The real fallout of climategate may have nothing to do with the credibility of climate change. Daniel Henninger thinks it's a bigger problem for the scientific community as a whole and he calls out the real problem as seen through the eyes of a lay person in an opinion piece for the WSJ. Henninger muses 'I don't think most scientists appreciate what has hit them,' and carries on that vein in saying, 'This has harsh implications for the credibility of science generally. Hard science, alongside medicine, was one of the few things left accorded automatic stature and respect by most untrained lay persons. But the average person reading accounts of the East Anglia emails will conclude that hard science has become just another faction, as politicized and "messy" as, say, gender studies.' While nothing interesting was found by most scientific journals, he explains that the attacks against scientists in these leaked e-mails for proposing opposite views will recall the reader to the persecution of Galileo. And in doing so will make the lay person unsure of the credibility of ALL sciences without fully seeing proof of it but assuming that infighting exists in them all. Is this a serious risk? Will people even begin to doubt the most rigorous sciences like Mathematics and Physics?"
The WSJ article is breathless and overstated. The claim that science itself is just politics by other means, often made in the past by the left, is no more true than ever when spewed from the right. Still, the fact that there is some fallout to the credibility of science is real. That political activists are happy to throw away the baby with the bathwater is not news to us, but their recent success in the matter isn;t something we can dismiss lightly.
A Slashdot response which I liked very much:
People concerned about the policy proposals currently being put forward have focused way too much energy on questioning the scientific findings of current and recent warming. It's so unnecessary because scientists understand, and will readily admit, that there is much greater uncertainty when the models are run forward to predict future decades.
The models can be tuned and validated against historical data, then different forcings backed out to assign relative significance. This is where you get statements like (paraphrasing) "70% of recent warming has been due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions, with 90% confidence." Some estimate of confidence is possible because of the validation against historical empirical data and climate reconstructions. Independent lines of inquiry can reinforce each others' findings. This is solid science, and where the "climategate" PR stunt falls down. The e-mails provide good fodder for insinuation, but no answer to the quantitative agreement seen in independent lines of study.
But when we run the models forward, there is not yet any empirical confirmation. Distinct models, using distinct data sets, can be seen to agree to some degree--but how much of that reflects reality, and how much reflects common assumptions? Every forward-looking run must assume some set of future values for human activity and natural processes, including ones that are parameterized (like cloud formation) that might advance beyond currently validated bounds. The uncertainty grows when the models are asked to bring their predictions down to local conditions--the distinction between predicting global average climate, and predicting long-term local weather. Will Kansas get hotter or colder, wetter or drier? There is quite a bit of uncertainty in such predictions--again, as working scientists clearly understand.
Layering on the biological response to these uncertain predictions creates even more uncertain predictions. One recent study at Woods Hole seemed to indicate that some animals might respond to ocean acidification by growing thicker shells. I'm not taking that one study as gospel, but it is worth considering that we do not fully understand biological systems and how they will respond to changing climate conditions.
Finally we get to the societal and economic layer, which sits, at least partially, atop uncertain biological predictions. Global warming may causes shifts in where certain crops can be grown--these changes will exact a cost on human society. Will they also confer a benefit? It's not scientific heresy to think that changes to climate can produce benefits as well as costs--although perhaps not to the same subset of the population. We may have to invest substantially in new areas and ways of farming, in new transportation routes. It's not inconceivable that the end result could be greater efficiencies and healthier produce. And of course there is also substantial error (to say the least) in multi-decade economic models.
The greatest threat is probably sea level rise. Wealthy nations might make the decision to invest in mitigation, rather than prevention. It is possible to raise or move cities, and to build barriers to keep out the sea. Such decisions are policy, but must be informed by the best scientific understanding we have--but that understanding must include understanding of uncertainty.
But instead what we see is a concentrated dose of PR and ignorance, attempting to raise doubts about scientifc conclusions about climate change that are well-supported (like whether human emissions can change the climate). You see people trying to simultaneously point out problematic sitings of temperature stations, and demonize working scientists for adjusting temperature data to minimize the error due to such siting. You see people repeatedly gesturing toward the sun, when numerous direct measurements indicate flat or declining insolation over the recent decades. They come off looking stupid, and smart people dismiss them.
It's a shame because lost in the battle over some of the science, is a full discussion of scientific uncertainty and policy options. There is no reason that full understanding of the current state of climate science must automatically lead to a certain bill or treaty. Somewhere in there is the difference between science and policy, between scientists and politicians. I think the politics will get the best result if the science is well understood. That means pushing back against ignorance like "climategate," but it also means pushing back against activists who oversell the certainty of future predictions, or hide certain policy options.