It has not been a good season for science. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at the United Nations, has come under attack because the IPCC issued a report three years ago saying that the Himalayan glaciers could be all but gone by 2035. This came from an interview with an Indian glaciologist in 1999, according to press reports, and never was put to the test of a peer- reviewed study. Other experts have insisted that those glaciers might hold up for hundreds of years. Indeed, another working group that contributed to the IPCC survey has attributed the problem to a sloppy error by “social and biological scientists” who allowed a faulty prediction to slip into their study. Some trace that mistake to a transposition of figures in the date 2350, a forecast to which many, apparently, can repair.
Then came the e-mail imbroglio at the University of East Anglia in Britain where a hacker got into a thousand messages or more and dumped them on the web. This caused big trouble for Professor Phil Jones, who runs the climate research unit on that campus, and Dr. Michael Mann of Penn State in the U.S. who, as the New York Times put it, referred in an e-mail to his gathering of data from a number of different sources, including ancient tree rings and earth core samples, as a ‘trick..’”
What a euphoric moment for the chorus of unbelievers who clamor always on the edges of climate science. Some of them are scientists themselves, but many are not. It was members of the latter group who seized on the word “trick,” known to them as a deception. Surely it proved that Dr. Mann and others like him were trying to suppress findings that did not agree with their own. Actually the word, “trick” has many meanings, including this: “a special technique.” David Meltzer, an archaeologist at SMU who works on Ice Age peoples of North America and the way they’ve dealt with changes in their climate or environment, told me he “has certainly used the term before in the sense of a trick being a nifty way of solving a problem.”
“In fact,” he continued, “it seems to me that the very shrillness and silliness of the reaction to the word ‘trick’ reveals the weakness of climate change skeptics. In the absence of being able to rebut the evidence, they’re attacking trivialities.”
Then came the snows of February, chilling the argument that the world is warming. So declared those who resent the “inconvenient truth” of Al Gore, and dissent from it. But they are misunderstanding the difference between weather and climate. Dr. Meltzer explained it like this: “Weather is what’s outside today, the sum total of atmospheric variables over a very brief period of time. Climate is the long-term pattern and trend in an area, a composite of weather… over decades, centuries, millennia.” And that trend, he said, is toward warming.
At this point, it seems to me that scientists who warn about climate change are mustering more evidence than those who refute it. But Chad Briggs of Lehigh University, a senior advisor to the Department of Energy, cautioned that the question for Congress and the President is not the science itself half so much as it is the risk. It is a matter of risk management. Another analyst in Berlin put it this way: What is the cost of investing in new energy technology now versus the cost later of not having invested? It will be considerably more expensive, warned this analyst, to do nothing and hope for the best.