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Devra Davis, Ph.D.

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Climategate Is a Smokescreen

Posted: 12/16/09 11:24 AM ET

The climate change deniers claim that stolen emails from British scientists regarding tree rings and temperature change show that science does not support global warming. In fact, when you get right down to it the big picture on climate remains precisely what the Associate Press and Factcheck.org and the Obama and Bush Administrations have confirmed--the world is getting hotter and losing more critical ice and species than at any point in modern times. The manufactured controversy of climate gate is nothing but a strategic, well-funded ploy by the deniers of global warming to suck oxygen from the Copenhagen global climate summit.

Science of global warming generally is extraordinarily complex and uncertain. In magnifying and exaggerating legitimate scientific debates, and the hacked, inartful adolescent private mutterings of scientists, the climate deniers are following a playbook perfected long ago by the tobacco industry. They see science as merely one form of public relations to deny, discredit, dismiss, and debunk inconvenient truths.

In the run up to the UN conference on climate at Kyoto in 1997, I personally survived a similar though less widely known effort to destroy inconvenient scientific findings documenting the public health disasters of continued use of fossil fuels. A paper I co-published in the respected medical journal Lancet showed that a "business as usual" approach towards the burning of fossil fuels would contribute to 8 million avoidable deaths by 2020. The president of the sinking small island state of Nauru, cited this work just before Vice President Gore took the podium.. The next day, our report received front-page attention in countries around the world as evidence of the hidden health benefits of reducing greenhouse gases.

Shortly thereafter, I received an urgent message from Lancet telling me that a number of serious charges had been leveled at the work's credibility using papers produced by a special interest group called the Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation. According to the critic -- a man whose name I did not recognize and who had never published a single peer-reviewed article in the field of environmental health - our data was flawed and our analysis was flat-out wrong.

A quick search revealed that the sum total of my critic's recent work in the field of public health and climate change was a series of letters to the editor and other attacks on groups that had sought to quantify the health effects of air pollution. His assaults on my credibility and that of the Toronto City Health Department and the Canadian national government were paired with a "junk science" claim: that there was a rather high "threshold level" of air pollution below which no health effects could be expected.

The kicker? As part of the peer-review process by which we published our original paper, we spent an entire week poring over seven pages of single-spaced criticisms from legitimate scientists whose aim was to challenge us to improve the substance and presentation of our paper before publication. Yet we spent even more time responding to the unfounded criticisms and "junk science" claims of a single individual who used special interest attacks to try to discredit us. Ultimately, this work was included in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report for which Al Gore and thousands of scientists (including me) were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007

So I have watched with horror as this story has repeated itself on a grand scale in the weeks since talking heads and the energy special interests seized upon the stolen climate emails to discredit the entire field of science on global warming. More than ten years after my colleagues and I were victimized, almost nothing has changed: while the Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation now operates under "Americans for Prosperity," the group is still smearing climate science, running an entire public relations campaign in Copenhagen called the "Hot Air Tour." At one of its webcast events, rabid global warming denier Christopher Monckton even called Jewish climate activists "Hitler Youth" -- unaware that whoever uses the word Hitler and Jew in the same sentence has broken a cardinal rules of public relations and public decency.

Amidst the stolen email hoopla, one thing remains resoundingly clear: the manufactured scandal is part of a decades-long effort by special interests who seize on any pretext to discredit the complicated, challenging, cross disciplinary work of climate scientists.. From my own experience, I have a special admiration for the scientists who have stood up to these baseless attacks, and repeated over and over again what we have long known: evidence for global warming is overwhelming as are the public health impacts with which we are already contending; our future health, prosperity, and peace hang in the balance.

 

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