Air Quality and Opinion and Economic Analysis and Energy & Environment and Environment

HICKS: Scandal may put chill on global-warming research

December 5, 2009

The largest scientific scandal in decades is quickly unfolding in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Investigations have already begun at two universities—one in England, the other in Pennsylvania. A long series of leaked or hacked e-mails strongly indicate that several prominent climate scientists have hidden data from Freedom of Information requests, conspired to hide unfavorable findings, and doctored scientific evidence. Those at the heart of the scandal are the leading supporters of the human-induced global warming hypothesis.

Since those involved are all either government employees or beneficiaries of large grants, criminal probes will follow. Even Britain’s leading environmentalist is calling on those involved to resign.

Like most non-climate scientists, I am an agnostic on global warming issues. I understand very well the type of mathematical models used by climatologists—they are like those used by economists. That alone should generate healthy skepticism. But, like most other folks, I simply cannot judge the science (at least I admit it).

It literally takes a doctoral degree and a number of years of research to appreciate the quality of the data and analysis. That is exactly why high levels of integrity are needed by those conducting research. Being often wrong (or not quite right) is the price of conducting serious research.

Lying about research, especially when it is linked to funding, is another matter. The scientific method is all about attempting to disprove a hypothesis. These scientists were caught trying to prove something. The e-mails could hardly be more damning, and there are soon to be millions more who are agnostic toward global warming.

Let me be clear, though, that agnosticism on global warming is not a policy-neutral position. Simple aversion to risk would argue for significant research into the effects of global warming (whether it was human-caused or not). When someone tells you the sky is falling, it is prudent to at least look up. That means, in this case, perhaps hundreds of millions of dollars for research. Therein lay the temptation.

The problem with global warming as a hypothesis, though, isn’t that it is wrong or right (time will tell for certain). The problem is that it has taken so much of the air out of more laudable environmental goals.

For example, there’s no disagreement that emissions from coal-fired power plants cause huge-scale human mortality and morbidity. Particulate matter and mercury kill perhaps hundreds of thousands of people each year.

Efforts in many of these areas have been slowed or stopped in order to pursue a cure for global warming. For example, U.S. coal-fired power plants have stopped installing emissions-reduction technology due to uncertainty over cap-and-trade proposals.

This scandal unfolds even as world leaders meet in Copenhagen, Denmark, to craft an as-yet-elusive remedy to climate change. Let us hope they pay attention to more than these scientists.•

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Hicks is director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cber@bsu.edu.

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