In a symposium Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement Science, AAAS, the scientific leaders acknowledged errors in a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and possibly impolitic email exchanges by East Anglian University climate researchers.
But they expressed shock at the political effects of the disclosures and said the impact was far out of proportion to the overwhelming evidence that human activity is changing the Earth's climate.
Jerry North (Photos by Edward Lempenin courtesy AAAS)
"There has been no change in the scientific community, no change whatsoever," in the consensus that global average temperatures have been steadily climbing since the mid-20th century," said Jerry North, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.
The panel also included: Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academies of Science and chair of the National Research Council; Lord Martin Rees, president of the Royal Society in the U.K.; James J. McCarthy, chairman of the AAAS Board; Alexander Agassiz, professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University; and Philip Sharp; a Nobel laureate and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Some climate science critics and media reports have suggested that the e-mails, stolen from an East Anglican University server and released last November, show evidence of tinkering with climate change data. But many scientists say comments from the emails were taken out of context and used in misleading ways.
An independent investigation is ongoing. The Royal Society will provide advice to the University of East Anglia in identifying assessors to conduct an independent external reappraisal of the Climatic Research Unit's key publications.
Lord Martin Rees
Rees said on February 12, "It is important that people have the utmost confidence in the science of climate change. Where legitimate doubts are raised about any piece of science they must be fully investigated - that is how science works. The names being put forward by the society will be acting as individuals, not representatives of the Society and the Society will have no oversight of this independent review."
In January, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations organization that has involved thousands of scientists from around the world in producing four major reports since the 1990s, acknowledged that it had included unsubstantiated data on Himalayan glacier melting in a 2007 report.
Cicerone said "the appearance, if not the reality," of a rift within the research community has "corroded" the climate debate in a way that "may spread over to other kinds of science."
James J. McCarthy
Scientists need to redouble their efforts to share the implications of climate change with the public, he said, by breaking down the numbers and showing how the often-cited global average temperature rise of three degrees Centigrade could actually send temperatures over the land soaring nearly to nearly nine degrees in the next few decades.
"A lot of what we need to do," said Cicerone, "is translate basic information into terms the public can understand.
Several of the scientists acknowledged that some of the details of climate change remain uncertain. But "we think despite all the uncertainties ... action is justified and indeed imperative" to avoid the worst effects of climate change, said Rees.
The IPCC conclusions are subject to rigorous peer review. Indeed, said Rees, some IPCC researchers did catch the erroneous statement that accelerated melting could lead to the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers by 2035. Still, the error slipped through.
McCarthy, who formerly served as co-chair of an IPCC working group, predicted that the organization would certainly redouble its efforts to catch mistakes in the future.
Sunset in Germany, July 29, 2009 (Photo by Juergen Kuprat)
He said the IPCC's prestigious reputation as a Nobel Peace Prize winning organization was a factor in many news reports. "The greater the stature of the institution," he said, "the harder the fall."
Some scientists were also not prepared to discuss the data in ways that were useful to the press and public, said North. While the diversity of data - from pollen samples to satellite data to computer modeling - is a key strength of climate change conclusions, the "culture" of each discipline is equally varied, he said.
"Some of these [groups] are not really well organized to handle relations with the press," North said.
Climate change is "diffuse and international and remote in time," two special hurdles that make it "very hard to get the public exercised on the matter," said Rees.
Wider access and transparency for research data is a step toward better communication, Cicerone said. The National Academies released a report last year on building specific standards for sharing research more broadly with scientific colleagues and the public.
The controversy will probably play only a small role whether the U.S. Congress will pass a climate change law this year, said McCarthy and Cicerone, who said Americans remain more concerned about a sluggish economy than about climate change.
So far, McCarthy said, scientists have not done "a sufficiently good job" of persuading the American people and their congressional representatives of the potential economic and health benefits of a comprehensive climate change law.
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