Copyright ©2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

A huge number of emails stolen from a British climate laboratory turned up last week on the Internet. The correspondence shows that some climate scientists are resorting to bare-knuckle tactics as they defend the consensus view that global warming is a real and serious problem.

NPR's Richard Harris has our story.

RICHARD HARRIS: Scientific journals are supposed to be impartial filters that let good ideas rise to the top and bad ideas sink to the bottom. But the stolen emails show that some researchers who support the consensus view of climate change have decided that's not working well enough, so they have resorted to strong tactics - including possible boycotts - to keep any paper they think is dubious from reaching the pages of a journal.

Dr. GAVIN SCHMIDT (Climate Scientist, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies): In any other field that would just be ignored. The problem is that in the climate field has become extremely politicized and every time some nonsense paper gets into a proper journal, it gets blown out of all proportion.

HARRIS: Gavin Schmidt is at NASA's Goddard Institute in New York. Most of the papers he and his colleagues object to challenge the mainstream view of climate science. Schmidt says they may be wrong or even deceptive, but they are still picked up by politicians, pundits and businesses who are skeptical of climate change.

But Judy Curry at Georgia Tech says this huge defensive effort by a select group of scientists seems to be getting out of hand. Curry is worried that it's damaging the free flow of ideas in the scientific literature.

Professor JUDY CURRY (Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Georgia Tech): You do need gates, but when you spike the gatekeepers, you know, to keep other people out and protect certain insiders, then the gate isn't working.

HARRIS: In fact, one of the world's most celebrated climate scientists says the review system has gotten so distorted it's even thwarting him. James Hansen argues the consensus view of global warming actually underestimates the risks. He's just written a book called �Storms of My Grandchildren.� In it, he writes he wanted to publish a big paper critical of the consensus view but he had, quote, �no realistic chance of publishing it in a regular scientific journal,� close quote, because he assumed the reviewers would reject it to defend their centrist point of view.

That said, many of the complaints about the journal review process come from people who think mainstream science is overstating climate hazards. John Christy is at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. He accepts global warming is happening, but he says there's a lot of uncertainty about its causes and impacts. And he says he has trouble getting some of his results published.

Professor JOHN CHRISTY (Director of the Earth, System Science Center, University of Alabama, Huntsville): I've done a pretty thorough study of snowfall in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. And the Southern Sierra show no downward trend in snowfall.

HARRIS: That's important because snowfall is forecast to decline due to global warming. And that would seriously affect California's water supply. Christy says he's tried three times to get his paper published. So far it's been rejected, and he suspects it's because scientists are trying to stifle his message.

Prof. CHRISTY: Everyone from the secretary of energy who has talked about the snowfall in the Sierra going away will not find any comfort in the fact that the trends in snowfall are essentially zero for the last hundred years.

HARRIS: So is it being suppressed? Philip Mote at Oregon State University was one of the scientists who reviewed the paper. He said the science in the paper was fine.

Dr. PHILIP MOTE (Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, Oregon State University): To my knowledge, there's no suppression going on. It's simply that it's not news.

HARRIS: Mote himself published a paper four years ago showing that snowfall in the Southern Sierra hasn't diminished. In fact, he says there are about 10 papers on the subject, certainly not identical to Christy's but still reaching that same broad conclusion.

Dr. MOTE: It's not controversial because it's already well known.

HARRIS: Still, it's easy to see why Christy suspects deeper motivations. The stolen emails contain sharp personal attacks against him. He says the politics inside climate science are making life harder for him, not just in publishing papers but in getting money to do research. Mote says dissent is important in science. He doesn't agree with everything Christy says, but he says he should have a voice.

Dr. MOTE: We need people like John Christy around really looking closely and saying wait is that true and publishing papers pointing things out.

HARRIS: Judy Curry from Georgia Tech says the whole email episode shows that climate science could use a healthy dose of sunshine. She suggests that U.S. journals do what some in Europe have started to do, which is to make the peer review process open and public rather than left to the quiet behind-the-scenes maneuvering that is evidenced in the stolen emails.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.