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Melting? Critics have hit IPCC over a false assertion that Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035.

Scientists Grapple With 'Completely Out of Hand' Attacks on Climate Science

Eli is a contributing correspondent for Science magazine.

SAN DIEGO—A symposium organized here at the last minute by two of the world’s most prominent scientific organizations addressed recent attacks on an increasingly beleaguered climate science community. The panel met in the uncertain aftermath of the release of e-mails stolen from prominent climate scientists and critiques of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The panel of academics was convened by National Academy of Science President Ralph Cicerone, in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (which publishes ScienceNOW), which is holding its annual meeting here. At a time when the biggest headlines on science have been over the flaws or legitimacy of climate science, said Cicerone, recent skirmishes over climate research “have really shaken the confidence of the public in the conduct of science [overall].” He cited a number of recent polls, which show a “degradation” in the respect of the public for science in general.

Climate researchers have taken the biggest hit. They are feeling the brunt of what IPCC author Chris Field has described as a “feeding frenzy” since the November e-mail release. “The situation is completely out of hand,” said Texas A&M climate scientist Gerald North. “One guy e-mailed me to say I'm a ‘whore for the global warming crowd.’ ” His PowerPoint presentation included a slide quoting conservative talk show host Glenn Beck: “If the IPCC had been done by Japanese scientists, there's not enough knives on planet Earth for hara-kiri that should have occurred.” Said North, “Scientists cannot use the same tone and rhetorical style as commentators and bloggers.”

Scientists repeatedly admitted how ill-equipped they were for the political fight into which they’ve found themselves flung. “We are very immature in our public communications," North said. “We need some coaching.” Harvard University policy expert Sheila Jasanoff, whose presentation focused largely on philosophical issues related to science and society, allowed that scientists had made a “tactical error” in not responding explicitly in public to attacks.

The press is responsible for much of the dire straits in which climate scientists now find themselves, the researchers said. For example, commentators have made “careless” assertions that large snowfall on the U.S. Eastern seaboard undermined global warming patterns, says Cicerone. That’s particularly frustrating for scientists who generally believe that a warmer atmosphere would mean a wetter and therefore snowier one. “The reporting on this has been truly abominable,” said ocean scientist James McCarthy of Harvard.

But McCarthy said that scientists had made plenty of mistakes on their own. Critics, for example, have uncovered a handful of errors in the 2007 IPCC report, including a false assertion that Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035. “The scientific community has been powerless” McCarthy said, to respond to attacks on the fundamental authority of IPCC, seemingly undermined by “two sentences on glaciers.” Small errors in the 2007 report were “careless” and minor he said, but IPCC should have done a full and public examination to describe how they had come about. “The names of the authors, who was on the review, what happened—it all should have been up there, and it wasn’t done. And I think that the institution was hurt as a result,” he said.

The community allowed “the situation to get out of control,” said Jasanoff. She said that in general scientists had to connect better to the public, one of the themes of this year’s AAAS meeting. “There is a kind of arrogance—we are scientists and we know best” Jasanoff said. “That needs to change.”

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