The Heat Is On

ClimateGate supposedly reveals a scientific world gone corrupt, but really shows a political world gone mad.

Here is how the story now known as ClimateGate broke: On Nov. 17, an unknown person somehow gained access to a huge cache of emails and data files from the University of East Anglia's climate research unit (CRU) and put them on the Internet. The hacker posted links to the data on prominent climate-skeptic blogs, just weeks before the Dec. 7 start of the U.N. climate conference in Copenhagen. Then, the documents were distributed with the ominous preface: "We feel that climate science is, in the current situation, too important to be kept under wraps. We hereby release a random selection of correspondence, code, and documents."

The approximately 1,000 emails and 3,000 documents purportedly showed that an elite cabal of climatologists had massaged decades of data to fool the world into believing in the myth of anthropogenic climate change. (The perpetrators offered no explanation why the scientists might want to do this. My best guess: All climatologists secretly despise GDP growth.) The scientists had apparently altered the world's biggest record of global surface temperature readings, trashed discordant evidence, and publicly humiliated climatologists who reached differing conclusions.

Climate blogs went wild. The British press soon glommed onto the story with characteristic maniacal glee. One typical post by James Delingpole in the Daily Telegraph, for instance, read: "If you own any shares in alternative energy companies I should start dumping them NOW. The conspiracy behind the Anthropogenic Global Warming myth ... has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed."

Within a day, the story caught on across the Atlantic -- particularly in the right-wing press. Blogger Matt Drudge banged the drum with headlines declaring a "climate cult." Glenn Beck and other Fox News anchors devoted hours to the story. And on Thursday, two members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (one the head of right-wing outfit Pajamas Media, which sent Joe the Plumber to cover the Middle East peace process) demanded that Al Gore -- whose Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth featured the work of some of the climatologists embroiled in the scandal -- give his award back.

The truth, climate scientists insist, is that the data does nothing to disprove the overwhelming evidence that global warming exists and is caused by humans -- evidenced in multiple data pools and corroborated by thousands of studies. Spencer Weart, a physicist who specializes in the atmosphere and wrote The Discovery of Global Warming, explains, citing glacier and polar cap readings: "Even if you threw out every study from every scientist at East Anglia, it wouldn't change anything. There's 15 different ways to prove without doubt that the world has gotten very warm."

Michael MacCracken, climate-change scientist and former director of the Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program and now at the Climate Institute in Washington D.C., told Foreign Policy, simply, "I don't think there is any doubt." Yesterday, Climate, among the most respected journals in the field, concurred: "Nothing in the emails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real -- or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the emails."

Still, the CRU emails revealed some entirely unprofessional and possibly illegal behavior, including on the part of the CRU's director, Phil Jones, who has been one of the world's most influential climatologists. The East Anglia scientist asked some staff members to delete emails, which they apparently did; now there is no way to know what data or analysis they contained. He seems to have attempted to keep certain contradictory papers out of a forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (They made it in.) And the emails raise questions about the integrity of the world's largest dataset of historical temperature numbers.

The leaking of the ClimateGate cache does mean the scientific community has some questions to answer. But its media footprint has been far greater than the evidence called for -- and that has unfortunate consequences. The scandal has cast a wide spectrum of doubt on climate scientists in general, even those far removed from any accusation of wrongdoing. And it has revealed the extent to which many climate scientists already feel they are forever playing defense.

Many of the climate researchers I contacted for this story seemed so wearied by the whole thing they could barely summon the energy to explain or comment on the incident. For, more than anything, the emails evince Jones and others scientists' almost desperate desire to keep the wagons circled -- not because the science is shaky, but because they feel the field is under siege. Indeed, in the past 20 or 30 years, climate change has become not just a scientific interest, but a lightening-rod political issue.

In 1988, NASA scientist Jim Hansen published one of the first major papers modeling how hot the Earth might get, testifying on Capitol Hill and stirring debate in labs and lecture halls. By 1995, a group of scientists had started vocally dissenting from the emerging consensus on its anthropogenic causes, signing the Leipzig Declaration, which stated: "There does not exist today a general scientific consensus about the importance of greenhouse warming from rising levels of carbon dioxide. On the contrary, most scientists now accept the fact that actual observations from earth satellites show no climate warming whatsoever." (The latter point has since been proven false.) The declaration, down to its pompous name, was meant to be a political statement -- and it helped turn lab-bound climate scientists into political actors on a global stage.

Later that year, the debate turned nasty when the physicist Frederick Seitz took to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to accuse other climate researchers of colluding to bolster the case for anthropogenic global warming in IPCC reports. "In my more than 60 years as a member of the American scientific community, including service as president of both the National Academy of Sciences and the American Physical Society," he wrote, damningly, "I have never witnessed a more disturbing corruption of the peer-review process than the events that led to this IPCC report."

"Then, it was like the siege," says Weart, with "the scientific community rising up against him." Other scientists discredited Seitz by revealing he was on the payroll of tobacco companies while arguing against the carcinogenic effects of second-hand smoke. The dialogue never got any nicer. "In the early emails" -- from the early 1990s -- "I saw rather little political response," Weart says. "[The CRU scientists] were mostly busy criticizing each other. Then as you go forward, you find this increasing frustration and increasing anger as you get towards the present."

And, particularly within the past 10 years, climatologists have faced increasing harassment: constant haranguing emails and hate mail; picketing at conventions; skeptical and inquisitive calls from Capitol Hill and think tanks and blogs; repeated Freedom of Information Act requests for datasets; even death threats. In turn, "scandals" accusing various scientists of falsifying data or colluding for political reasons have ever since arisen at critical decision-making moments, such as during governmental debates on policies like cap-and-trade.

The same thing is happening now, MacCracken says, "because we're getting close to actually doing something significant. And there's a lot of people who seem somehow resistant to change. So if you don't like the message then you go after the messenger. This has been going on for quite some time."

The troubling takeaway is not about the nature of climate change, the science, or the treaties, or even the scandal. It's about the white-hot political pressure bearing down upon this small community of scientific specialists. It seems probable that Jones and his colleagues believed internecine scientific disputes might be used as a cudgel by politically motivated skeptics. His defensiveness, in such a heated and politicized milieu, seems understandable if not defensible. But ultimately, it can't be good for anyone on Earth.

Philip Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images


Iran Is No Existential Threat

The best way to rescue Obama's failing diplomacy with the Islamic Republic is to stop letting Israel call the shots.

After months of halfhearted, fruitless attempts at engagement, the United States and its European partners are effectively re-enacting George W. Bush's Iran policy. In 2006, after Iran had ended a nearly two-year voluntary suspension of uranium enrichment, then-U.S. president pushed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to send Iran's nuclear file to the U.N. Security Council, which duly imposed sanctions on the Islamic Republic. But the sanctions did not prove "crippling," as Bush had hoped: Iran continued to expand its nuclear infrastructure, and the risks of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran climbed.

Unfortunately, Barack Obama's administration has decided to repeat this sorry history. Last Friday, the IAEA passed a resolution urging Iran to send most of its current stockpile of low-enriched uranium abroad. It also reported Iran once again to the Security Council. Iran has wasted no time in upping the ante rather than backing down, saying it would restrict cooperation with the IAEA only to those measures "statutorily" required. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also announced that the Islamic Republic would build 10 new enrichment facilities in coming years. He later added, "Iran will produce fuel enriched to a level of 20 percent," the level required for Iran's research reactor in Tehran. This would be well above the 3 to 4 percent level that Iran has already achieved in producing low-enriched uranium and would take Iran closer to the 90 percent-plus level required for weapons-grade fissile material.

These developments again demonstrate the counterproductive futility of enshrining uranium enrichment and sanctions as the keys to resolving the nuclear issue. By prompting Tehran to reduce cooperation with the IAEA, the United States and its European partners have done real damage to the international community's ability to monitor the state of Iran's nuclear program. More broadly, U.S., British, and French insistence on "zero enrichment" in Iran makes successful nuclear diplomacy with Tehran impossible. At this point, there is no chance that Tehran will accept "zero enrichment" as a negotiated outcome, for at least two reasons: It is a country-specific formulation applied to Iran but not to anybody else, and it requires Iran to forswear its sovereign right to the full range of civil nuclear technology.

If the United States and its partners continue on their present course, the Islamic Republic will continue to expand its nuclear infrastructure, and the risks of an eventual military confrontation between the United States (or Israel, with U.S. support) and Iran will, once again, rise inexorably. There is no set of sanctions the Security Council might plausibly authorize that would change this reality, and various unilateral and secondary sanctions initiatives moving through the U.S. Congress will not work either.

A more constructive approach would seek to maximize international monitoring of Iran's nuclear activities by emphasizing country-neutral formulations for curbing nuclear proliferation in the Middle East. This would require international acceptance of enrichment on Iranian soil. Getting Iran to ratify and implement the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty would be an important step in this direction, but the most effective country-neutral initiative would be the establishment of a nuclear weapons-free zone (NWFZ) in the region.

Although talk of an NWFZ -- or, more broadly, a weapons of mass destruction-free zone (WMDFZ) -- in the Middle East is not new, serious consideration of these ideas in U.S. foreign policy circles always stops as soon as Israel's nuclear status comes up. For years, the Israeli position has been that, once Arab-Israeli peace is achieved, it might become possible for Israel to join in creating an NWFZ/WMDFZ in the region.  Although American foreign-policy elites typically take this position at face value, it deserves a higher degree of critical scrutiny.

It is simply not analytically credible to describe the unresolved Palestinian, Syrian, and Lebanese tracks of the Middle East peace process as "existential threats" to Israel. The 1978 Egypt-Israel Camp David accords effectively dispelled the prospect of Arab armies uniting to "push the Jews into the sea." Similarly, there is no amount of additional armed capabilities that would allow Palestinian and Lebanese militants to destroy Israel without also destroying the populations they are ostensibly seeking to liberate.

More recently, the dominant Israeli discourse about Iran has routinely characterized an Islamic Republic with a nuclear "breakout" capability -- not to mention actual nuclear weapons -- as an "existential threat" to Israel. (Both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have reiterated Israel's position that Iran's full suspension of uranium enrichment is the only acceptable outcome from nuclear talks with Tehran.)  But this position, too, does not stand up to rigorous scrutiny. It is not analytically serious to describe an Iran with mastery of the nuclear fuel cycle as an existential threat to Israel or any other state. Even if Iran were to fabricate a nuclear weapon, it is not credible to describe that as an existential threat to Israel -- unless one has such a distorted view of Shiite Islam that one believes the Islamic Republic is so focused on damaging "the Zionist entity" that it is collectively willing to become history's first "suicide nation."

Rhetoric from senior officials and politicians characterizing Iran as an existential threat resonates with the Israeli public, for understandable historical reasons, and Ahmadinejad's statements questioning the Holocaust only reinforce Israeli fears. As a result, there is, effectively, no political debate in Israel about Iran policy.

But, when Israeli politicians and policymakers use politically effective rhetoric about Iran's nuclear development being an existential threat to Israel, what is really motivating them? Fundamentally, Israel's political and policy elites are focused on eliminating Iran's fuel-cycle capabilities in order to preserve a regional balance of power that is strongly tilted in Israel's favor. Regional perceptions that the Islamic Republic had achieved a "breakout" capability would begin to chip away at Israel's long-standing nuclear-weapons monopoly. That, in turn, might begin to constrain Israel's currently unconstrained freedom of unilateral military action.

One can readily appreciate why Israel values its status as the Middle East's military hegemon and wants to maintain the maximum possible room for unilateral military initiative. But that strategic preference is not legitimated by the U.N. Charter, the laws of war, or any international convention. Moreover, Israel's strategic preference for preserving and enhancing its military hegemony does not, at this point, serve the cause of regional stability or containing the spread of nuclear weapons capabilities in the Middle East.

The United States has an abiding commitment to Israel's survival and security. But that commitment should not be confused with maintaining Israel's military hegemony over the region in perpetuity, by continuing to allow U.S. assurances of an Israeli "qualitative edge" for defensive purposes to be twisted into assurances of maximum freedom for Israel to conduct offensive military operations at will against any regional target.

It is time for the United States and its international partners to get serious about creating a regionwide framework for controlling WMD capabilities in the Middle East, including the full range of Israel's WMD capabilities, to create a more secure environment for all Middle Eastern states. Obama's observation, in his June 4 Cairo speech, that no single country should determine which other countries are permitted to have particular types of weapons, could be a positive first step in this direction.  But, if he does not follow up purposefully, this will become one more good Obama idea that ends up disappointing the expectations it initially raised.

Office of the Presidency of the Islamic Republic of Iran via Getty Images