This week, negotiators in Copenhagen have the opportunity to forge an agreement to deal decisively with the existential threat of anthropogenic (man-made) global warming (AGW). Without American political, scientific and economic leadership, the world will be unable to face this growing threat.
At home we have been bombarded with news of the so-called "Climategate scandal" and powerful groups with radical ideologies have worked to undermine the public confidence in the scientific consensus that has emerged on AGW. In light of the long-established, well-funded and ongoing war against science, the theft and posting of private e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at East Anglia University could not have been timed better.
What do these e-mails say? Do they "nail the coffin shut" on AGW?
According to the contrarians (including The Eagle-Tribune editors) the scientists at CRU were falsifying data, manipulating research to "hide the decline" in global temperatures, destroying evidence to avoid Freedom of Information Act requests, blocking publication of research that contradicted their claims and worst of all, knew that the earth was cooling, not warming and couldn't explain it. However, if you place all of these e-mails in their context, with other e-mails and the studies and events the researchers are talking privately about, a much different picture emerges.
The most abused phrase in this saga is "hide the decline." Contrarians claim that scientists were "hiding the decline" in global temperatures to convince people that the planet was still warming when it was really cooling.
There are two problems with this. First, the planet is clearly warming — 2005 tied 1998 as the warmest year in the instrument record, 2009 was globally the fifth warmest on record and 11 of the 15 hottest years have occurred since 1995. More importantly, the researchers weren't talking about temperature decline; they were talking about the decline in tree ring proxy data that shows a false decline after 1960.
Since there are no reliable instrument data prior to the 1800s researchers use "proxies" like tree rings, lake and ocean floor sediments, ice cores, bore holes to estimate what the past climate was like. For reasons scientists can't agree on, tree rings simply aren't good proxies after the 1950s. The "trick" is to plot the actual instrument readings onto the graph to illustrate the actual temperature trend instead of giving a false impression that the earth is rapidly cooling.
Some have seized on the word "trick" and claim that scientists would never use such a colloquialism and that it must be referring to a deception. Scientists counter that "trick" is commonly used in science and if one searches Google Scholar for the keyword "trick" over 200 journal articles can be found with the word "trick" in the title and hundreds more use the word in their abstract. Clearly, "trick" is a common term in science that often refers to a clever solution to a problem.
In open, democratic societies the expectation of transparency is everywhere and when organizations we trust are less than forthcoming with information we ask for it can raise suspicion. Attempts by some scientists to not comply with Freedom of Information Act requests appear ominous but again, the context is important.
What isn't being brought to the public's attention is the fact that many researchers purchase instrument data sets from the government weather services of many countries. Often, the information is provided with a requirement that the data not be disseminated to third parties. The data belongs to the organization that gathered it, not researchers and cannot be released even when requested under FOIA.
Also missing from the discussion is the fact that more than 95 percent of the raw data is available for anyone who looks for it. NASA and NOAA for example have vast amounts of data available online and researchers have been posting links to their raw data on realclimate.org. Contrary to some claims, no data at CRU has been "lost " or destroyed.
The assault on peer review strikes at the heart of the scientific method. Peer review is a necessary mechanism that ensures that research is valid, comports to standard practices and passes rigorous scrutiny before being published in prestigious journals. Sometimes however, poorly written or flawed studies survive peer review.
Such was the case when an article was published in the journal Climate Research that the scientific community found to be so flawed it became clear that the peer review process at that publication had broken down. In protest, three of the editors of CR resigned. Despite the desire to exclude this poorly written article from the IPCC assessment report, it was, in fact, included in that report's review of published literature.
So there you have it. No faked data, no conspiracy, no cover-up. No e-mails were deleted, not a single piece of data lost or destroyed, no suppression of science.
What is unscrupulous is the well-organized, well-funded effort to attack science and confuse the public. What's at stake isn't whether we get to use incandescent lightbulbs or drive Hummers, it's whether the human race can sustain itself and prosper on this small, and increasingly fragile world.
We all, today, literally hold the future of the human race in our hands. Do we have the courage to do what is right today, for the generations that will follow?
Tennis Lilly is the chairman of the Lawrence Conservation Commission and is a senior fellow with the Environmental Leadership Program. He lives in Lawrence with his wife Michelle and their three children.