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Originally published Sunday, December 13, 2009 at 12:08 AM

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Danny Westneat

Climate change stirs much heat

Admit it's a sham, some readers say. No, we're killing the planet, others insist. I get asked or challenged about global warming more than any other issue. But in six years as a columnist I've never written about it.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Admit it's a sham, some readers say. No, we're killing the planet, others insist.

I get asked or challenged about global warming more than any other issue. But in six years as a columnist I've never written about it.

I guess you could call me a global-warming agnostic. A climate shrugger.

I defer to the lion's share of scientists who say temperatures are rising faster than is historically normal. And that greenhouse gases emitted by us are in all likelihood a major part of the cause.

But I find many of the doomsday scenarios more political than scientific. It wouldn't surprise me if the current predictions about global warming turn out to be wildly off.

I'm also leery of how shrill and defensive some climate-change scientists have become. They act more like lobbyists than scientists.

I used to work in science (first in biology, then chemistry). I never once ran into this we're-right-you're-wrong tribalism that you see from scientists in those e-mails hacked from a British climate-research center last month.

Now politicians from Gov. Chris Gregoire to President Obama are convening in Copenhagen for climate-treaty talks this week. Polls show Americans don't believe in it so much anymore. So what are we to make of global warming and its underlying science?

I don't know. So I asked Dennis Lettenmaier.

He's not so easy to pigeonhole. Though people sure keep trying.

On some sites on the Internet, the renowned University of Washington hydrologist is dubbed a global-warming denier. A few years ago Republicans who ran the U.S. Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee put out a news release hailing his work for having "debunked many of the dubious claims made by the global warming alarmists."

"That turned me into a hero for a time on Fox News," Lettenmaier says.

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This same Lettenmaier, though, co-authored what was called a seminal article in the journal Science last year, arguing that man-made global warming is so altering patterns of precipitation and water flow that our centuries-old scheme for managing water resources needs to be chucked.

For that he has been hailed as a hero at climate-change conferences.

"These are crazy times in this field," he said from his UW office last week.

On the recent "Climategate" scandal, in which private e-mails show some leading scientists calling critics idiots and appearing to jigger data to get cleaner, pro-global-warming results, Lettenmaier, who knows some of the people involved, says he found it "very troubling."

"Global warming somewhere along the way became part of the liberal agenda, and that infected some scientists," he said. "It has been oversold a bit — this idea that everyone's in agreement and there's some unified view. It's not true. There's a lot of uncertainty about what's going to happen in the future."

The data that the earth is warming at unusual rates is solid and obvious, he says. That humans are contributing to it via greenhouse-gas emissions is also well established.

"Where there's tremendous uncertainty is how it's going to play out in the future," he said.

His paper that got picked up by Fox News, for example, used soil-moisture measurements to show that droughts have become milder — contradicting some climate-change models. What Fox News missed, though, is the part that showed droughts were more severe in pockets in the Western U.S.

Both sides cite that paper to make their political points, he notes. It's also only one of more than 200 peer-reviewed articles he's published.

He said there's a disturbing tendency among some scientists to dismiss "pieces of this story that don't quite fit" — such as the drought research, or other work showing floods haven't increased as predicted, either.

"Some people over on the climate-change side don't really want to hear that," he said.

Not wanting to hear is not science. It's ideology.

On the flip side, Lettenmaier gets his news mostly from KIRO radio (he doesn't have a TV). That station has some hosts who regularly denounce global warming as a scam or a conspiracy cooked up by left-leaning scientists. He says the willful ignorance there and with some members of Congress is astounding.

There are about 100 faculty members at the University of Washington doing climate-related research, on everything from clouds to polar ice to the effects of ocean acidification on oysters. Most publish their data online. If they are all faking it, all on message, that's some sophisticated conspiracy. And that's at just one university.

There's something about this issue — its complexity? its implications? — that makes it like a Rorschach test. A lot of people simply see whatever they'd prefer to be true.

Lettenmaier says the recent e-mail scandal has been damaging to the image of science, which may have political fallout. But it hasn't changed a thing about the current scientific understanding of global warming.

"It's happening," he said. "Where it's going to lead is uncertain. But I think it's untenable to pretend we can keep pumping this stuff into the atmosphere at current rates and it's not going to make any difference."

There you go — one moderate view from the middle of this storm.

Maybe it helps cut through the fog a bit.

But as the scientists should have done from the start, I'll leave it there for you to make of it what you will.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to dwestneat@seattletimes.com. His column runs Wednesday and Sunday.
dwestneat@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2086

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