Debunking ‘Climategate’


“The idea that there is a massive lack of integrity in the science community, coming from the sources that are accusing them of that, politicians and right-wing blogs, is just ludicrous. They are projecting their own conspiratorial behavior and their own lack of scientific integrity onto the science community,” CSW director Rick Piltz said in an interview on the whistleblower TV program Whistle Where You Work.  But the denial machine has been aggressively pushing its war on climate science and weakening public support for action, and the Obama administration and environmental groups “took their eye off the ball and have fallen down on the job in terms of really working public opinion on this.”

The Government Accountability Project’s television program, Whistle Where You Work, airs nationally on the Free Speech TV channel on the Dish Satellite Network, on over 70 community access stations around the country, and in parts of Europe.

Host Mark Cohen, executive director of the Government Accountability Project, introduces the program:

In the past few months, climate scientists speaking out about the dangers of global warming have come under increased assault, largely because of climate skeptics voicing concerns over the information contained within certain scientists’ email messages. An error in a recent IPCC report has fueled the fire further for global warming skeptics. Polls show that Americans belief in global warming is waning.

So whats going on? The overwhelming scientific consensus is clear: climate change is occurring, and it is an extremely serious problem. But these recent setbacks may delay key climate legislation, and some senators are using the data to push their agendas. Joining us for this episode are Melanie Fitzpatrick of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and Rick Piltz of Climate Science Watch.

Melanie Fitzpatrick briefly summarizes the scientific consensus on global climate change and comments on the ‘Climategate’ controversy.  The following is a transcript of the Q&A with CSW director Rick Piltz:

Mark Cohen: The right-wing media have seized upon Climategate in order to claim that there is this conspiracy—essentially, of dishonest scientists who are attempting to foist this myth of climate change on an unknowing public—in order to paralyze the public debate and policy change regarding climate change.  What would the scientists’ motives be to do this?

Rick Piltz: The scientists don’t have any motive to misrepresent the science.  The idea that there is a massive lack of integrity in the science community, coming from the sources that are accusing them of that, politicians and right-wing blogs, is just ludicrous.  They are projecting their own conspiratorial behavior and their own lack of scientific integrity onto the science community.  It’s a spun-up controversy.

First of all, if you can imagine having someone with hostile intent go into your computer and dig through all of your e-mail looking for phrases and lines and exchanges to take out of context and attribute the absolute worst possible motives to, while misrepresenting the overall content, you’ll get a feel for how violated the science community feels by this.  I’ve read a lot of those e-mails. There’s ego there, there’s scathing criticism of climate change skeptics, and there’s a growing sense of themselves being under siege by vitriolic personal attacks, by global warming denialism, by harassment, by frivolous Freedom of Information Act requests, and so forth.  And so, there may be a certain hunkering down, but there is no problem with the overall integrity of the science community.

MC: So, no motive to deceive from the scientists, but what about the fossil fuel industry, the oil and coal industries, who have a vested interest perhaps in the status quo.  How credible is their science?

RP: Well, if you look at the peer-reviewed scientific record, there is not much there except the broad line of scientific evidence that we have just heard summarized. I had thought at the beginning of last year that this battle was largely won against the global warming denial machine.  That was a mistake. They were lying dormant, but as soon as you saw movement toward serious climate change legislation, the possible regulation of greenhouse gases by EPA, the possibility of a new diplomatic agreement, a treaty at Copenhagen, the global warming denial machine ramped up and became more aggressive than ever.  They didn’t leave town when Bush and Cheney left town.

MC: would you say that the “scandal” regarding the e-mails at East Anglia played some role in the failure of countries to reach agreement at Copenhagen?

RP: Really, I think it was at most a very secondary factor. Some U.S. Congressmen went over there to try to raise hell about it, but nobody in the international community paid much attention to them.  There are real issues with what kinds of commitments the U.S. is willing to make, because the U.S. at this point has no real climate policy, no climate strategy that’s really agreed to and being implemented by the governing institutions, and there is a problem with under what terms do you bring the major developing countries on board, China and India and so forth, with their large emissions.

But right now, if the U.S. doesn’t take any action, China is moving very quickly to develop clean energy and has a strategy to take over that market, so maybe it’s in their interest that there be no major agreement and that the U.S. continue to sit on its hands.

MC: What about the failure of cap and trade in the U.S. Congress?  That was the leading reform legislation that was before U.S. policymakers.  It seems like it’s a dead letter now, and people are moving on to other possible ways of controlling greenhouse gas emissions.

RP: I think people did not anticipate the extent to which the Republicans would be hard-over in opposition to moving any of a number of major policy initiatives of the administration—or that the Democrats would be so flummoxed in terms of coming to any kind of internal consensus among themselves, and so unable to govern, so unable to move an agenda.  So cap and trade is tied up.  I also think that over the long run, regardless of what you pass or don’t pass this year, you are going to need very strong public support for action for decades in order to make this enormous transition in the energy system, which is not going to come easy.

MC: But you don’t seem to be suggesting that the Climategate issue really played much of a role, either in torpedoing any advancements in Copenhagen or in the U.S. Congress.

RP: I think that in terms of elected officials in Congress, those who were planning to oppose any kind of action have been able to use this for PR, for propaganda, to put the climate science community on the defensive.  The media likes a political fight; it’s easier for them to cover than it is for them to cover the science, so it becomes charge and counter-charge, and the denialists get control of the framing temporarily.  There’s a push-back on that now.

But I think the Obama administration decided early-on to frame the issue, not in terms of, we have to do this because if we don’t, climate change is going to have terribly harmful impacts on the U.S. and globally.  They use this rhetoric of clean energy.  Well, nobody is against clean energy, but it has not been a sufficiently compelling narrative to drive this agenda through Congress.

I think a lot of the major environmental groups got on board with, well, let’s work with the administration and use their rhetoric and go behind the scenes and negotiate enormously complicated cap-and-trade legislation and ram that thing through.  And they took their eye off the ball in terms of public opinion, in talking about climate science and looking at what the denial machine was doing.  And now the political context has shifted, they’re stymied in Congress.  Public opinion has been having a lot of uncertainty and smoke blown at them for the last year, and the environmental groups have fallen down on the job in terms of really working public opinion on this.

MC: That might be the cause, but on the other hand you look at public opinion polls about issues that are of concern to the American public, and climate change just isn’t near the top of those lists, and maybe they made a calculated decision that a more sellable approach would be to focus on energy independence and self-sufficiency, because that’s something that people have already bought.

RP: Well, that’s basically the kind of decision they made, although independence from Middle East oil is only a fraction of the climate change problem.  We have plenty of coal right here, we’re independent on that, and that’s the biggest driver of global warming.  I think the tremendous economic insecurity people that are feeling now in the face of the wreck of the financial system and the great recession is clearly the dominant thing.

MC: Well let’s talk about that.  Let’s just assume for the sake of argument that you’re right, that the denialists, the fossil fuel lobby are trying to gin up uncertainty in order to paralyze the legislative process and to stop anything from happening in this regard.  But there is uncertainty, isn’t there, about the scope of the disruptions to the world economy that we should be anticipating on the basis of taking the kinds of significant actions that you would recommend, and are they really merited based upon the uncertainty as to what the climate outcomes, the climate future we face is?

RP: Well that’s a very good question, and we can have a very good public debate about that.  It would be good if we could have a rational discourse instead of this propaganda about e-mails and the IPCC being corrupt and all of that.

I for one believe that it is going to be a major enterprise to back carbon emissions out of the energy system.  I don’t really go along with the sort of happy talk, win-win, it’s all going to be very easy to make this change.  It’s a radical transformation for the energy system.  We don’t do it for fun, but the costs of not doing it in terms of the long-term consequences of global climatic disruption for the United States and the world are likely to be far greater than the costs of taking action on clean energy.  And taking action on clean energy also has many benefits associated with it.

But if the leadership doesn’t talk to the public about the costs of inaction, then you take one of your weapons off the table while the denialists can just say, well, you’re trying to impose an energy tax and so forth, and play upon peoples’ insecurity, which is very great right now.  I wouldn’t expect global warming to be at the top of very many peoples’ list when 10 percent of the public is unemployed.

An earlier interview with Rick Piltz on Whistle Where You Work, taped in March 2009:
Whistle Where You Work: Exposing Bush White House Wrongdoing (from beginning to 14:00 of the program)

A few earlier CSW posts:

Markey presses coal CEOs on climate change denialism, future of the industry in a low carbon economy

“Goofball weathermen, Climategate, conspiracy theories” the distraction we’re looking for?

Hansen: Obama must defend climate scientists and “facing the difficult truth of climate science”

House of Commons panel: Reputations of Phil Jones, CRU, climate science and data remain intact

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