The journal Nature — which has published many peer-reviewed research papers on global climate change — has decided to come to the defense of the researchers.
In an editorial, and in a news feature, it talks about the "climate of suspicion" under which the scientists work. It says their work is valid — but in the often-toxic political atmosphere in which they find themselves, they "need a sophisticated strategy for communication."
"Climate science, like any active field of research, has some major gaps in understanding," write the editors. "Yet the political stakes have grown so high in this field, and the public discourse has become so heated, that climate researchers find it hard to talk openly about those gaps. The small coterie of individuals who deny humanity’s influence on climate will try to use any perceived flaw in the evidence to discredit the entire picture. So how can researchers honestly describe the uncertainty in their work without it being misconstrued?
"The e-mails leaked last year from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, UK, painted a picture of scientists grappling with this question, sometimes awkwardly. Some of the researchers’ online discussion reflected a pervasive climate of suspicion — their sense that any findings they released to the public could and would be distorted by sceptics." (The spelling is theirs; Nature is based in Britain.)
The way to fight back, says the editorial, is by being open, respectful — and firm. People react to climate findings based as much on their personal values, it says, as on the facts. The researchers, it says, "must be frank about their uncertainties and gaps in understanding — but without conveying the message that nothing is known or knowable. They must emphasize that — although many holes remain to be filled — there is little uncertainty about the overall conclusions: greenhouse-gas emissions are rising sharply, they are very likely to be the cause of recent global warming and precipitation changes, and the world is on a trajectory that will shoot far past 2°C of warming unless emissions are cut substantially."
In the accompanying news feature, Quirin Schiermeier reminds readers that there are still considerable holes in our understanding of the climate system, and scientists are trying to fill them. But he says that when scientists try to address them, they're accused of hiding what they don't know.
The editorial is HERE, and Schiermeier's piece is HERE. Among other things, he quotes Gavin Schmidt, a scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York and one of the keepers of the blog RealClimate.org.
"Of course there are gaps in our knowledge about Earth's climate system and its components, and yes, nothing has been made clear enough to the public," says Schmidt. "But this climate of suspicion we're working in is insane. It's really drowning our ability to soberly communicate gaps in our science when some people cry 'fraud' and 'misconduct' for the slightest reasons."
(NASA image from space shuttle Atlantis)