A conservative think tank attempted to engage the debate over climate policy recently, only to see that attempt explode in its face. The tangled episode, with its combustible mix of sensationalist journalism, public outrage, and the threatened intervention of the federal government, is rich with lessons about the current state of climate politics — lessons none of the participants seem inclined to learn.

The brouhaha began on Feb. 2, when the U.K. newspaper The Guardian published an article by Ian Sample claiming that the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute was paying scientists $10,000 a piece to “undermine” the just-released report from the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change. AEI was described as a “lobby group funded by one of the world’s largest oil companies” and an “ExxonMobil-funded think tank with close links to the Bush administration.” And that was just in the first two paragraphs.

The story rode a wave of IPCC-driven global-warming coverage, finding its way into major newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, several cable news shows, and dozens of blogs. Such a fuss was kicked up that four U.S. senators — Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — sent AEI a stern letter [PDF], reprimanding it for attacking IPCC science and summoning the two scholars in charge of the project to testify before Congress.

Sample’s article is rich with insinuation. As AEI President Christopher DeMuth wrote in a heated response, AEI is not a “lobby group” — it’s a research institution that does no lobbying. Ties to the Bush administration consist in the fact that some AEI fellows once worked there, much as scholars at the Brookings Institution or the Center for American Progress once worked in Democratic administrations (though one does wonder what sort of scholarship is emanating from the august office of AEI fellow Lynne Cheney).

Sample reports that ExxonMobil has funded AEI to the tune of $1.6 million, without noting that the figure is an aggregate over seven years; DeMuth claims that no corporation’s donations represent more than 1 percent of AEI’s annual revenue. ExxonMobil denies being aware of AEI’s project on climate-change policy, and says it accepts the IPCC’s findings.

Nor is it particularly unusual for a scientist (or lawyer, or doctor) to receive an honorarium for original, publishable work. A $10,000 honorarium is on the generous side, but as one of the scientists approached by AEI later noted, it doesn’t come out to a very princely hourly wage — certainly not enough to buy the integrity of a well-known scientist.

The heart of the matter, of course, is whether the honorarium was meant to insure conclusions that would “undermine” the IPCC. Was AEI acting in the spirit of critical inquiry or offering a thinly disguised bribe? That depends entirely on one’s interpretation of AEI’s motives. Here it helps to trace the journey of the story out of obscurity and into the spotlight.

Steve Hayward.

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

It began in July 2006, when climate scientists Jerry North and Steve Schroeder at Texas A&M University received letters from AEI scholars Steve Hayward and Ken Green, soliciting a “review and policy critique” of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. (At that point, the report was seven months away from official public release, but drafts had been widely leaked.) North and Schroeder are mainstream researchers who have done respected work on climate modeling. They shared the letter with their colleague Andrew Dessler, who had just started a blog on climate science and politics. Dessler scanned the letter [PDF] that had been sent to Schroeder and wrote up a short critique, which Hayward and Green have acknowledged is “critical but largely fair-minded.”

That request is clumsy and somewhat muddled, but not obviously nefarious. Given the surrounding text, however, it wasn’t difficult to imagine that Hayward and Green were fishing for IPCC-bashing. For example, there was this passage, which trots out some well-worn but largely baseless tropes from climate-skeptic circles: “As with any large-scale ‘consensus’ process, the IPCC is susceptible to self-selection bias in its personnel, resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent, and prone to summary conclusions that are poorly supported by the analytical work of the complete Working Group reports.”

Dessler’s post expressed doubt that AEI would give the IPCC’s report a fair hearing, but ultimately refrained from judgment, noting the professional stature of the scientists being approached. Several blogs linked to his post and there followed a period of internet chatter on the subject, but it soon died down.

In the ensuing months, a few reporters sniffed around — an ABC News producer contacted Dessler and New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin contacted North — but none found the story worth pursuing.

Until recently, that is. In mid-January, on the eve of the IPCC report’s release, the story resurfaced with a vengeance. Someone — reportedly someone from Greenpeace — began approaching reporters with it. A number of them contacted Dessler, who sent them on to North and Schroeder. Hayward says he was approached by someone from a major broadcast network, who talked to him extensively about his views before abandoning the story. Eventually, Ian Sample took the bait, and from there a controversy was born and spread back to the States.

Ken Green.

Battered by the enormous reaction to the story, Hayward and Green sent out a second round of letters to noted scientists and economists, saying they “have been persuaded that an IPCC-focused project is too limited” and are now expanding the project’s focus, seeking papers on climate policy in general.

In a new piece in The Weekly Standard recounting these events, Hayward and Green again repeat some misleading talking points. To wit:

One possible reason for the timing [of the story’s reemergence] is that there appear to be some significant retreats from the 2001 IPCC report. The IPCC has actually lowered its estimate of the magnitude of human influence on warming, though we shall have to wait for the full report in May to understand how and why. Only readers with detailed knowledge of the 2001 report would notice these changes, which is why most news accounts failed to report them.

This is highly misleading. The 2007 report did not “retreat” from the 2001 report; it simply increased its estimate of the climate-sheltering effects of aerosols, or tiny particles suspended in the atmosphere. As those aerosols are removed via stronger international air-quality standards, the climate will show more warming, not less. There’s no good news there for denialists.

Is there enough evidence to suppose that Schroeder and North’s work would have been used to “undermine” the IPCC report? They thought so. Schroeder, an IPCC supporter, told the Washington Post that he and North declined AEI’s offer because they were worried their work would be “misused” and placed alongside “off-the-wall ideas” questioning anthropogenic climate change.

Hayward and Green say they had no such intention. Both claim to accept the core IPCC consensus, and despite a history of skepticism — back in 2003, Green was downplaying the problem for Canada’s right-wing Fraser Institute — their more recent writings support the claim. Like many other once-skeptical conservatives, they seem to have been persuaded in recent years by the growing body of scientific research.

They claim their project was intended to highlight responsible — as opposed to ideological — analysis and criticism of the policy-relevant portions of the IPCC report. They point out that some scientists participating in the IPCC have spoken at AEI, and more have been invited. AEI has organized other panels and speakers [PDF] around climate issues, none overtly hostile to the basic science. Hayward has written supportively about the U.N. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and other environmental efforts, and at least five AEI scholars are on record in support of a carbon tax, which sits oddly with the notion that ExxonMobil is dictating research.

Based on the balance of evidence, it’s reasonable to believe that AEI’s project was always meant, as its architects claim, to focus on climate policymaking and not on disputing basic science. But some careless phrasing, coupled with a sensationalist Guardian story that presented a highly charged interpretation as fact, has brought a deluge of political opprobrium down on Hayward and Green’s heads. The media frenzy has even raised the specter of federal interference in private-sector research, which can’t be a comfortable prospect for anyone committed to open debate.

Lesson Meets the Eye

What can be learned from the episode? In their recent Weekly Standard piece, Hayward and Green settled on a familiar narrative: the left, abetted by its media proxies, seeks to stifle and marginalize those who would question strict orthodoxy. But reflexive conservative victimology seems a bit self-serving in this case.

What they do not acknowledge is that the conservative movement has squandered its credibility on the subject of climate change. After years of efforts to deny or obfuscate mainstream climate science — driven by ideology, fossil-fuel funding, or some unknowable mix of the two — conservatives simply are not trusted on the issue. A story about a right-wing think tank funding attacks on science is credulously accepted precisely because it conforms to recent history. Most people expect it to be true.

If a conservative think tank seeks to fund responsible criticism on climate science or policy, it would do well to tread carefully, making explicit its acceptance of the core IPCC consensus and reassuring potential participants that their work will not be drafted in service of an ideological attack. That Hayward and Green were so incautious in their approach indicates that they have not fully recognized the level of mistrust they must now overcome, simply by virtue of their institutional and ideological affiliations.

Those who favor action on climate change can learn something from this episode as well, and not just the wisdom of bringing heightened skepticism to favorably biased news stories. Too many activists and commentators are fighting the last war, pounding away on any sign of doubt about basic climate science, even where no such doubt exists. The debate over the existence of anthropogenic climate change, despite some noisy rear-guard skirmishes, is largely over.

The policy debate is going to be more messy and politicized than the science debate ever was — after all, science will not be there to settle it. It will turn on risk assessment and the untidy art of balancing competing interests. Many conservatives who have abandoned their contrarianism on the science will likely now turn to carving out a policy position that downplays the risks of climate change, exaggerates the costs of addressing it, and above all discourages any response that relies too heavily on government regulation or investment.

Those who favor immediate, substantial action to address climate change would do well to prepare for that debate. Bashing climate denialists still makes good copy, but it is increasingly beside the point.