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Pique'n'yer interest

How did we miss the year’s biggest story?



2009's biggest story wasn't swine flu. It wasn't gang shootings in Vancouver or anarchy in Parliament.

No, friends, this year's biggest story passed us by with the aloof wave of a wasted opportunity.

Just over a month ago, 26 scientists reporting to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) produced a study showing that global warming is worse than we thought.

Among other things, the report told us that global carbon emissions were 40 per cent higher in 2008 than they were in 1990 - despite a Kyoto agreement that committed countries to lowering their emissions.

Other grim points in the report showed that Arctic sea ice had melted to an area 40 per cent greater than scientists had previously estimated. Global sea-level rise, meanwhile, was about 80 per cent above previous IPCC predictions, threatening low-lying countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

Discoveries such as these should have set people into a panic on the scale of a Roland Emmerich picture. But no. Timed to hit the info-stream before the Copenhagen conference, these points barely registered a ripple with the public.

The world's environmental community instead gave its attention to silly e-mails that never deserved the profile they took on.

The e-mails, hacked from the accounts of academics at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit, revealed some immature behaviour by scientists who probably spent their formative years building Erector sets and playing Dungeons and Dragons.

One of them, written in 2003, had unit director Phil Jones blocking publication of papers that were critical of global warming: "I can't see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow - even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"

That "Kevin" was Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section of the National Centre for Atmospheric Research. The hacker released this e-mail, written by him in 2008: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't."

A scathing message, no doubt - until you realize he was saying that scientists can't account for all the energy coming from the sun.

Instead of relegating this issue to the blogs, where the e-mails could have turned into a conspiracy theory and faded into memory with the Protocols of Zion, environmentalists gave them a mainstream profile.

George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that the e-mails were "very damaging." Greenpeace accused them of being "politically-motivated."  They proved an obstruction at the Copenhagen conference, where political leaders like Ban Ki-Moon and Gordon Brown were forced to disavow them as proof that climate change is a myth. Hardly a word from anyone about climate science's latest findings.

Environmentalists like Monbiot and Greenpeace let the e-mails eclipse new evidence of the impacts of climate change when really they should have marginalized and ignored them. The report to the IPCC should have given an extra urgency to climate talks but instead it was forced to contend with an apocryphal issue that should not have received attention in the first place.

The main point here is that it was environmentalists, not denialists, who nearly let Copenhagen fail. Denialists did everything they should have - they found a fringe issue, blew it up and helped it gain enough profile that prominent voices said it disproved global warming. Environmentalists gave into this vitriol, hoisting it up to a podium rather than relegating it to history's trashbin.

They could have avoided a crisis by overwhelming people with the miles of research that shows our natural infrastructure is breaking. Or heck, shown pictures of polar bears trapped atop ice floes or permafrost thawing in the north.

Somehow e-mails from some socially-challenged academics have outweighed the decades of work that have gone into climate science.

The onus is on environmentalists because denialists can't be changed. They're content to focus on the most marginal science and blow it up to take on more significance than it deserves. It's up to environmentalists to attack and discredit these ideas in the biggest platforms they can find.

I know this is strange coming from me. I'm the guy who said we need the oil sands. That carbon neutrality is a sham. That global warming is a necessary con job. I stand firm in my beliefs on all these things, but I stand firmer in my belief that the atmosphere is not well-served by an environmental movement that lays down and allows itself to be defeated by silly e-mails when it has science on its side.

Dear environmentalists: stand up, stop licking your wounds and get back out on a full-scale assault to demand strong climate policy from your government. Make 2010 the year you made a difference.



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