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Emails are normal conversation–rough, off the cuff, and even crude–but they are not the issue

Jere Lipps, professor emeritus of integrative biology | December 13, 2009

The thousands of stolen emails and documents ( (61 mb)) do not negate global warming.  Mostly they are the usual kinds of emails between collaborating or inquiring scientists, exchanging data, ideas, friendship, and criticism of other’s ideas and papers. Most are between scientists that share the idea that global warming is taking place.  However, they are all informal communications much like you might hear in conversation between scientists or any other sorts of people. Egos are commonly at stake in these conversations.     Clearly the emails are not well thought out and polished drafts of a scientific nature.    Some are straightforward discussion, others are gossipy and even nasty, some propose crazy ideas, and some are legitimate exchanges of good ideas and data.    Sometimes ways to deal with contrary ideas are discussed.  Some emails even voice the idea that others’ papers are lousy and should not be published.   All of this goes on commonly among scientists just as it does among non-scientists interested in a particular topic.   A few emails use words that have meaning between the correspondents but that are easily misinterpreted or manipulated to suit another aim, especially by people who want to use these emails to scare people and to destroy the ongoing work on global warming. 

This kind of email  is not restricted to climate either.   In looking back over my own email conversations on other scientific issues, I can see similar trains of thought and instantaneous replies that lack polish, use shorthand words, and some that are even quite crude and unkind.   It is perfectly normal sort of human behavior.  But we don’t publish that kind of stuff–it’s just conversation.    If you want to understand climate change seriously, read the scientific literature where the evidence, pro or con, is published.  It is nonsense to blow these emails up to the level of dismissing global warming–that would be tragic.  We have a lot to lose.

The task of reading all of these is enormous, but none that I read contradicts the evidence of global warming.  The Associated Press (12-13-09) did read them all and came to the same conclusion.  Indeed, even if one does not believe the modeling or recent records of temperature, the evidence of melting ice caps, glacial retreat, collapse of ice shelves, warming  in the Arctic Ocean, heating of the Antarctic Peninsula region, redistribution worldwide of plants and animals on land and in the sea, of changing feeding strategies of marine animals, changing reproductive times of plants, of sea level rise, of flooded low lying islands and areas, and of current changes in the oceans does  indicate that global warming is occurring.   Most scientists believe it is happening right now.  Some warming  comes from the natural trend over the past 13,000 years during which sea level rose 390 feet, temperatures climbed to the warmest in 125,000 years, ice declined worldwide, new patterns of life emerged on land, as well as possible extinctions of large birds and mammals.  On top of this, the warmest natural time since Homo sapiens spread throughout the world,  humans have and are  contributing  greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.   We know how those work; they are in the atmosphere now and are warming the planet even more than nature would have done.  The issues are complex because the climate system of atmosphere and particularly oceans reacts, not smoothly, but in jerks and fits as various processes catch up with others.  But we cannot lose track of the long term changes, some noted above, that clearly show changes have been and are underway, and that humans are now contributing to them.

I do not “believe” in global warming, I accept it  based on the evidence.  I will accept it no longer when evidence shows it is not happening, but I will not reject it based on skeptics pounding on old emails, books or editorials using selective evidence, or just rhetoric,  especially when they reveal  predilections about saving the economy.  If they really want to do that, then they must look at all the evidence impartially and assess it appropriately without bias of their own backers or opinions, before they decide what to do.   That is what scientists try to do, within the usual failings and weaknesses of human frailty.

The emails are being blown up out of proportion to their importance,  just as those who oppose health care reform do, in order to distract and misinform the real debate.   Science works by development and testing of hypotheses, and right now the hypothesis of global warming is supported by far more evidence and theory than counters it.   Do we reject all of that based on a few words in a couple of  old emails?  Do we wait until we get even more evidence?  Or do we use what we have now to develop policy?   By the time we get total evidence, it may be too late.   Better to act on what we know for sure, than listen to the skeptics who have other irons in the fire, chiefly the cry that climate change legislation will be hazardous to our economy.  Sure, it probably will be, but wait until global warming really gets going, then you may see some real economic disasters.  Unfortunately, the skeptics do not always see that economic opportunities also lie in dealing intelligently with climate change.  Skeptical people and corporations need to take a long-term look at this, not just where the money will come from next quarter, but they need to put themselves in their children’s and grandchildren’s shoes in future decades as they develop their  own agendas–it’s not so much  about us now, it’s about our kids later.   

Whatever you believe, you should prepare for climate changes in the near future (most people’s and especially their kid’s lifetimes).

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