Getting past “Climategate Syndrome”

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Climategate Ground Zero: The Climate Research Unit building at the University of East Anglia

This week* marks exactly one year since “Climategate” broke into the headlines, revealing, if nothing else, that at least some mainstream climate scientists were pretty fed up with what they saw as political attacks on the legitimate science they were trying to do.

But for critics of conventional climate research, it was much more: the emails offered proof, they said, that the whole enterprise was corrupt, rife with questionable science; hostility to outsiders; and a left-wing political agenda. Climategate, was they said, “the final nail in the coffin of ‘Anthropogenic Global Warming.'” Which they may later have decided was premature when even more nails appeared in the form of “Himalayagate,” accusations of ethics violations by IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, and claims by Georgia Tech climate scientist Judith Curry that the mainstream had gone astray.

What followed was a series of investigations by, among others, a British commission, Penn State University and at the U.N.’s request, a group called the InterAgency Council. The general consensus: the scientists have said intemperate things sometimes, and their procedures have occasionally been sloppy—but the science itself is sound.

Even so, the attacks have taken a toll on the scientists themselves (a story just out in Nature shows what it did to prime Climategate target Phil Jones, of the University of East Anglia; the story also suggests that the email release was in fact the result of hacking, not of some sort of whistleblowing as climate skeptics have said).

It’s also harmed the public perception of climate science (although polls differ on exactly how much).

So after a year of taking hits on the scientific case for human-caused climate change, and anticipating even more as Congress is becoming more conservative, the scientists are beginning to fight back in the form of a “climate rapid response team,” kind of an A-Team of working scientists ready to go on TV, radio, blogs and Op-Ed ages to counter false claims and explain the facts climate science.

The team is being managed by John Abraham,  Scott Mandia, and Ray Weymann (who is already one of my personal scientific heroes for his role in one of the coolest astrophysical discoveries ever).  “I don’t really think articles on DotEarth change anyone’s mind,” says Mandia. “The average person doesn’t go there, and neither do politicians. If you want the story out there, the media have to be involved.”

Originally the rapid response team—which was Abraham’s idea in the first place—was supposed to go live two or three weeks from now. “It actually has nothing to do with the Climategate anniversary,” says Mandia. But an article in the L.A. Times last week moved up the debut. “It put us on the map,” says Mandia, “and now the media knows where to go.” Not to a website yet. “We’re putting that together, we’ve got domain names registered.” The site will feature a form where editors, reporters and producers can be able to ask for a source or in-studio guest; requests will then go through the three founders who will figure out who has the necessary expertise on their list of volunteers (they already have 50 climate scientists lined up, and are aiming for a total of 100). “Then we’ll vector them to the media,” says Mandia.

The group is already getting some traction: it was was featured not only in the L.A. Times, but also on last week’s Science Friday on NPR. And while it’s mostly a coincidence that this is all happening around the Climategate anniversary, there’s no reason to ignore that fortunate bit of timing. Mandia has circulated a sort of press release/Op Ed to every media orgnization he could think of. Here’s how it starts:

Exactly one year ago, on November 17, 2009, email messages and other computer files were illegally stolen from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit in what has become known as Climategate.  The emails were spun by skeptics of man-made global warming as somehow proving that global warming is a hoax and that scientists were controlling what science gets published.  Climategate was billed as “the final nail in the coffin of manmade global warming.”  Apparently, Mother Nature has not read these emails.

He goes on to list what’s actually gone on with the climate since climate science was supposedly destroyed, including the Russian heat wave, melting ice in Greenland and the Arctic Ocean, the Pakistan floods and more. The piece concludes:

Nature does not read email and the world would be better served if we move past the false scandal of Climategate and try to figure our way out of the global warming mess we are causing.  We can only do so if we let our scientists do their jobs.

*I originally said, incorrectly, that it was “this Friday.” In fact, the anniversary is this Wednesday, November 17.