referred to in the emails had indeed been carefully discussed and considered by his working group – bolstering the argument that all perspectives had a fair hearing in the credible IPCC review of published science. In addition, the emphasis on multiple data sets went a long way in reassuring those of us in “Hopenhagen” – so deemed by the mayor of Copenhagen – that the scientific consensus was not unraveling.

On the other hand, the IPCC remains balanced precariously on the ever-thinning line that divides politics and science. What is dangerous here is that leaders such as Pachauri have dug in their heels to re-claim science’s objectivity – its separation and insulation from politics. This claim fails to resonate with the tone and apparent intentions revealed in the hacked emails, and it finds little purchase at an event like COP15 where science and policy are hopelessly intertwined. At one point during the session, NY Times reporter Andy Revkin even challenged one of the scientific panelists for stepping outside his role by calling for “urgent action.” Pachauri responded by clarifying that IPCC scientists could make such claims as long as they transparently presented their assumptions (for example, assuming the world had decided to limit global warming to 2 degrees, action to reduce carbon emissions is urgent). While I knew what he was trying to say, it wasn’t convincing and I can imagine the internal heckles of those who assume that the IPCC was captured by the liberal environmentalist anti-business lobby many years ago.

But is it absolutely necessary to keep insisting on the thick and impenetrable line between science and politics? Can’t we admit that scientists involved in research on climate change are indeed participating in a political project? By political I mean that the search for knowledge is embroiled in struggles over power and the distribution of costs and benefits. Simply put, showing that “business as usual” practices in the energy sector will undermine the quality of life substantially for many of the world’s inhabitants by 2050 is a political act! Climate science is political, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t trust it.

“Climategate” has tragically distracted attention from the need to develop an action plan at COP15, but it is also a tragedy in the sense of a missed opportunity for scientists and politicians to open conversations with the public about the necessary engagement between their two professions. Pachauri and his colleagues may win short-term gains by reclaiming the high authority of objective and politically-disinterested science, but such a strategy just sets us up for the next surprise attack.

Posted In: Policy

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