Climate scientists are getting a little too angry for their own good.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
March 18 2010 11:07 AM

Chill Out

Climate scientists are getting a little too angry for their own good.

U.S. climatologist Dr. James Hansen. Click image to expand.
Climatologist Dr. James Hansen

As Congress continues to struggle its way toward new energy legislation, climate scientists are getting a little hot. A series of major attacks from the global-warming skeptics—including last year's Climategate affair and unfair accusations stemming from the subsequent discovery of errors in the latest IPCC report —have left those in the research community understandably angry. Having spent eight years calling attention to the politicization of climate science by the Bush administration, they now find themselves on the other end of the same allegations. Whatever raw emotions this reversal might produce were on display a couple of weeks ago in yet another series of leaked e-mails: This time, members of the prestigious National Academies complained to one another about the "neo-McCarthyism" of the climate skeptics and lamented that "science is getting creamed with no effective response." One researcher called for "a relentless rain of science and scientific dialog on the incredible, destructive demagoguery." Another participant urged an "aggressively partisan approach."

The latest batch of e-mails reflects a bunker mentality among climate scientists, forged during the Bush administration and reinforced by the recent attacks on their credibility. Despite the promise of an Obama presidency, many now see themselves losing a "war" against "anti-science" forces allied with energy companies and the Republican Party. Meanwhile, scientists have been urged by liberal strategists and commentators to "fight back"—by forming their own political action committees and openly supporting "pro-science" candidates, among other things.

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But urgent calls to escalate the war against climate skeptics may lead scientists and their organizations into a dangerous trap, fueling further political disagreement while risking public trust in science. A major transformation is needed in how scientists and their organizations engage the public and policymakers. The new direction is not to become more political and confrontational on the national stage, but to seek opportunities for greater public interaction, dialogue, and partnerships in communities across the country.

The problems begin when scientists overestimate the influence of climate skeptics and their corporate backers. When legislation and international treaties fail, and polls show a decrease in public concern about the environment, the "climate deniers" take the blame. Yet the efforts of James Inhofe, Glenn Beck, et al. represent just a few of several factors shaping public doubt and policy inaction. More important, perhaps, are the poor state of the economy, competition for political attention from the heath care debate, and confusion over colder weather. We're also faced with a widespread distrust of government that makes explaining complex cap-and-trade proposals that much more difficult. And it doesn't help that long-standing rules in Congress allow individual members to block substantive legislation.

Given these factors, it's not surprising that communication researchers, including me, have their doubts about the relative impact of Climategate on public opinion. An analysis by Stanford University's Jon Krosnick estimates that between 2008 and the end of November 2009, belief in global warming dropped just five points, from 80 percent to 75 percent. Other surveys find a stronger downward shift (PDF) over the same time period, but teasing out the causal influence of last year's hacked e-mails remains a question that will be debated in academic journals for some time. As Krosnick points out, only a small minority of Americans was likely to have paid attention to news and discussion of the event, and even fewer would have changed their long-standing views based on a single event. Consider that a Pew survey from December found that just 17 percent of Americans reported reading or hearing "a lot" about the leaked e-mail scandal. In comparison, during the same month more than half read or heard a lot about Afghanistan and the health care debate.

If communication researchers have trouble establishing clear evidence of a significant impact for Climategate, what explains the apparent overreaction by scientists and their bunker mentality? Past research shows that individuals more heavily involved on an issue, such as climate scientists, often tend to view even objectively favorable media coverage as hostile to their goals. They also have a tendency to presume exaggerated effects for a message on the public and will take action based on this presumed influence. The call to arms that "science is getting creamed" and that there is a need for an "aggressively partisan approach" are examples of how these common miscalculations about the media have colored the outlook of climate scientists.

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