The wrong response to ClimateGate

Whining about malicious invasions of privacy won't cut it in the war over global warming science

Published November 24, 2009 10:31PM (EST)

At the New York Times DotEarth blog, University of Chicago Geophysicist Raymond Pierrehumbert  sidesteps any discussion of the controversial content of the hacked climate change e-mails and focuses solely on the computer network break in, calling it "a criminal act of vandalism and of harassment of a group of scientists."

Pierrehumbert, who made news just a few weeks ago with an "Open Letter to Steve Levitt" that eviscerated the SuperFreakonomics co-author for some rank stupidity on the topic of solar panels, has a point. I'm sure I don't want anyone breaking into my home computer network and posting all my private e-mails and documents for the world to see. It would be an embarrassing invasion of privacy.

But in the context of the political battle over climate change, Pierrehumbert is making the wrong point. Who cares? The only meaningful response to this crisis is to get out in front, explain the context of each and every e-mail, and address forthrightly whatever improprieties may or may not exist. Because there may well be more to come.  The Competitive Enterprise Institute just announced that it is suing NASA for what it calls a "failure to respond" to Freedom of Information requests that it has filed attempting to gain access to e-mail discussions conducted by U.S. government climate researchers.  Republican legislators are already opening up investigations into whether the climate change e-mails prove a conspiracy to fudge global warming data or exclude outsider viewpoints from peer-reviewed journals.

We will be living with the content of these e-mails for the foreseeable future, whether or not anyone gets prosecuted and/or convicted of breaking into government property. You better believe that if Republicans retake the House or Senate any time soon, we will see the likes of Sen. James Inhofe or Rep. Jim Barton waving their printouts in front of cherry-picked witnesses and declaiming about how this brouhaha proves once and for all that global warming is a hoax.

Of course, they do nothing of the sort, but in politics, the truth is less important than the perception of the truth. Whining about invasions of privacy isn't going to help. Energy analyst Geoffrey Styles gets at the heart of it in a post he published today, "Do Leaked E-mails Undermine the Scientific Consensus?"

Anyone who has spent five minutes peering behind the veil of academic politics wouldn't be terribly surprised at some of the caustic, small-minded, and downright vindictive comments that pepper the... e-mails that have turned up around the Internet. Nevertheless, most of us aren't involved in work that is integral to a global effort to understand and avert the worst outcomes of something on the scale of climate change. These folks are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard, and if they don't, it jeopardizes not just their own reputations but the public's perception of the findings of the larger body of climate science. When I read an e-mail in which one noted climate researcher asks another not to refer to a particular subject in his reply, but just say yes or no, or another indicating the author would delete some data points from a graph showing a recent change in the trend, I'm reminded of some precautionary advice I received at the very beginning of my oil trading career: "Avoid even the appearance of evil."

The basic issue here that many of those responding from the climate change community seem unable or unwilling to grasp is that their real problem is not how particular individuals or groups might exploit this information, but how the information itself could undermine the faith of the public in the integrity of climate science. I use the word faith deliberately, because for most of us it boils down to that. The number of people actually equipped to read the scientific papers in question and ascertain whether the manipulation of charts and data implicated in some of the leaked e-mails is serious or not is vanishingly small, compared to the much larger number of us who must simply take it on faith that the scientists studying the climate and reporting on alarming changes in it are behaving in a fair, transparent, and unself-interested way, to the greatest extent humanly possible. It would be hard for most of us to read the e-mails in question objectively and not have that faith shaken, at least a bit.

My own faith in climate science hasn't been shaken by this episode, but I'm pretty dumfounded at behavior that hands what Pierrehumbert calls the "inactivists" -- many of whom are working as fronts for the energy industry -- a big stick to clobber me with. Please don't hide behind invasion of privacy. It's only going to get hotter from here on out.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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