THIRD in the series "Strong warnings about climate change."
On behalf of the National Science and Technology Council, the U.S. Global Change Research Program transmitted its report, “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States,” in June 2009 to the President and the Congress.
The program that issued the report was envisioned by the Nixon administration after the first Earth Day celebration in 1970 and later enthusiastically endorsed in legislation from Ronald Reagan. (See previous article in this series.) Vice President Al Gore was its strongest political supporter in the 1990s.
Five years overdue, the state-of-knowledge report summarized what was then known about the science of climate change and its 2009 and projected impacts on the nation. Essentially, it contained the technical information we see now in the 2013 draft report, although its collection stopped before the major earthquakes, killer tsunamis, heat waves, brutal wildfires, superstorms, flooding, and stubborn Dust-Bowl-style drought of the past four years. (Now occurring: since November 2012, southern China has been suffering cold 2.3 degrees F. lower than normal; in Australia, temperatures have been so hot that meteorologists had to add new, never-before-used colors to their temperature maps.)
In 2009, the level of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere reached 385 parts per million. By December 2012, it had risen by almost ten ppm to 394.28. Also in 2009, the mean global temperature (five-year average) had risen to 14.5°C, the warmest in centuries, perhaps millennia. Subsequent study has shown that the rise shows no signs of slowing or reversal; rather, it is likely that the net global heat content continues to increase.
The 2009 report also stated firmly that climate change is an irrevocably intertwined environmental and economic issue.
In November, Cambridge University Press made the American report widely available in a commercial publication. Cambridge advertised its product as "likely to set the policy agenda across the US for the next few years." The graph shown here reveals the unprecedented and never-repeated media response to this publication and its aftermath.
Then what happened?
On November 19, 2009, thousands of emails and data hacked from a British university (the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit) rocked the international news. It seemed to support Jim Inhofe's 2005 allegation that climate change was a hoax. The media initially took the Climategate break-in at face value, picturing scientists as dishonest manipulators of skewed data.
A poll taken two weeks later showed that most Americans (52%) believed that there was significant disagreement within the scientific community over global warming. Only a quarter of Americans (25%) knew that a consensus of U.S. and overseas climate experts on the reality of global change had grown stronger and stronger over the 13 years represented in the leaks.
"Climate deniers illegally hacked into scientists' emails and claimed they showed scientists, including Mann [Michael Mann, a dedicated expert on the issue] manipulating data," said critic Shawn Otto. "Their charges were investigated by four separate bodies, each one reaffirming the soundness of the science, and exonerating the scientists. In other words, Climategate was over nothing, it turned out. Instead of data, it was the press that had been manipulated."
In fact, more than four independent organizations invalidated the Climategate fraud. Among them: Great Britain's Parliament, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Inspector General, the National Science Foundation, and an investigation by Professor Mann's own university.
But the damage was done. Entrenched disbelief, faulty political priorities, media complacency, topsy-turvy notions of "fair balance," and outright lies sabotaged 20 years of American efforts to cope with global warming. Climate change news has never regained the urgency and stature it held at its peak in 2009. In fact, it seems that about four of every five reporters just forgot.
NEXT: Newspaper and television coverage of climate change over the past three years.
Award-winning science writer Sandy Dechert covered issues raised at the recently concluded 18th UN climate change summit meeting and during the 2012 presidential election. Her other work has included investigations into solar, wind, biomass, large and small hydroelectric, geothermal, and conventional energy forms. Sandy has also reported for Examiner.com on extreme weather disasters over the past few years.
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