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Suppression of climate debate is a disaster for science

Environment Minister Peter Kent has done us all a favour by stating the obvious: Canada has no intention of signing on to a new Kyoto deal. So long as, the world's biggest emitters want nothing to do with it, we'd be crazy if we did. Mr. Kent also refuses to be guilted out by climate reparations, a loony and unworkable scheme to extort hundreds of billions of dollars from rich countries and send it all to countries such as China. Such candour from Ottawa is a refreshing change from the usual hypocrisy, which began the moment Jean Chrétien committed Canada to the first Kyoto Protocol back in 1998.

Yet even though a global climate deal is now a fantasy, the rhetoric remains as overheated as ever. Without a deal, we're told, the seas will rise, the glaciers will melt, the hurricanes will blow, the forest fires will rage and the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse will do their awful work.

Or maybe not. As Roger Pielke Jr., one of the saner voices on the climate scene, points out, the hurricanes have failed to blow since Hurricane Wilma hit the Gulf Coast back in 2005. Despite the dire predictions of the experts, the U.S. has now experienced its longest period free of major hurricanes since 1906.

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It's possible to accept the underlying science of global warming, as Mr. Pielke does, while also maintaining that substantial uncertainties still exist. Why wouldn't they? Climate science is relatively new, and it's also insanely complicated. No one knows with any certainty the exact impact of carbon dioxide emissions, what long-term climate trends will be or the effect of other factors, such as the sun.

But don't take it from me. Take it from the climate scientists themselves.

By no coincidence, a new cache of hacked e-mails from leading climate scientists hit the Internet last week, just in time for the lead-up to the United Nations climate conference in Durban, South Africa. The e-mails are not recent – they are a new instalment in the so-called Climategate affair, which broke two years ago. They deal with a small area of global-warming studies that addresses the question: How do we know the Earth is warmer now than it was 1,000 years ago? The evidence is not straightforward, because it relies on proxy data such as tree rings.

Although Climategate has been widely dismissed as nothing more than the usual academic sniping, it is much more than that. In some of the e-mails, scientists propose ways to massage the data to make it look better. They try to figure out how to get dissident scientists fired. Others are unhappy because they believe important information has been simplified, suppressed or misrepresented for public consumption.

"There have been a number of dishonest presentations of model results by individual authors and by IPCC [the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change]" one scientist complained, also arguing that calculating the climate's sensitivity to increased levels of carbon dioxide "cannot even be done using present-day data." Another wrote, "I also think the science is being manipulated to put a political spin on it which for all our sakes might not be too clever in the long run." Or, as another doubter put it, "What if climate change appears to be just mainly a multi-decadal natural fluctuation? They'll kill us probably…"

There's nothing wrong with uncertainty in science. What's wrong is denying it exists. "They were attacking skeptics for questioning the science, but in private, they were questioning it themselves," Ross McKitrick, an economics professor at the University of Guelph who is a leading climate-science critic, told me. He thinks the entire IPCC process needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

Governments around the world have spent billions on policies to counteract the impact of global warming. They have done so because policy-makers, politicians and the public have been told that the science is built on bedrock. But some of that bedrock turns out to be sand.

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Instead of distancing themselves from the shenanigans, the broader climate-science community has treated the central figures in Climategate like persecuted heroes. That is a terrible mistake, because it erodes the credibility of the entire field. The suppression of legitimate debate is a catastrophe for climate science. It's also a catastrophe for science, period.

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