COPENHAGEN – As George W. Bush and Tony Blair learned the hard way, the public does not take kindly to being misled about the nature of potential threats. The after-the-fact revelation that the reasons for invading Iraq were vastly exaggerated – and in some cases completely fabricated – produced an angry backlash that helped toss the Republicans out of power in the United States in 2008 and may do the same to Britain’s Labour Party later this year.
A similar shift in global public opinion is occurring with respect to climate change. The process picked up momentum late last year, after hackers leaked thousands of e-mails from a top British research facility showing that some of the world’s most influential climatologists had been trying to disguise flaws in their work, blocking scrutiny, and plotting together to enforce what amounts to a party line on climate change. More recently, the United Nations’ respected advisory group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has been deeply embarrassed by the revelation that some alarming predictions contained in an influential report that it released in 2007 have little or no scientific basis.
Although none of these lapses provides any reason to doubt that global warming is real, is man-made, and will create problems for us, these challenges to the IPCC are taking their toll. Indeed, recent surveys show that the public is growing steadily less trusting of the scientific consensus on global warming.
The biggest headlines about IPCC errors concern a claim about melting Himalayan glaciers that it made in its 2007 report on the likely impacts of climate change. “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world,” the report noted, adding that “if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high.” As it happens, this prediction was not based on any peer-reviewed scientific research but was lifted from a report by the World Wildlife Fund, which was repeating an unproven speculation by a single researcher.