In Climate Wars, Advocacy By Some Researchers Brings Risks

Everybody talks about the weather, Mark Twain famously wrote, but nobody does anything about it.

Many climate researchers are no longer following Twain’s adage, noted Michael McPhaden, president of the American Geophysical Union. “Scientists today, they don’t just want to talk about it. They want to do something about it,” he said in an interview. “We’re the trustees of information which, in many ways, is of critical benefit to society.”


Some researchers are taking on a greater public-advocacy role to confront what many of them consider an existential crisis. But this strategy carries inherent risks, since scientists’ influence stems from the public perception that their credibility is beyond reproach.That’s why many in the scientific community recoiled when Peter Gleick, a respected hydrologist, admitted he had tricked the Heartland Institute , a free-market think tank that questions whether human activity contributes to global warming.


“Integrity is the source of every power and influence we have as scientists,” said Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “We don’t have the power to make laws, or run the economy.”


Georgia Institute of Technology atmospheric scientist Judith Curry says human activity is contributing to climate change but it remains uncertain whether it is or will be “the dominant factor.” She said she respected Gleick’s scientific work but worried about where his activism had taken him.


“Colleagues trying to make criminals out of themselves, and each other, is just an insane situation,” she said.


The stakes involved in this fight were on full display Friday, when the Virginia Supreme Court rejected Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II’s two-year effort to force the University of Virginia to turn over e-mails, drafts and handwritten notes prominent that climate scientist Michael E. Mann had written while serving on the faculty there. Mann, now a professor at Pennsylvania State University, accused Cuccinelli of engaging in a campaign of “character assassination’’against him.


There is no question that climate scientists have mobilized in recent years to talk more publicly about greenhouse-gas emissions from activities such as driving and coal-fired power plants. For years there were only a handful of researchers on both sides of the debate: the late Stanford University professor Stephen Schneider and James E. Hansen, who directs NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, spoke about the risks associated with climate change while Richard Lindzen, professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Roy Spencer, principal research scientist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, questioned the extent to which humans contributed to the problem.


Now dozens of climate scientists have taken on a more public-advocacy role, contending that mounting evidence suggests the world needs to curb greenhouse-gas emissions from the industrial and transport sectors or risk disastrous consequences.


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