E-mail controversy shifts debate from economy to science -- but for how long?

The controversy surrounding the hacked e-mails of climate scientists has given new life to the skeptic camp that had been largely relegated to the sidelines during this year's legislative fight and, in the minds of opponents, handed them a potent new weapon against the climate bill.

During the House and Senate debates this year, lawmakers primarily sparred over the economic impact of the bill, rather than the science connecting man-made greenhouse gas emissions to global warming. And while advocates on both sides say that a climate and energy bill will live and die next year on its economic merits, the e-mails have reignited a debate that many on the left believed they had long since won.

"What it does is it allows people, it allows elected officials, it allows media, it allows guys like me access to the science debate again," said Michael McKenna, a Republican lobbyist who works on energy issues. "For a very long chunk of time, the science debate was thought to be toxic. It was settled, it was done, let's move along. This has given folks who want to talk about the science a very easy access point."

At issue are thousands of e-mails hacked from computers at the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in Britain that were posted to a Russian file-sharing site last month. Climate skeptics argue that those e-mails demonstrate ethical lapses on the part of prominent climate scientists and demonstrate that they manipulated data to substantiate their claims on climate change.

Environmentalists contend that the e-mails do nothing to undermine the science behind climate change and the controversy has been largely ginned up by a handful of climate bill opponents.


"The closer you get to actually doing something about this problem, the more shrill and the more dogmatic the skeptics become because they're trying the hardest to stand in front of a train," said Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. "We expected to see this. We expect it to continue until we get a climate policy. I wouldn't say this isn't unusual. It doesn't change the basic science, which we think is really firm."

The issue has gained traction beyond the small number of people that are intensely involved in the scientific debate over climate change. Conservative blogs and commentators of all stripes have latched onto the controversy and congressional Republicans are pressing for an investigation into the matter. The Competitive Enterprise Institute is also citing the e-mails as part of the reason it will sue U.S. EPA for its finding yesterday that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases pose a threat to public health and welfare.

The controversy has forced the White House and climate bill supporters on Capitol Hill to defend the scientists, and in recent days the scientific community has mounted its own media counterattack.

"They don't have any scientific argument on their side; they're not even challenging the science; all they have is innuendo and smear campaigns," Michael Mann, a Penn State University climate scientists and one of the individuals whose e-mails were hacked, told reporters last week.

But even if the controversy does not undermine the scientific legitimacy of climate change, that does not mean that the revival of a scientific fight is without political consequences.

"This will help confuse or muddle the debate in ways that the public then says, 'I don't really know, I'm not sure,'" said Lawrence Rothenberg, an environmental politics expert at the University of Rochester.

Polls already show that while the public generally favors climate change legislation, they have little understanding of the specific proposals or of the science. And a number of polls have shown a growing percentage of public believing either that climate change is not real or not caused by human activity.

With more than a dozen Democratic senators still on the fence for the bill and with the 2010 midterm elections inching closer, opponents argue it would not take much movement in public opinion to convince lawmakers to scuttle the bill.

"A lot of senators are looking for reasons to say, 'Let's not do this now,' and I think this scandal as it gets bigger and evolves will provide a lot of senators with that cover," said Myron Ebell, CEI's director of energy and global warming policy. "You're going to see people saying now, we can't go forward with this until we get this straight and it will take years to get it straight."

Return of a 'dead' topic

Supporters of climate change legislation and its lead architects on Capitol Hill have longed argued that the scientific debate over climate change is over and the only issue was how to construct a bill that would have far-reaching economic effects.

Indeed, some ardent critics of the cap-and-trade bill -- such as the Chamber of Commerce -- publicly stated that they had no interest in fighting a battle over science. The Obama administration and allies on the Hill have attempted to sell the legislation in overwhelmingly economic terms -- telling voters that it will spur economic development and launch a new clean energy economy.

To be sure, a small number of lawmakers such as Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, maintained a drumbeat of criticism over the science linking man-made emissions to global warming. The climate e-mails are unlikely to change the economic message, but critics of the legislation believe that the scientific approach is resonating with more and more voters.

Conservatives pounced on a Rasmussen poll released last week showing that 52 percent of the American public did not believe there was a scientific consensus on climate change and 59 percent believed that it is possible scientists may have manipulated data to support their own belief.

"It was already a dead issue politically, all Climategate did was keep off the embalming fluid and let it rot for all to see," said Marc Morano, executive director of the climate skeptic Web site "Climate Depot" and former Inhofe staffer. "The amount of work they will have to do to restore credibility is beyond belief."

A handful of other polls have also shown an increase in the number of people who do not believe that climate change is either happening or caused by human activities.

A Harris poll released last week showed a 20 percentage point drop over the last two years -- from 71 percent to 51 percent -- in the percentage of Americans who believe that carbon dioxide emission will lead to global warming. A Pew Research Center for the People & the Press showed a similar drop -- from 77 percent in January 2007 to 57 percent in early October -- that believe there is "solid evidence" that the Earth is warming.

Those beliefs matter far less to people than economic considerations, said Rothenberg of the University of Rochester, but even a shift on a secondary issue could matter politically in a debate where one senator could be the margin of victory or defeat.

"This will be another bow in the quiver of opponents," Rothenberg said. "These things matter at the margins, it makes those people who might be on the fence with respect to the economics, this could push them in one direction or the other."

Environmentalists argue that while the number of skeptics in the general public may have grown due to the hardening of conservatives against the legislation, those same polls show an overwhelming belief that climate change is real and the public supports action in Washington.

"I think Americans do understand that it is happening, some of the polls have shown that," said Liz Perera of the Union of Concerned Scientists. "I think we need to keep ever vigilant on continuing to educate the public on the science and the dire urgency."

Some supporters of the climate legislation argue that the reason that skeptics have been able to get so much traction with the e-mails is because proponents had decided that the scientific battle was over.

"I think people on the side of climate action think the science the settled, and they spend a lot of time explaining the economics," said Joe Romm, an expert with the Center for American Progress and a prominent advocate of climate legislation. "It was a mistake to stop talking about the science because the other side has spread their disinformation about global cooling and the polling reflects the results."

Romm believes the controversy gives the scientific community an opportunity to make its pitch to the American public and try again to build political momentum for the need to address global climate change.

"The scientific community has not done a very good job explaining the science," Romm said. "I think the scientific community thinks you can say something once, issue an IPCC report and go about their business. The climate bill is probably not going to be debated until like March, the scientific community has ample opportunity to explain the science, explain the basis for great concern."

But any attempts to explain the science may not make much of a dent at this point, Rothenberg said. The issue has become so highly politicized -- for both the left and right -- that voters will embrace the positions of politicians with whom they are ideologically aligned.

"What it will look like to people is conservatives are doubters, liberals are believers, they're each pushing their own ideological agenda," Rothenberg said. "For the scientist to expect for the average citizen to spend a lot of time considering the pitch on global warming is just not understanding how public opinions are formed and what people are emphasizing."

Will the e-mail controversy matter?

On major legislation such as the climate bill, it is common for controversies to pop up and dominate the news cycle for a few days but are often forgotten long before the measure even comes to a vote. For instance, this summer saw the forged letters to members of Congress linked to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, or claims about "death panels" in the health care debate.

Supporters of the climate bill argue that this e-mail controversy is no different. In their mind it has created a furor among those that are already dead set against the legislation, but it is unlikely to actually sway any lawmakers when it comes time to vote for a bill.

"All of the people in Congress who are touting these e-mails are the same people who have been denouncing the science and saying nonsensical things that you can find on YouTube for two or three years now," Romm said.

UCS's Perera said lawmakers are used to intense political pressure from a small number of activists and that such attacks by themselves will not change their opinions on the merits of the bill.

"There's really no way that something like this could actually affect the consensus," Perera said. "Members of Congress are used to dealing with spin and people being willing to go to any lengths to advance their agenda."

Fence-sitters have said they need to be convinced that the legislation will not cause severe economic damage to their state and not about whether the science is legitimate.

Critics see it differently -- in their minds the e-mail controversy has not just highlighted some less-than-prudent behavior on the part of climate change proponents but has done irreversible damage to the very basis on which global warming legislation has been built.

"Everyone says this is going to cost some money, the question is -- is it worth it? That's where the science comes in, if the science is shaky, it makes it a lot harder to convince people that it's worth doing," said McKenna, the GOP lobbyist. "Science is shakier than it was 10 days ago and the price tag has gone up, no matter what you think of it, the hill has gotten a lot steeper."

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