Smart Takes

Does global warming science need a restart (or at least a new story)?

Posting in Environment

Climate Gate has left the average objective person, or the majority of people, in the cold as two opposing sides scream at each other over politics, leaked emails and whether science has been compromised. The whole global warming effort needs a restart.

For the last few weeks, I've been trying to cut through the flap over leaked e-mail messages and program files from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. After perusing various Climategate accounts and global warming reports it's clear that most of what you get is rambling about how denialists stink and climate change supporters are delusional. In between, there's a lifetime supply of politics.

It's all so disappointing. How does the average bear sort through this?

Going through this mess there are a few conclusions that seem apparent:

  • The leaked emails from East Anglia are enough to raise questions about the data analysis and the scientific process.
  • Climategate isn't enough by itself to blow apart the entire global warming argument.
  • But you can't be intellectually honest and pretend that the science isn't at least somewhat tainted.
  • There are so many institutions wrapped around the global warming argument that they have covered their ears to dissent. CBS News' Declan McCullagh has the account of the American Physical Society, a professional association of physicists that has prominent members calling for a time out. APS officials won't budge.
  • The sides are so polarized that the average observer is likely to tune out the entire debate (a stretch considering the lack of peer review and abundance of shouting).

So now what? Climate change needs a do-over on many fronts. First, the science has to be scrubbed. There's enough doubt here to give folks serious reservations about plunging headfirst into big legislation or economic overhauls in a recession in the name of global warming. Do the investigations. Put the data out there for the world to see. And listen to folks such as William Happer, a physicist who runs the Happer Lab at Princeton University; Hal Lewis, a professor emeritus of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara; and Robert Austin, another Princeton physics professor and head of a biophysics research group, who urge an examination of the data to filter out what's tainted.

Lewis sums it up for what I believe is the silent majority of folks who land in the middle of this climate change scrum.

The tragedy is that the serious questions are quantitative, and it's easy to fool people with slogans. If you say that the Earth is warming you are telling the truth, but not the whole truth, and if you say it is due to the burning of fossil fuels you are on thin ice. If you say that the Earth is warming and therefore catastrophe lies ahead, you are pulling an ordinary bait and switch scam. If you are a demagogue, of course, these distinctions don't bother you -- you have little interest in that quaint concept called truth.

The problem is getting the answers on these serious questions qualifies as largely impossible. Why? Politics. It's not hard to find loud guys yelling "denialist" on one side and the other side features people revving up their Hummers and circa 1950 coal plants. Most of us believe in climate change and protecting the environment, but also take the economic risk and rewards into account.

Meanwhile, this back-and-forth occurs with the U.N. Copenhagen powwow going on in the background. The carbon dioxide produced by all the talking, private jets and limos may warm up the earth a few degrees.

For me, the climate change argument needs the following:

  • A data analysis do-over or at least an effort to ferret out compromised information.
  • Better analytics. With this scrubbed data let's provide the masses with an analytics app hosted in the cloud that shows the data, assumptions made, how you can change outcomes and the probabilities of climate disasters (preferably riding shotgun with economic outcomes). Don't tell us disaster looms with a Photoshopped slide. Show us and give us the tools to see it ourselves.
  • A different story: Is the goal to leave the environment as you found it or to install a bunch of regulations and controls ahead of some cataclysmic event that may or may not happen in 20 years? Guess which one is easier to sell.
  • An analysis of economic risk.
  • A political free zone. If climate change is really a political movement then the receptive audience is greatly diminished.

My advice for you is to go through this stuff on your own and come up with conclusions. A few links for your journey (if you have more please add them in the comments):

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Larry Dignan

Editor-in-Chief

Editor-in-Chief Larry Dignan is editor-in-chief of SmartPlanet and ZDNet. He is also editorial director of TechRepublic. Previously, he was an editor at eWeek, Baseline and CNET News. He has written for WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, New York Times and Financial Planning. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the University of Delaware. He is based in New York but resides in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure