How to respond to climate change skeptics

The integrity of climate research has taken a very public battering in recent months. Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.

That's how the editors of Nature start their lead editorial in this week's issue.1 Later in the same issue, Jeff Tolleson reports on the disclosure of another batch of e-mails among members of the National Academy of Sciences discussing how climate scientists should respond to a report released by Senator James Inhofe claiming that climate scientists obstructed the release of data, manipulated data to fit preconceived conclusions, and threatened journal editors who published dissenting views. Paul Ehrlich is quoted as saying that the climate change skeptics "are trying to keep the scientists busy and to keep the scientists from doing their job, and they are doing extremely well".

I suggest that we pause for a moment and catch our breath.
Paul Rogers has some helpful advice, based on his work in the highly politicized field of peace studies in the 1980s.

How does this relate to "climategate"? A key factor is that we were exposed to intensive criticism and persistent scrutiny of our work virtually from day one, and this in direct consequence made us hugely aware of the need for very high levels of accuracy and impeccable referencing of sources. Access to a wide range of military and defence journals, and a huge amount of information in the public domain, meant that this was actually not so difficult; but under so much external pressure we learned to be very cautious in our analysis at a time when exaggeration on the issues we addressed was common enough.

Many of us now think that the experience made us better academics. If almost everything you write is going to be exposed to detailed examination by relentless and often politically-motivated critics, then you have to set unusually exacting standards for your work. The likely - and beneficial - implication is that climate researchers who have gone through their own test-by-fire will in future take even greater care over published assessments and analyses.

So climate scientists should focus on being even more open about their work and on being even more careful that their work will stand up to the harshest external scrutiny. They have done well. Now they need to do even better.

The worry is that the benefits to climate science will come in the long run, and as Keynes pointed out, "in the long run, we're all dead." We may not have time to wait for the long run.

Rogers also addresses this concern:

The overall effect of the setbacks to climate-science's public face may amount to the loss of a year in the transition to a low-carbon future, but the good work being done in this area offers many grounds for optimism. The New Economic Foundation's The Great Transition project, and Tim Jackson's book Prosperity Without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet (Earthscan 2009) are but two examples. Alongside the evidence that continues to emerge about the accelerating impact of climate change, the flow of impressive research and compelling argument based on even more rigorous standards will ensure that the refusenik stance will in future become harder to make.

1The bold type is in the original.