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The Consequences of Climategate

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In response to growing pressure following the release of hacked emails from the U.K.'s University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) will be conducting their own investigation:

The United Nations yesterday announced an investigation into the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. Critics of the scientific consensus on climate change claim emails from the unit's servers show researchers manipulated evidence to support their theory.

Phil Jones, the director of the CRU, has dismissed the claims as "complete rubbish" but the scandal has thrown the scientific world into turmoil and has been raised by some countries as a reason not to strike a deal in Copenhagen.

British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has weighed in on the controversy, stating: "With only days to go before Copenhagen we mustn't be distracted by the behind-the-times, anti-science, flat-earth climate skeptics. We know the science. We know what we must do."

The Union of Concern Scientists: "Unfortunately for these conspiracy theorists, what the e-mails show are simply scientists at work, grappling with key issues, and displaying the full range of emotions and motivations characteristic of any urgent endeavor. Any suggestions that these e-mails will affect public and policymakers' understanding of climate science give far too much credence to blog chatter and boastful spin from groups opposed to addressing climate change.

Nasa's James Hansen: The controversy has "no effect on the science" and that while some of the e-mails reflect poor judgment, the evidence for human-made climate change is overwhelming.

RealClimate: What was not contained in the e-mails was the most interesting element: "There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to 'get rid of the MWP' [Medieval Warm Period], no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no 'marching orders' from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords."

Science historian Spencer R. Weart: "a symptom of something entirely new in the history of science: Aside from crackpots who complain that a conspiracy is suppressing their personal discoveries, we've never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance. Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers."

The incident itself -- the hacking of the emails -- has been dubbed as "Climategate" by those who seek to use the emails as proof of their claims:

The Climatic Research Unit e-mail hacking incident, which some have dubbed "Climategate" began in November 2009 with the hacking of a server used by the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, England, in the United Kingdom. An unknown individual stole and anonymously disseminated over a thousand e-mails and other documents.

The university confirmed that a "criminal breach" of their security systems took place, and expressed concern "that personal information about individuals may have been compromised." Details of the incident have been reported to the police, who are investigating. Professor Phil Jones, Director of the CRU, confirmed that the leaked e-mails that had provoked heated debate appeared to be genuine.

Critics have asserted that the e-mails show collusion by climate scientists to withhold scientific information. Other prominent climate scientists, such as Richard Somerville, have called the incident a smear campaign. Jones called charges that the e-mails involve any "untoward" activity "ludicrous", and Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research stated that the skeptics have selectively quoted words and phrases out of context in an attempt to sabotage the Copenhagen global climate summit in December.

The scientists at The University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, along with colleagues across the globe, have insisted the emails were part of the scientific method of trying out data against different scenarios and seeking to disprove one another's hypotheses. In one easy to misinterpret passage, a scientist suggested that data from tree rings be excluded, in what he referred to as a "trick," from statistics being used in a calculation because they had not yet established the reasoning behind anomalies in the tree ring data.

It may be understandable that those unfamiliar with the scientific method could be influenced to take the word "trick" and the decision to exclude uncertain data out of context, but that is not what scientists would take from it. To use a statistical "trick" is to work with "what if" scenarios, to press the data in different ways and then to challenge the result. It may have been an inartful use of language from a political point of view, but in a private email setting between peers attempting peer review, it is the scientific equivalent of the sausage making process involved with new legislation.

That has not stopped those who deny or, worse, cynically put their self interest ahead of the science behind climate change. As had happened so often during the Bush Administration, faux controversies were raised while data was hidden. Budgets to climate satellites were cut while an insistence that the data did not exist to support climate change.

And yet, the changes persist. In the light of a new administration, that data has been more forthcoming and what we're seeing is not encouraging. Ice thinning or disappearing, water wars heating up, warnings from respected generals that the change in the climate is not only real but that it presents a risk to national security.

Those who fight against and/or deny changes to the climate, whether by citing the email controversy or by pointing to the snow in their own backyard (how could things be warming if they're cold?), have missed out on a vital question in their new demand for transparency:

What if they're wrong?

What if this Ark of an Earth that we're on is struggling in a Gaia-like way (the theory of the Earth as a living organism) to compensate for the changes thrust upon it? What if the fluctuations in temperature and weather were the eco-system trying to balance out against an onslaught of changes? And even if that's not the case; even if it's not increasing temperature differentials between hemispheres causing a change in wind patterns or the newly-exposed ground where there was ice releasing the stores of greenhouse gases once locked in its depths ... What if they're wrong and we're on a path, as many scientists warn, of inexorable changes to our ecosystem?

At what point, when we're dealing with millions of refugees and wars over resources and the growing chasm between rich and poor leading to political upheaval, will these skeptics step back and say: oops?

Perhaps it's easier for those who are afraid of the consequences of climate change to insist that it's not real. For those, the question is: would you ignore a possible diagnosis of heart disease? Would you tell your doctor not to investigate, not to run tests, not to operate?

Or would you say: sorry, Doctor, you're wrong. There's no such thing as heart disease.

But then, when your chest tightens and your lips turn blue, would you say: Oops? Or, perhaps, help? Or would you continue to insist that there was nothing wrong?

Species are dying on this planet at a record rate. Some scientists refer to it as the "Sixth Extinction" and cite climate change as the cause. If that's true, and scientific evidence from many more places than the U.K. insist that it is, what gives us the right, as the Stewards on this Earth, to cause the decline of so many of its inhabitants?

It's not just wildlife that is endangered. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu has become the canary in a coal mine where too much water may lead to changes in international law:

What Will Become of Tuvalu's Climate Refugees?

International legal experts are discovering climate change law, and Tuvalu is a case in point: The Polynesian archipelago is doomed to disappear beneath the ocean. Now lawyers are asking what sort of rights citizens have when their homeland no longer exists.

Kenya provides the latest example of a world where scarce water becomes a resource more valuable than oil:

The last nomads: drought drives Kenya's herders to the brink

In the isolated border lands between Kenya and Somalia, families have always clung to a precarious existence. Now a decade of droughts has tested their endurance.

The Himalayas provide another example. India's rivers are dependent upon the water from their glaciers. What happens when they're gone?

The glaciers of the Alps, as well.

The question -- for the skeptics, the fearful, and the misinformed -- becomes this: What if you're wrong? What if your insistence that the science of climate change is a manufactured controversy stops the needed legislation, corporate and community efforts required to save a significant percentage of endangered species and the quality of life and national security of a great portion of the human race in the years ahead? What will those who seek to undermine the scientific or legal process by convincing a public desperate for better news than they've been receiving do to help those who become displaced or see their livelihoods disappear in an increasingly unfair world.

Make no mistake, if climate change becomes as bad as science predicts, then those who do not have the advantages of ready wealth or fortunate location will be the ones displaced or disinherited. One only needs to look at the impact of the recession on the concept of fairness to see where this would lead. In a global recession, there is no room for those who are not perceived as elite. If you are a person of color, the wrong gender, the less educated, the less attractive -- any excuse for a potential employer to say no -- you will become unemployed in favor of those who fit the picture of employers more able to apply their discriminatory practices where they could not in an environment of full employment.

How can they be accused of prejudice when they have so many applicants for each job? Who could say that their choice of someone who looks or acts like them would be unfair over someone who doesn't, even if that latter applicant was the one more qualified?

It's the same in a world fighting for resources. Those who live in the right locations or have the advantages of looks, wealth or education may be able to get by in an increasingly limited resource pool. But those who do not, when the number could rise to the millions or more; how could the privileged few think the sheer numbers of the disenfranchised would not impact them?

War is the inevitable outcome of staggering inequality. History is proof of that. At what point will those who insist it's not their problem be forced to face the consequences?

If you have a temperature, you do something about it or you get sicker and, even if you don't die, your quality of life can become impacted.

If the world has a temperature, which scientists across the globe have cited an overwhelming amount of evidence to postulate, do you ask only: what if they're wrong?

That is the takeaway from the controversy over the stolen emails the U.N. will now investigate.

But those who stole the emails, those now using them to create controversy and those influenced by them to continue to deny the consequences of climate change have their own investigation to perform. It is the question they need to ask themselves: What if I'm wrong and they're right and climate change is happening?

That is what they need to face now, not ten years from now when the evidence is so overwhelming it can no longer be denied -- with consequences so set into motion that it may too late to reverse the impact.

That would be a bitter lesson learned and one that need not happen.

The scientific method requires that data is tested and that challenges are made. The investigation into East Anglia's Climate Research Unit, as frustrating as it may be for those who have seen empirical proof of climate change, is appropriate for the U.N., as long as it is done scientifically and not politically.

But, in a what-goes-around-comes-around world, the same should be applied to those who deny climate change, who hack emails and then present them out of context. Where are the official investigations into corporate entities or other groups who push the denial of climate change? What are their motives? Who is funding them?

What are the consequences if their increasing influence on the denial mindset of the public is allowed to continue?

Can the world afford those consequences?

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