Copenhagen and Climategate

by Andrew Freedman

The controversy regarding the hacked emails stolen from a British University server and posted online last month is clearly helping to set the scene for the Copenhagen climate summit. As a ‘curtain-raiser’ issue, it plays into the popular media frame of contention and conflict, leading to he said/she said debates that are so prevalent in cable news. But it is doubtful that we will be able to detect the influence of ‘climategate’ in the final product to come out of the talks.

In the negotiating rooms, the emails are not a hot topic (pardon the pun), despite the spike in media coverage. Yes, skeptics who question the mainstream scientific consensus that human emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the planet continue to seize on the scandal to erode public confidence in climate science. They hope to weaken the case for what they see as costly actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

To some extent they have been succeeding. There has been significant media coverage of the controversy, particularly in the United States and parts of Europe, and recent public opinion polls have shown an upward tick in climate change skepticism in the United States. But one needs to keep in mind a few fundamental facts about the UN climate negotiations in order to realize how small this controversy really is in the grander scheme of things.

First and foremost is the fact that the negotiations involve every nation on the planet. ‘Climategate’ may be receiving top billing in Politico, the Wall Street Journal, and on cable news networks, but it isn’t exactly resonating in the low-lying Maldives, which is a key part of the block of Small Island States that are pushing for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Nor is it front-page news in China, which along with the United States is the biggest player in the negotiations, given their large carbon footprint.

In many ways, long-lasting skepticism of climate science is an American, British and Australian phenomenon. Scholars have speculated about the reasons for this, with theories centering on media coverage of scientific issues and systems of government in these countries.

Importantly, the scientists whose task it is to advise the negotiators (officially this task falls to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), although each country is also informed by their own scientific advisors), have forcefully pointed out that the emails fail to undermine the broad and deep understanding of the warming influence of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane. In fact; that understanding has increased to the point where many scientists think climate change is far more serious and urgent now than they did just a few years ago, as outlined in a new report by leading climate scientists.

At the opening of the negotiations, Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Nobel Prize-winning body of scientists who undertake periodic and comprehensive reviews of climate science, took the unusual step of addressing delegates and reporters to counter critics of climate science. In addition, the key IPCC working group that analyzes climate trends and attributes the causes of such changes, released a longer statement on December 4 which reaffirmed its conclusions.

And Jonathan Pershing, the State Department’s deputy special envoy on climate change came out swinging against the view that the ‘climategate’ controversy will undermine progress at the negotiations. As quoted in a post on the New York Times’ Dot Earth blog, Pershing said, “I think they’ll have virtually no effect.”

It’s also important to keep in mind that this is the 15th Conference of the Parties to the 1992 U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, or “COP 15” in UN-speak. The global community has been working on this issue since the 1980s, and the scientific community well before that. There is a large amount of institutional momentum behind efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and an enormous amount of respect among negotiators for the scientific work of the IPCC.

Although climate science has taken a serious PR hit in the United States and a few other countries, ‘climategate’ simply is not a party to the climate talks. It will remain on the sidelines.