Obviously, Mark Twain was not referring to today’s climate change debate when he said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.”
For the two sides involved in trying to get their respective messages out, though, it must seem like one is always tying up its laces while the other is holding press conferences in Stockholm.
And it’s why AAPG member Hannes Leetaru, a petroleum geologist at the Illinois State Geological Survey and panelist on the Division Energy Forum at the 2009 AAPG Annual Convention in Denver, thought it was important to track not the actual merits of the conversation, but the actual conversation itself.
To do that he started his own website which monitors global news and social media coverage of those who believe in the catastrophe of climate change, those who deny it and those institutions, governments and scientific associations on all fronts throughout the debate.
“That’s actually been a real focus for us,” Leetaru says of his desire to produce a website that tracks all the information on climate change, “to ensure that we simply report on the prevailing stories of the moment, rather than advocating for one side or the other.”
The “us” he cites includes his son, Kalev.
I had just read Michael Crichton’s “State of Fear,” the elder Leetaru said, “where he made the claim that interest in global warming peaks in the summer when it’s hot out and is lower in the winter when the temperatures are cooler. I asked my son if there was a way his data mining techniques could be used to test whether that was really the case.”
And in 2006, in Virginia, father and son published a poster at the 2006 Annual Conference on Carbon Capture and Sequestration.
“We found that, indeed, news coverage of global warming did peak in the summer and had been increasing steadily over several years,” Leetaru said.
There was something else, too.
“We also found that nearly 80 percent of the top 100 websites returned by Google for carbon capture and sequestration were based in the United States.”
Leearu felt the website needed to expand its base – not only in what it included, but from where the information emanated.
On the site, then, there is a range of tools, from interactive maps, to timelines, to rankings of those individuals making news, both nationally and internationally.
Knowing that politics is the yang to the facts’ yin in the debate, Leetaru is mindful of the land mines in front of him.
“Given the emotional nature of the field, we certainly get quite a bit of questions and accusations on this from both sides,” he said, “so in this respect we feel that we are doing a good job of remaining neutral in this respect.”
Leetaru believes that by utilizing advances in his son’s data mining techniques to summarize and synthesize the overall global discourse on climate change each day, the Carbon Capture Report delivers a daily briefing of sorts on the debate – to and from both sides.
“We don’t advocate or promote any specific viewpoint, or filter, censor, prioritize, de-emphasize or otherwise alter the information we find,” he stressed. “Our focus isn’t to try to ‘correct’ or ‘advertise’ for any specific view; we just report on what’s resonating with the public at that moment and what the latest developments are.”
As an example, he gives the case of a new wind turbine field: It might, he says, “generate both criticism and praise from different groups,” but his goal is to simply report on how the news and social media overall are reporting on the project.
“Are people within a specific geographic location promoting wind turbines as a positive new energy source,” he asks, “or are they against them due to concerns about noise or impact on local bird populations?”
A Need for Transparency
When asked which side was gaining traction, he was, as usual, diplomatic.
“When you look across the global spectrum that we monitor, you see both of those stances well-represented in the data.”
There was, though, a noticeable shift, he says, in the aftermath of what came to be known as “Climategate.”
“Obviously Climategate brought to the forefront the fact that scientists have been doing a very poor job of communicating their work to the public,” he said. “Most of the underlying data has been a black box and most of the field’s output has been scientific publications in academic journals.”
The “Climategate” scandal involved hundreds of e-mails that were hacked from the University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit in 1989. Some global change deniers concluded the e-mails proved that scientists had systematically skewed evidence to support claims of climate upheaval.
“We won, you lost. Get a life,” said U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., who once famously said that climate change was “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
Meanwhile, a U.K. House of Commons Science Assessment Panel, while concluding that researchers should have been more careful in their techniques, found nothing sinister in the e-mails, and said “On the specific allegations made against the behavior of CRU scientists, we find that their rigor and honesty as scientists are not in doubt … We did not find any evidence of behavior that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.”
Nevertheless, according to the stories Leetaru tracked, more stories appeared questioning the actual environmental data.
“A lot of the underlying data showing a rise in global temperatures,” Leetaru says, “were called into question by poor scientific practices. So, at least in the media sphere, there is a lot more discussion these days about whether global temperatures are actually rising.
“For climate scientists, this means greater transparency in the data they use, more concrete quantifications and forecasts of what will happen if it is not addressed, and helping the public become more engaged in the discussion,” he said. “In fact, you’re seeing a lot more use of the term ‘climate change’ in place of ‘global warming’ to take into account that some regions are actually getting colder in recent years.”
Leetaru refuses to get into the debate, but does indicate the public relations efforts on both sides are often misguided.
“Really, from what we see through all of the data we collect, there needs to be much better communication between climate scientists and the public and policymakers,” he said. “Right now the focus has really been on generating new data and publications for fellow scientists, while very little outreach has been done to the public.
“Whether we like it or not,” he added, “we live in the public spotlight, unlike most other fields, and we need to heed this and do a much better job.”