Just before the onset of a winter that some forecasters predict will be one of the coldest in decades, a new scandal is rocking the global climate change debate. Last month, an unidentified computer hacker broke into a server containing private emails from the Climate Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia. The content of the emails, many skeptics of climate change claim, is a smoking gun, proving the existence of a conspiracy by leading British and American climate researchers. Certain emails seem to point to the researchers’ deliberate misrepresentation of climate data and desire to suppress conflicting opinions. The scandal is fueling the fire for those who argue that climate change caused by humans is at best, shoddy science and at worst, a giant hoax.

The University of East Anglia has launched an investigation into the matter. Phil Jones, director of the Climate Research Unit there and author of several of the leaked e-mails, announced Tuesday his intention to voluntarily step down from his position during the inquiry.

In a time when human-initiated global warming is supposedly Gospel truth and passing legislation meant to battle climate change is one of the primary concerns for governments around the world, this scandal adds a touch of doubt to the issue’s purportedly airtight science. Governments and organizations, including the University of Michigan, should use this doubt as an opportunity to ensure that fear is not the motivation behind their environmental programs.

I’ve been a man-made global warming skeptic for years. I could go on and on about how warming isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and how sunspots — dark spots on the surface of the sun — probably impact our climate more than humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. But before you boo me for ignoring “science,” killing polar bears and dooming my progeny to some apocalyptic future, I want to concentrate on a factor which all too often motivates the fight against climate change. That, of course, is fear.

Every year, Al Gore, Ted Danson or some other politician or celebrity warns us that we only have 10 years left to save the world from environmental destruction. We’re fed images of glaciers melting and animals suffering. We’re told to drive hybrid cars and use compact fluorescent light bulbs or else rising temperatures will raise sea levels and cause widespread famine. We’re made to fear this looming climate crisis, and that fear is supposed to motivate us to conserve, buy and vote in accordance with what the so-called experts tell us.

I’m completely in support of reducing pollution, conserving our resources and protecting Earth’s creatures. It’s our moral responsibility, it makes economic sense, and it’s just nice to live in a clean place. But using fear to push this agenda is wrong. Fear causes us to make hasty, expensive decisions, to make sacrifices we don’t need to make, to ignore legitimate counterarguments and concerns and to rely on government to placate our worries.

If you believe that we only have 10 years until the Earth fries, you should be afraid. But if you’re like me and believe that gradual, continual modernization of outdated forms of transportation and energy creation will ensure a lasting harmony between people and our environment, you should allow this latest climate scandal to remind you how some are using fear to push action.

Organizations like the University have spent millions of dollars on “green” projects. Administrators believe the impact and the example set by these initiatives are worth the investment. I may not agree that the results of these projects justify the expenses, but I can respect the University as long as it makes educated environmental policy decisions. If fear of a climate crisis is the motivation behind the University’s actions, however, I cannot maintain that respect.

Some might say it’s best to have a healthy dose of fear in order to avoid a scenario in which the climate drastically changes and it’s too late for us to make a difference. Even if such a devastating change is bound to happen, I have yet to encounter any evidence that we could do something to stop it. Others might argue the East Anglia climate scandal is just a big misinterpretation. Still, we should realize just how much passion, terror and rage the climate change issue inspires. In order to appropriately address our environmental concerns, we need to detach from our fear of destruction and take a long, smart look at the big picture. On climate change, we need to chill.

Chris Koslowski can be reached at cskoslow@umich.edu.

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