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'Climategate' controversy and shifting public opinion create inconvenient challenges for climate change summit

When President Obama lands in Copenhagen next week, he hopes to offer momentum to negotiations between world leaders to create a global agreement to stop climate change. That momentum, however, may be hampered by shifting public opinion in the United States and a brewing and questionable controversy over leaked emails written by prominent climate scientists in the UK.

Climate change denialists have seized on leaked emails from researchers at the Climate Research Unit at University of East Anglia to bolster their argument that the scientific consensus that the world is warming and causing unprecedented changes is overstated. The most-often-cited emails feature prominent climate scientists disparaging research and researchers skeptical of climate change and discussing a “trick” to avoid data contradicting the scientific consensus.

The importance of the controversy, however, is highly questionable. As Bryan Walsh of Time wrote earlier this week in a widely-cited piece that sorted through the details of the “climategate” hubub, “the truth is that the emails, while unseemly, do little to change the overwhelming scientific consensus on the reality of man-made climate change.” Some of the research that scientists disparaged was later found to be funded by the oil industry-backed American Petroleum Institute, and the “trick” was actually replacing one set of data with another, more-accurate set. Though the scientists calling it a “trick” in the emails made it sound nefarious, Walsh and others have pointed out, it’s been an openly discussed approach for over a decade.

Even so, outspoken figures on the right like Sarah Palin are using the controversy to stoke already growing doubts in the United States. Palin argued in an op-ed in The Washington Post on Wednesday that “climategate” casts doubt on the scientific consensus and that the President should boycott Copenhagen. However, doing so contradicted her repeated statements that climate change was real, and as she testified at an Interior Department hearing eight months ago, “Alaskans are living with the changes that you are observing from Washington.”

Palin, it seems, has undergone a transition similar to what can be seen in the country at large.  Two separate polls, one by The Washington Post and ABC News and the other by CNN, found that the number of Americans who believe in global warming fell by 8% since 2008. In both polls, that shift was driven primarily by a growing skepticism among Republicans. That fact, according to CNN’s Polling Director Keating Holland, “suggests that the changes measured in this poll may be a reaction to having a Democrat in the White House rather than a shift in underlying attitudes toward global warming.”

Just as “climategate” has distracted from whether any agreement can be reached in Copenhagen and what it would consist of, the polarization of U.S. public opinion will limit President Obama’s ability to promise substantive changes in U.S. policy. Any formal agreement reached, either in Copenhagen or after further discussion, would need to be ratified by Congress and therefore overcome legislators keenly aware of their constituents’ doubts about the problem itself, much less the Obama administration’s solutions for it.

That said, as Grist’s David Roberts explained, President Obama’s decision to travel to the summit as it concludes may indicate a growing sense of confidence from the administration that it will be able to claim some sort of progress. Arriving as the negotiations conclude and failing to deliver would make the President appear weak. However, arriving at the end and helping to finalize a formal or informal agreement despite challenges would be a significant show of strength from the embattled president.


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