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Last December, a panel of MIT faculty organized “The Great Climategate Debate” to address the media fallout from England’s University of East Anglia’s e-mail scandal preceding the Copenhagen climate summit. While examining the issue of scientific standards, panelists also raised concerns that the mass media and politics have taken the science out of climate science.

Controversy emerged after so-called hackers released several thousand private e-mails and documents from that university’s Climate Research Unit (CRU). The media fallout focused on a select few passages highlighting the scientists’ unwillingness to share their data and their vocal desire to prevent peers who disputed anthropogenic global warming from being published.

Richard S. Lindzen, Professor of Meteorology, said that CRU scientists were “unambiguously dealing with things that are unethical.”

However, Kerry A. Emanuel, Professor of Meteorology, and Judith Layzer, an associate professor of environmental policy in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, defended the scientists whose “imprudent language reflects enormous frustration with the language of their opponents.” They contended that people forget that scientists are fallible, groping forward for an explanation of nature.

The Media

Unfortunately, the “few lines which represent the human failings of a few scientists” also make particularly juicy sound bites. Ronald G. Prinn, Professor of Atmospheric Science, said that these sound bites have strongly affected the public perception of climate science. The sound bites can easily be used to “make up a story. You don’t have to be a scientist to do that,” he said.

Articles in papers like London’s Daily Telegraph and The Wall Street Journal have used these excerpts as evidence of a global warming hoax. But according to Prinn, there are many other independent data sets and analyses. The research at East Anglia was not critical to the anthropogenic global warming argument.

Such articles fuel Prinn’s belief that the media’s ability to evaluate complex science is diminished. With companies hurting economically, papers have grown thinner and the number of science writers fewer. It’s becoming more and more difficult to get reliable data and explanations of how conclusions were reached across to the public.

Prinn says the answer lies in peer-reviewed literature, not blogs or opinion pieces.

Reliance on such sources may explain popular misconceptions about global warming. As an example, Prinn noted that the “popular view of global warming is it’s all CO2.”

Yet the 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Planet on Climate Change cites a raft of other anthropogenic greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide. Emanuel also emphasized that water vapor significantly boosts the effects of CO2.

The panelists wholeheartedly agreed that the public needs to be exposed to more technical data, but could not settle on whether individuals should make sense of it for themselves and whether it’s asking too much of scientists to boil it down for them. Until then, mass media may likely remain the primary source of climate change “science” for the public.

Politics

Layzer argued that, similar to the media, policy debates do not rely on the pure science.

According to Layzer, science must be transformed into a compelling political story with a villain and a hero.

The policy-making process consists of groups competing to provide the authoritative definition of the problem and a responsible solution. In the case of climate change, one group advocates the risk of unchecked global warming and the need for government intervention while the other focuses on the economic backlash and questions the magnitude of the risk.

Layzer noted that once policy makers have defined a problem, they want to know what to do immediately — not wait until scientists have sorted all the data and reached a definitive conclusion. Hence, scientists are forced to make value judgments.

As an example, Layzer asked what constitutes dangerous interference with the climate system. Emanuel also questioned how high the threat of severe climatic change must be before we take action on global warming. A two percent likelihood? Ten percent? Fifty percent?

Different values prompt different responses. Prinn’s view of the risk is that we have no other planet to retreat to if anything happens to this one. “It’s not like the good old days when we could head west.” Meanwhile, Lindzen, who questions the statistical significance of temperature change attributed to human CO2 emissions, expressed suspicion of proposed solutions which require heavy government subsidies (like renewable energy).

Ironically, what has given the climate change issue momentum and prompted passionate policy debates is that it’s no longer an abstract concept with a lot of chemistry and reactions, Layzer explained. Instead, that lack of abstract understanding is what scientists now lament.