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.