Skip to main content

Science Community Stands Behind Evidence for Climate Change, Top Scientists Say at AAAS

SAN DIEGO--A panel of influential U.S. and European scientists yesterday affirmed the overwhelming scientific consensus that the Earth's climate is changing, but said they and their colleauges should have responded more quickly and effectively to news about errors in a major climate report and hacked researcher e-mails.

In a discussion at the AAAS Annual meeting, the prominent scientific leaders acknowledged errors in a 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and possibly impolitic email exchanges by East Anglia University climate researchers. But they expressed shock at the political effects of the disclosures and characterized the impact as far out of proportion to the overwhelming evidence that human activity is changing the Earth's climate.

"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.

Jerry North[photos by Edward W. Lempinen]

In addition to North, the panel 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 and Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography at Harvard University; and Philip Sharp; a Nobel laureate and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ralph Cicerone

The group appeared at a symposium on Friday 19 February; at a briefing later in the day, they talked to reporters and took questions for 45 minutes.

Lord Martin Rees

Some climate science critics and media reports have suggested that the e-mails, stolen from an East Anglican University server and released in November last year, 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.

In January, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change--a United Nations organization that has invovled thousands of scientists from all over 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.

Philip Sharp

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."

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 3 degrees Centigrade could actually send temperatures over the land soaring nearly to nearly 9 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 speakers also 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 reports have covered thousands of pages in phenomenal detail;including a false a before publication, the conclusions are subject to rigorous peer review. Indeed, he saiod, some IPCC researchers did catch the error that accelerated melting could lead to the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers by 2035. Still, the errors slipped through.

Dr. James J. McCarthy

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. He also argued that the IPCC's prestigious reputation 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 suggested. "Some of these [groups] are not really well organized to handle relations with the press."

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.

So far, McCarthy said, scientists haven't 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.