The recent e-mails from the Climate Research Unit in England that were obtained by hackers and posted online are a teapot tempest carefully organized by climate skeptics to derail an important international opportunity to reduce rates of human-caused climate change.
Out of several thousand e-mails, a few were carefully selected and presented out of context in a way that makes it impossible to assess the broader issues addressed by those involved. E-mail exchanges regarding any position on any important issue (health care or national security, for example) could have been similarly cherry-picked to misrepresent the activities and intent of those involved.
The central issue is that the evidence for causes of climate change has been intensively assessed for 20 years, and the evidence is increasingly clear that climate change is real, it has speeded up over the last half century and human activities cause a large proportion of this warming.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the group that has assessed these changes most thoroughly, includes thousands of scientists with a wide range of perspectives on the science of climate change. The assessments are carefully developed, thoroughly debated, then reviewed by a broad range of scientists. Climate skeptics have every opportunity to enter into the scientific study of climate change, and, if their perspective has not emerged in the final report, it is because their arguments were not scientifically sound or their explanations were found to have relatively small effects.
Every IPCC review comment is carefully evaluated, and the text of the final IPCC report is written to represent the best scientific agreement of the true state of knowledge about climate change. The IPCC is not the opinion of a few insider scientists; it is the scientific community’s best understanding of all the issues involved.
Finally, scientists appointed by every government involved in IPCC, including those appointed by former President Bush, must sign off on the final document. As a result, the IPCC process is very conservative in its conclusions.
Since the IPCC assessments began in 1980, climate change has been occurring at the fastest rate that climate scientists thought might occur, given uncertainty about the natural variation in climate or about decisions that people might make in their use of fossil fuels.
Given the clear message by IPCC that human activities (especially the emission of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels) are “very likely” the largest cause of recent climate warming, policy makers should take climate change very seriously and make their best efforts to reduce human impacts on the climate system.
The scientific justification for reducing carbon emissions is clear. The major question is whether society has the political will to reduce the rate of climate change.
Given that air temperatures in Alaska are warming about twice as fast as the average surface air temperature of the Earth, Alaskans have a big stake in the outcome of the political debate about climate change.
Terry Chapin is professor of ecology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2004, the first Alaskan to receive that honor.