Late in 2009, hackers broke into the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in Great Britain and obtained thousands of personal e-mails and other electronic documents. Some of the e-mails were critical of climate change skeptics, and some of them could be interpreted as suggesting that data or text had been manipulated to emphasize the certainty of the science of climate change and to play down uncertainties (the reverse of what the Bush administration did in the early 2000s).
The e-mail exchanges received considerable public attention, especially from those who seek to minimize or deny the seriousness of the climatic disruption. There is no question, the authors were open and candid in their discussions, not writing for the record or for publication. They were embarrassed to have their thoughts, hypotheses and opinions made public. On the other hand, nothing in these documents undermines in any way the firm scientific knowledge that underlies our understanding of climate change. No single fact of science has changed, no new insights were obtained, no principle was shattered. Rather, shades of difference among interpretations of the data are being magnified and misrepresented to give a patently false impression that the science is vague or, worse, bogus.
In part because of a deliberate campaign to discredit the science, of which the publication of these e-mails is the latest example, there is an enormous gap between public perception of global warming and the scientific understanding of it. That gap became conspicuous in Copenhagen last December at the meeting of the Parties to the Framework Convention on Climate Change, where the only agreement among nations was to do substantially nothing and allow the mean temperature of the earth to drift to a 2-degree Celsius rise. This decision was made despite clear evidence that, with an average global warming already of 0.75 degrees C, there are now droughts on every continent. People are being displaced from the land in central Africa and Australia. Rice, which until recently was exported from Australia, can no longer be grown there. The outbreak of bark beetles in the western coniferous forests of Canada, as well as increased frequency of fires in the boreal forests globally, are all early signs of the effects of the disruption of climate. Sea level is rising today at twice the rate of the last century, increasing the probability of major flooding of coastal areas. New Orleans is just a sample of what is to come if nothing is done to stabilize the concentrations of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.
A stabilization of carbon dioxide concentration would require reducing the emissions of carbon from fossil fuels and deforestation by about half of their present values, or by the amount of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere each year. Further reductions would be required in subsequent years to bring the concentration down to a level that would not continue to disrupt climate. There are two ways to handle that much carbon in time to correct the accelerating trends: manage fossil fuels to reduce emissions, and manage forests globally to stop further deforestation and to rebuild natural forests on once forested land now abandoned. These are large steps, and the details are not simple. But at this late date, there is no alternative if we are to avoid major disruptions of human populations, everywhere, but especially where people depend directly on the land for water, food, fuel and fiber.
The world is threatened as never before with accelerating changes that reduce its capacity for supporting this civilization, and major efforts are under way to undermine confidence in those best equipped to anticipate the problem and offer solutions for correcting it. The outrage aimed so effectively at the scientists for their e-mails should be turned instead to those who are using the information to discredit what is the largest and most important global scientific enterprise ever undertaken, all in the public interest.
Richard A. Houghton '65 is deputy director and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Mass. The author of dozens of scientific papers, he holds a Ph.D. from SUNY at Stony Brook and an honorary doctorate from the University of Munich. His research interests focus on the global carbon cycle, terrestrial ecosystems, land-use change and the response of ecosystems to climate change.