Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Climate Absolution?

More like a 160-page evasion of the real issues that confront global-warming science.


The latest study purporting to absolve the scientists involved in November's Climategate scandal was published last week. On predictable cue, the news was followed by a letter from our admirers at the United Nations Foundation and the Natural Resources Defense Council urging us to "set the record straight" on "these bogus scandals." Having devoted considerable space to Climategate, we're happy to explain why we can't do that.

Climategate is media shorthand for the debate over the content of thousands of emails and documents that were released without authorization from the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit. At its core, the scandal was as much about the integrity of the scientific process as it was about the quality of the science. Leading climate scientists were caught advising each other to delete potentially compromising emails, stonewall freedom of information requests and game the peer review process to exclude contributions from skeptical colleagues.

The Climategate emails also revealed a habit among climate scientists of trimming their scientific sails to the political winds, sometimes by emphasizing temperature and environmental trends at the alarmist end of the spectrum.

"I tried hard to balance the needs of the science with the IPCC, which were not always the same," wrote East Anglia climatologist Keith Briffa to Penn State's Michael Mann in April 2007. The IPCC, or Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is the U.N. body whose lengthy reports are supposed to be the gold standard for what the world knows about climate change.

For anyone who believes that science benefits from transparency, Climategate was a very good thing. The scandal prompted reporters, bloggers, independent scientists and parliamentary committees to take a closer look at the "settled science." A widely cited claim by the IPCC that Himalayan glaciers would all but vanish by 2035 was debunked. Another stunner about a potential 40% decline in the Amazonian rainforest "appears to have absolutely no scientific basis at all," according to Roger Pielke, Jr., an environmental studies professor at the University of Colorado. Other attention-getting IPCC assertions turn out to have been based on the work of environmental pressure groups and popular magazines.

At a minimum, then, Climategate ought to have prompted some soul-searching among climate scientists about the need for greater openness, less politics and a more balanced treatment of the data. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that last week's "Independent Climate Change Email Review," commissioned and funded by the University of East Anglia and chaired by Muir Russell, the former Vice Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, amounts to a 160-page evasion of the real issues.

One such evasion concerns the science of climate change itself. The review insists that it found nothing "that might undermine the conclusions" of the 2007 IPCC report, to which the CRU was a significant contributor. But that's only because it explicitly refused to look. The review says its "concern is not with science, whether data has been validated or whether the hypotheses have survived testing," but rather with "the honesty, rigor and openness with which the CRU scientists have acted."

In other words, the review assumes the validity of the global warming "consensus" while purporting to reaffirm that consensus. Since a statement cannot prove itself, the review merely demonstrates a weakness for circular logic.

Nearly the only significant scientific judgment cast by the review is that some versions of the notorious "hockey stick" graph—which purports to show relatively stable global temperatures until the last century—were "misleading" because the attempt, in the words of CRU director Phil Jones, to "hide the decline" in some of the data had not been made clear to readers.

Then there is the evasion—or maybe absolution is the better word—as it concerns the professional standards of the CRU scientists. The review does acknowledge that it found "evidence that emails might have been deleted in order to make them unavailable." And it faults the CRU staff for "[failing] to recognize . . . the significance of statutory requirements" concerning freedom of information requests. The review puts this down to a kind of naivete by the CRU scientists.

Yet it's hard to understand how researchers who were nothing if not meticulous in avoiding the FOI requests could have been unaware of their importance. In one now famous 2008 email, Mr. Jones wrote Penn State's Michael Mann as follows: "Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith [Briffa] re AR4 [the 2007 IPCC report]? Keith will do likewise." Good thing for these gentlemen that they didn't work for, say, Enron.

Perhaps the most significant evasion is the report's claim to be genuinely independent. Of its four panelists, one of them, Geoffrey Boulton, was a member of the University of East Anglia's faculty of environmental studies for 18 years and signed a petition last December insisting that climate researchers "adhere to the highest levels of professional integrity." Given that one of the problems exposed by the emails was a tendency for self-dealing, it's hard to see how this review will put suspicions to rest.

We realize that, for climate change true believers, last week's report will be waved about as proof that the science of climate change is as "settled" as the case for action. It's never hard to convince yourself of what you're already disposed to believe. But if their goal is to persuade an increasingly skeptical public about the science of global warming, and the need to restructure the world economy to ameliorate it, they need to start taking the politics out of the science.

No comments:

Post a Comment