Climategate: Is it real, imagined or simply exploitable by climate skeptics? As if the opening of a new decade were not complicated enough with the leftovers of a major global financial meltdown and governments arguing over the nature of an elusive recovery, we are now asked to contemplate more uncertainty and soul searching on what are the next risks for global society.

While those concerned over global warming see high risks as a result of dramatically changing weather patterns and want to put in place measures to reduce that risk, others continue to decry the prophets of doom and attack the body of science established over the past 30 years.

In the midst of this stew of noticeable events, like a giant beached whale, lies the debate over climate change, the underlying science and attempts by both sides to convince fellow citizens that they hold the truth to the question of the impact of a changing climate.

One of the consequences of the recent scandals that have enveloped the scientific community over e-mails leaked from a British climate lab at the University of East Anglia was the allegation that scientists were attempting to keep temperature data out of the clutches of climate skeptics or those seeking the information.

To add insult to injury, just as the participants in the Conference of the Parties (COP15) were gathering in Copenhagen, it was reported worldwide that the high-profile and crucial 2007 report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included the false assertion that the Himalayan glaciers could melt to nothing as early as 2035.

Apart from the allegations and mudslinging, scientists and the UNFCCC all went into damage control. The chairman of the IPCC announced that an independent review body will, from now on, examine the panel’s procedures for assessing climate change. Hence the term Climategate was added to our lexicon.

The immediate fallout from this dispute over the accuracy of scientific research has been to put that research into doubt. The March 4 Globe and Mail editorial entitled “Ecoglasnost” summed all this up quite nicely:

These incidents gave a boost to those who feel that human-caused climate change is overblown, and provided ammunition to extremists who see the entire issue as a hoax or a scientific conspiracy. Worse, the incidents and their aftermath revealed the scientific community to be defensive when challenged, and almost paranoid about dissenting opinions. Now, scientists must redouble their efforts to be open and transparent, and they must admit errors.

More recently, there has been a good start at renewal. The British climate scientist Phil Jones, who wrote many of the incriminating e-mail messages at East Anglia, appeared in front of a special committee of Parliament in London last month, and was forthcoming about what he called his “awful” messages. And Britain’s chief scientist, John Beddington, in an interview with the Guardian, clearly enunciated the approach that must be taken. “Skepticism and criticism is the way science grows,” he said. “Where at all possible, data and analyses should be available so that people can do the challenging in an unhindered way.”

So much for the mea culpas. But where does that leave the rest of us poor mortals in trying to figure out the scope and seriousness of climate-related research and conclusions? How do we relate this set of “mistakes” or misrepresentations to the lack of success in Copenhagen and the list of global issues identified at Davos? There is a link here, as sustainable development — including energy, water, resource efficiency, technologies for a low-carbon world — and economic competitiveness, racing for greener economies, interlink with questions of where we are going and what we need to get there.

These are critical issues in the transformation of national and regional economies. Overarching and interwoven into the mix are the rise of China and India as economic powers, in juxtaposition with a struggling US economy. The credibility of scientific research and of the scientists who look for answers to what is happening and what we can do to mitigate the worst impacts is inexorably tied to the willingness of political leaders and their constituents to form the right-minded view on the issues and the possible solutions. Is the science flawed and incorrect? Or is science running afoul of politics and entrenched special interests?

A 2010 article entitled “Anatomy of IPCC’s Mistake on Himalayan Glaciers and Year 2035,” by Bidisha Banerjee and George Collins, looks at mistakes made in the IPCC reviews and echoed in the media. The article answers the question “How did this happen?” So far so good, but as the editor of the publicaton points out, “The next question involves how the IPCC addresses flaws in its procedures to prevent recurrence of such a mistake.” Prophetically he goes on to state: “The world’s glaciers, after all, aren’t sitting idly waiting. For them the clock is ticking.”

So scientists, like economists, politicians, business leaders and just about anyone labelled “human,” make mistakes. Do those errors invalidate the body of work? If several thousand e-mails from any body of work were scrutinized, would we not find errors in judgment, misrepresentations of opinion or juvenile comments? I believe the results of this tempest have not yet invalidated the fact that the global climate is warming, and that we need to rise above our opinions and to agree on what is taking place (regardless of who or what is causing it). We also need to form an opinion on how it will affect our living space and quality of life and what we can or should do about it. This is too serious a challenge for us to descend into endless mudslinging, recriminations and fog chasing.

In his recent blog, Marlo Raynolds of the Pembina Institute, which promotes as its mission sustainable energy solutions, asks, “How would we respond to an equal threat that wasn’t called climate change?” It is a valid question. Without resorting to research, every day the media reports the effects of global warming as the melting of Arctic ice accelerates and chunks of Antartica the size of small countries break off and drift into the southern oceans. Speculation on what this will do to ocean currents and the corresponding effects stares us in the face periodically.

To add insult to injury, just as the participants in the Conference of the Parties (COP15) were gathering in Copenhagen, it was reported worldwide that the high profile and crucial 2007 report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included the false assertion that the Himalayan glaciers could melt to nothing as early as 2035.

What Raynolds is saying is that if we can get over what we last heard and focus on what we are observing around us, we will arrive at the conclusion that we need to better understand the impact of these changes, if only to be able to calculate the risk and the degree of effort we need to invest in either mitigation or adaptation. The former is, in the common person’s understanding, linked to prevention, while the latter deals with the unavoidable and invests in remedial actions. The alternative to any of this is to ignore what is going on and hope like the dickens that when we remove the covers from around our heads the world will be all right.

The only problem with this scenario is that by then it is usually too late to experiment and test options, and our choices will revert to drastic solutions to meet the dramatic impacts that no one can predict with certainty today. How many times have we heard “So what is wrong with growing pineapples in Manitoba? Or enhancing the growing season in Canada to enable us to have more productive growing seasons?” In theory, nothing; in common-sense terms, everything.

The scale of the impact on our children and grandchildren is such an unknown that the prospect of investing energy and monies now to offset the worst of the risk is akin to prudence or the acquisition of a reasonable insurance policy. My own conclusion, where peer-reviewed science carries the day, is to hedge and to recognize that global warming is a reality that does and will continue to impact on our well-being. This does not answer how we should react or what policies we should put in place as the debate unfolds and scientists clarify and retest the data.

In a recent New York Times editorial entitled “We Can’t Wish Away Climate Change,” focused on the accelerating pace of global warming, Al Gore said:

But the scientific enterprise will never be completely free of mistakes. What is important is that the overwhelming consensus on global warming remains unchanged. It is also worth noting that the panel’s scientists — acting in good faith on the best information then available to them — probably underestimated the range of sea level rise in this century, the speed with which the Arctic ice cap is disappearing and the speed with which some of the large glacial flows in Antarctica and Greenland are melting and racing to the sea.

Let’s not throw out good science, or even adverse scientific results, in our quest to understand what is happening. Rather we need to recognize that, in its direction, the science is right, and that global temperatures are on the increase. We need to better predict what this might do to our biodiversity: How will it affect the living and migratory patters of fellow species? What will it do to the world’s water supplies and to our ocean currents? And most importantly, what can we do to better equip ourselves to deal with these changing patterns? Are we so smug in the presumption that we are the superior species that we can afford to ignore what is observable around us? I think not.

My answer to the question on the validity of the scientific data on climate is that we can deal with the frivolities and the controversy, as long as we understand the part of the science and research that is unassailable. In terms of its direction the science will stand as credible and largely correct. We need to get on with deciding what we want to do about it and to invest in solutions.

Back to Marlo Raynolds and his exhortation that if by 2050 our planet was going to be the target of a huge asteroid on track to destroy the only world we know, we would soon want to confirm the risk, identify solutions and support the experts to direct the investments required to avoid or eliminate the risk. The example is interesting and misleading, as greenhouse gases are invisible, uncontrollable and free of human or geographic jurisdictional constraints. They and their consequences are therefore subject to a different quantum of opinion, uncertainty, speculation and calculation. This reality makes them more difficult to deal with in terms of public opinion, political and media manipulation and, most importantly, economic imperatives. They are, nevertheless, real.

That reality and the measures required to mitigate or adapt to the impacts are what feed the debate and the positioning of special interests. Two of the massive changes fuelling this dynamic tension are economic competitiveness and our energy future.

Every week we are bombarded by well-intentioned individuals who want to accelerate the pace of change, regardless of consequences or costs. The justification for this fast track is that governments will have to look after those who join the ranks of the unemployed and the more vulnerable members of society as we move at warp speed to transform our economies. Every week we are bombarded by those who say, Do not worry, the world must continue to mine our resources and meet the expectation of humans on this planet to keep or attain a standard of living that has become a right and a precursor to unqualified success. Every week we hear the pleas of the developing world and the poorest of humanity to allow them to aspire to a state of economic well-being that at least gives them the tools to compete in an ever more interdependent global economy.

We are talking here of economic growth and jobs, in a world where we face enormous future growth in populations, massive investments in infrastructure to support that growth and limitations on our ecosystems in terms of how far we can continue to exploit them without regard to the consequences. Underlying the discussions in Copenhagen was the issue of economic transformation and national economic competitiveness. This will continue to be the reality at the next confab of nations at COP16 in Mexico.

The Chinese and Indians most certainly understand that competitiveness is the issue that lies at the intersection of the environment and the economy. In terms of the business community, the World Business Council on Sustainable Development (WBCSD) is calling for clear, predictable and stable rules in order to allow investors to undertake investments and finance solutions. The fact that the WBCSD and the International Energy Agency are collaborating to provide road maps on energy technologies to 2050 is an encouraging sign. So is the work being done by the G8 on the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity in this UN International Year of Biodiversity. These efforts and the ongoing work reflect the concern and the realization that we need actions on the positive side of the ledger to offset the impacts and consequences that degradation of our environment will have on our economic well-being and, by implication, our social well-being.

What about here in Canada? We all feel tremendously proud of our Olympic performance in Vancouver, and the country came together in one of those rare moments. Can we migrate that cohesiveness to tackle the issues of economic transformation and the greening of our economy, thereby giving us a competitive edge in this new global race to sustainable prosperity? The answer is yet to be made clear.

The recent federal budget holds the present line and is unoffensive to the great majority of fellow Canadians. Future budgets will be much more difficult as we must return to balanced budgets and find the funds needed to help push on the transformation of our economy and pull to create meaningful jobs or attract much-needed talent and know-how to offset anticipated labour shortages. In this mix we will have to deal with our natural and energy resources.

If competitiveness is at the intersection of the economy and the environment for all in this world, then for Canada there is a third reality, and that is the reality of Canada as an energy supplier. We deny this at our peril, even if the long-term goal of our world were to be free of all fossil fuels at some stage in the future. While this is a laudable goal, we will be reliant on hydrocarbons and other forms of energy, including renewables, for many decades yet. This does not mean we should relax or diminish our efforts to innovate and find carbon-free sources of energy. Even the Danes, who have large wind-powered renewable energy supplies, have not found a way they can be fossil-fuel independent until well toward the end of this century.

Climategate will pass and the temporary damage done by the leak of e-mails and the comments of scientists questioning their data sets will be resolved by reconfirmation of data or new data as we continue to probe for facts and test hypothesis. What will not go away is how to position climate issues within the context of evolving policy aimed at dealing with the changes and the consequences of those changes on our habitat.

As Brian Lee Crowley states in his recent book Fearful Symmetry: The Rise and Fall of Canada’s Founding Values: “The forecast for world energy demand between now and 2030 shows global growth requiring more of every kind of energy, including oil, placing the oil sands at the heart of the world’s energy future.”

Our thirst for secure, reliable sources of energy will test our ability to reduce the carbon footprint of existing sources and to increase renewables, as well as discover innovative energy technologies. This will have to include meeting our potential for energy efficiency and pricing our consumption of all forms of energy to reflect its true ecological costs. With our historical and constitutional baggage, our ability to achieve a consensus on a national strategy for meeting our collective as well as regional energy potential is a much more seminal question than the temporary tempest over Climategate. Climategate is a diversion that helps the skeptics feel good and diverts attention and energy from the real issue of economic transformation and environmental well-being.

If anything, we need to get over Climategate and focus on global warming as a game changer for our economic, environmental and energy future. Success in this will ensure Canada’s sustainable prosperity.

How do we communicate through the noise and clutter of Climategate?

Throughout my career in the public and private sectors I ran into the ever-present willingness to blame failure on any issue on communications or communicators. There is a certain grain of truth in looking at the failure of communications in the advocacy of any controversial issue. It is also a cop-out.

In point of fact, as Dan Kahan said in the journal Nature:

People endorse whichever position reinforces their connection to others with whom they share important commitments. As a result, public debate about science is strikingly polarized. The same group who disagree on “cultural issues” — abortion, same sex marriage and school prayer — also disagree on whether climate change is real and on whether underground disposal of nuclear waste is safe.

Kahan goes on to point out that in democratic societies dispute over empirical data is a war of culture, and that moving to protect the best interests of citizens lies with the ability of duly elected governments to forge a consensus. Kahan’s article makes for interesting reading and provides a context for explaining that people congregate, as a result of their cultural values on complex technical issues such as the science, around climate. In the final analysis, we are good at the mechanics of communications and lousy at understanding the theory of risk communication that takes into account the effects of culture on decision-making.

Richard Stuebi, who has followed this issue in the Huffington Post, concludes that “unfortunately, both sides of the climate debate — passionate scientists and policy advocates vs. heated skeptics and supporters of the status quo at any cost — have moved beyond the rational debate into the mystical…Is this what we’ve come to: holy wars about climate? »

Climategate will pass and the temporary damage done by the leak of emails and the comments of scientists questioning their data sets will be resolved by reconfirmation of data or new data as we continue to probe for facts and test hypothesis. What will not go away is how to position climate issues within the context of evolving policy aimed at dealing with the changes and the consequences of those changes on our habitat. Our political, scientific, environmental, economic and business leaders carry a responsibility here to communicate facts and to explain the risks in a manner that prevents onlookers from, as Kahan puts it, “experiencing scientific debates as contests between warring cultural factions — and [picking] sides accordingly.”

Finally James Murdoch, chairman and CEO of the parent company of Fox News, in an editorial in the Washington Post, hit the mark:

You do not need to believe that all climate science is settled or every prediction or model is perfect to understand the benefits of limiting pollution and transforming energy policies — as a gradually declining cap on carbon pollution would do. This is the moment to champion policies that yield new industries, healthy competition, cleaner air and water, freedom from petroleum politics and reduced costs to business.

The sooner we can develop this focus the better chance we have of succeeding. In the process we stand to gain in this country from those rare moments when the majority end up agreeing on priorities and then acting on solutions.


Photo: Shutterstock

Contributing Writer Daniel Gagnier is vice-chair of the Energy Policy Institute of Canada. He was chief of staff to Quebec Premier Jean Charest, senior vice-president of Alcan with global responsibilities for the  environment, deputy secretary of the cabinet for communications at the Privy Council Office, and principal secretary to former Ontario Premier David Peterson.

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