The Climategate Chronicle How the Science of Global Warming Was Compromised

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Part 7: Conclusive Proof Is Impossible


Weingart says the political ramifications only fuelled the battle between the two sides in the global warming debate. He believes that the more an issue is politicized, the deeper the rifts between opposing stances.

Immense public scrutiny made life extremely difficult for the scientists. On May 2, 2001, paleoclimatologist Edward Cook of the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory complained in an e-mail: "This global change stuff is so politicized by both sides of the issue that it is difficult to do the science in a dispassionate environment." The need to summarize complex findings for a UN report appears only to have exacerbated the problem. "I tried hard to balance the needs of the science and the IPCC, which were not always the same," Keith Briffa wrote in 2007. Max Planck researcher Martin Claussen says too much emphasis was put on consensus in an attempt to satisfy politicians' demands.

And even scientists are not always interested solely in the actual truth of the matter. Weingart notes that public debate is mostly "only superficially about enlightenment." Rather, it is more about "deciding on and resolving conflicts through general social agreement." That's why it helps to present unambiguous findings.

The Time for Clear Answers Is Over

However, it seems all but impossible to provide conclusive proof in climate research. Scientific philosopher Silvio Funtovicz foresaw this dilemma as early as 1990. He described climate research as a "postnormal science." On account of its high complexity, he said it was subject to great uncertainty while, at the same time, harboring huge risks.

The experts therefore face a dilemma: They have little chance of giving the right advice. If they don't sound the alarm, they are accused of not fulfilling their moral obligations. However, alarmist predictions are criticized if the predicted changes fail to materialize quickly.

Climatological findings will probably remain ambiguous even if further progress is made. Weingart says it's now up to scientists and society to learn to come to terms with this. In particular, he warns, politicians must understand that there is no such thing as clear results. "Politicians should stop listening to scientists who promise simple answers," Weingart says.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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