Trusting science on climate change

By Steve Hargreaves, staff writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Those beating the global warming drum have sure taken a few lumps lately.

First there were the hacked e-mails from climate scientists, which critics say show an effort to massage some data and keep some scientists out of the debate.

Then there was an admission from the Untied Nations' top climate body saying that it relied on some flawed numbers to predict a Himalayan glacier would soon melt.

Add to this a few high-profile U.N. resignations, plus little progress on climate laws and one of the snowiest winters the East Coast has ever seen, and it's enough to wonder: Do climate change scientists really know what they're talking about?

So CNNMoney went beyond the climate scientists and put the question to a broader swath of people with trusted scientific opinions yet not necessarily with skin in the game.

The weatherman

And who better to talk about the issue with than a man who gets paid no matter what it's doing outside: a local weatherman.

"I always feel it's best to talk to a climatologists," said Justin Kier, a weather anchor at WACH TV in Columbia, South Carolina. "And the scientific community tends to agree on one particular side."

That side is the scenario laid out by the now oft-criticized United Nation's report three years ago: That the earth is getting warmer, that's it's largely caused by humans, and the consequences could be severe.

Kier, who goes on the air five nights a week to deliver the local forecast, believes there is plenty of room for debate, especially over the specifics on how fast the planet is warming and what the consequences might be.

And like everyone contacted for this story, he stressed that all sides should be heard, even those who believe climate change is either not happening or not caused by humans.

"That's the only way we're going to get differing opinions and advance the science," he said.

But regardless of the debate, when it comes to the causes and consequences of global warming the American Meteorological Society basically agrees with Kier, perhaps in even stronger terms.

"The atmosphere, ocean, and land surfaces are warming; humans have significantly contributed to this change; and further climate change will continue to have important impacts on human societies, on economies, [and] on ecosystems," reads the society's official policy statement on climate change.

What about the recently hacked emails or revelations that mistakes were made with some of the data in the U.N. report?

"The body of research is very large and the dependence on any one set of results is very, very small," reads the society's response to the email debacle. "Even if some of the charges of improper behavior in this particular case turn out to be true -- which is not yet clearly the case -- the impact on the science of climate change would be very limited."

The skeptics

There are people, people making big decisions in Washington, that whole heartedly disagree with that statement.

"If global warming is real, then it is our biggest problem," Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga, was quoted saying while arguing to cut funding designed to help farmers adapt to a changing climate. "But it doesn't seem to be treated as science as much as policy."

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oak., a longtime climate change skeptic, went a step further. He called for possible criminal charges against the scientists involved in the email debacle.

"We knew they were cooking the science to support the flawed agenda," Inhofe said in a statement.

Climate skeptics generally feel that laws limiting emissions are too expensive and put the country at a competitive disadvantage to other nations, costing American jobs. Plus they generally don't see global warming as a problem making enacting new laws a moot point.

Some legitimate climate scientists doubt that the earth is warming or that the warming is caused by humans. But they appear to be a very small part of the overall scientific community.

The scientists

U.S. government scientists recently warned that "global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced." This despite instances of regional or short-term cooling.

In a report authored by scientists from 13 government agencies over both Republican and Democrat administrations, the scientists said the changes are already visible and likely to accelerate at an even faster pace than predicted by the U.N. report.

That assessment has not changed in light of the hacked emails or other mistakes.

"I find it unfortunate that things are being cast that way in the media," said Ahsha Tribble, a senior policy advisor at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the lead agencies on the report. "We stand strong behind the quality of our research and the integrity of our scientists."

NOAA isn't necessarily on the sidelines - many of their scientists served on the U.N. panel.

The teachers

But another group is not actively involved in writing market reports: America's teachers. And for now they're siding with the government scientists.

"We support teaching evidence-based science, and right now it's overwhelmingly in support that climate change is occurring," said Francis Eberle, an earth science teacher for 15 years and now executive director of the National Science Teachers Association.

Eberle did say that science changes over time, as more data comes in and more tests are performed. "There is a debate," he said. "And scientists need to discuss and question and criticize each other."

For all the debate over the science behind climate change, the biggest debate is probably over what to do about it.

Some say acting now, which would be costly, is like buying an insurance policy: It will be much cheaper and more humane to limit emissions now than deal with the consequences later, particularly if they are severe.

Others argue that the consequences may not be that severe, and that acting now would be a waste of money. Better to wait 10 or 20 years for the cost of renewable energy and other technologies to fall.

Either option seems like a gamble.  To top of page

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