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Climate Science still holds up in court

March 9, 2010

Only weeks before the Copenhagen conference on climate change, climate skeptics gleefully released over a thousand e-mails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) in East Anglia, claiming that these e-mails (which they branded climate gate) discredited not only the work of the scientists at the CRU, but climate science generally.  Since then climate science has taken one public hit after another, from revelations of real and purported mistakes in the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to, most recently, the release of a new batch of stolen e-mails

Although I head up West Coast Environmental Law’s Global Warming Solutions work, I’m not a climate change scientist.  I’m a lawyer, and as a lawyer I’m trained in examining evidence, in figuring out what documents or testimony a judge or jury might find compelling in a court of law.  Given the clear success of climate skeptics in using the e-mails and errors to convince the public that climate science is in doubt, let’s consider what weight the e-mails would have in a court – where both sides would have the opportunity of a fair hearing.  It is my professional opinion that when climate science next finds its way into the courtroom these e-mails will have little or no impact on the court.  While a lawyer representing a climate change skeptics might well try to use the information contained in the e-mails to discredit climate scientists, any court of law would see through such an attempt to confuse the court. 

climatechange.jpgLet us be clear: there is easily enough evidence to convince a court that climate change is real, is already occurring and is being caused by humans.  Indeed, when the courts have considered climate change science, they have consistently accepted the evidence that human-caused climate change is occurring.  In 2007 the US Supreme Court noted:

The harms associated with climate change are serious and well recognized. The Government’s own objective assessment of the relevant science and a strong consensus among qualified experts indicate that global warming threatens, [among other things] a precipitate rise in sea levels, severe and irreversible changes to natural ecosystems, a significant reduction in winter snowpack with direct and important economic consequences, and increases in the spread of disease and the ferocity of weather events. …  [Massachusetts v. Environmental Protection Agency]

The same year an English judge, while finding that some very specific claims made by Al Gore in his landmark film, An Inconvenient Truth, were misleading, accepted that “Al Gore's presentation of the causes and likely effects of climate change in the film was broadly accurate.”[Dimmock v. Secretary of State for Education and Skills

The much publicized “climate-gate” e-mails would give the lawyer representing climate skeptics some new grounds for attacking 3 or 4 scientists out of the vast numbers of scientists world-wide who have developed the climate science.  And while in the media a climate skeptic can get away with taking a few e-mails among more than a thousand out of context, in a court those scientists would be entitled to explain what they meant in the e-mails. 

Thus the scientists would be able to explain to the judge or jury that e-mails that sound sinister to a lay audience would be understood very differently by the scientists to whom the e-mail was addressed.  For example, the sinister sounding “Mike’s Nature Trick … to hide the decline”, referred to in one e-mail, refers to a well-known and generally accepted approach to dealing with problems in the data collected from measuring the growth of trees.  This approach was first proposed by the scientist, Michael Mann, in a peer reviewed paper that appeared in the Journal Nature.  It’s difficult to explain that in a 20 second sound bite on TV, but a judge would take the time to understand the explanation. 

Similarly, the scientists could explain that the errors in the IPCC reports are relatively minor and do not impact the Committee’s overall conclusions. 

Indeed, the strength of the scientific evidence, overshadowed in the media by climate-gate, is getting stronger and stronger.  On November 24th, days after the climate gate e-mails surfaced, 26 climate scientists from around the world released the “Copenhagen Diagnosis”, a summary of the current science that warned that the effects of climate change are happening faster than scientists had previously thought.  Two weeks later, on December 8th, the World Meteorological Organization released its conclusions that 2000-2009 represents the warmest decade on record.  A more recent study by the UK Meteorological Office provides further support that the problem is caused by humans, and not by natural causes

The climate-gate e-mails do little to call into question the science of climate change.  I have little doubt that the courts will continue to accept the evidence of the vast majority of climate scientists that human-caused climate change is occurring. 

I just wish I were a bit more confident about the court of public opinion, so that Canada, and the World, can get to work fighting climate change. 

Andrewblogphoto.jpgBy Andrew Gage