Last week, another 5,000 emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of East Anglia University- ground zero of “Climategate I” in 2009 were released.
Climategate I, the release of a few thousand emails and documents from the CRU in November 2009 revealed that, leading scientists in the inner circle expressed significant doubts and uncertainty about the hockey stick and several other global warming claims about which we are repeatedly told there exists an ironclad consensus among scientists.
More damning was the attitude that CRU circle displayed toward dissenters, skeptics, and science journals that did not strictly adhere to the party line. Dissenting articles were blocked from publication or review by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), requests for raw data were rebuffed, and Freedom of Information Act requests were stonewalled. National science panels were stacked, and qualified dissenters such as NASA prize-winner John Christy were tolerated as “token skeptics.”
Before anyone had time to get very far into this vast archive, the climate campaigners were ready with their critical review: Nothing worth seeing here. Out of context! Cherry picking! Appeals to context avoid the question: Is this “science-by-committee” a sensible way to sort out contentious scientific issues that hold immense public policy implications? Perhaps a politicized, semi-chaotic process like the IPCC is unavoidable in a subject as wide-ranging and complex as climate change. But the high stakes involved ought to compel a maximum of open debate and transparency. Instead, the IPCC process places a premium on gatekeepers and arbiters who control what goes in and what doesn’t, and it is exactly in its exercise of the gatekeeping function that the CRU circle has shredded its credibility and trustworthiness.
While a large number of scientists are working on separate, detailed nodes of climate-related issues, the circle of scientists who control the syntheses that go into IPCC reports and the national climate reports that the U.S. and other governments occasionally produce, is quite small and partial to particular outcomes of these periodic assessments.
Beyond additional bad news for the hockey stick graph, some of the new emails frankly acknowledge problems such as troubling new aspects of how climate modeling is done, and how weak the models still are on crucial points (such as cloud behavior). There are arcane discussions about how to interpolate gaps in the data, how to harmonize different data sets, and how to resolve the frequent and often inconvenient (because contradictory) anomalies in modeling results. Definite examples of political influence have emerged already from a first pass over a sample of the massive cache.
In the editing process before the IPCC’s 2001 third assessment report, Timothy Carter of the Finnish Environmental Institute wrote in 2000 to three chapter authors with the observation, “It seems that a few people have a very strong say, and no matter how much talking goes on beforehand, the big decisions are made at the eleventh hour by a select core group.” In this case, decisions at the highest levels of what specific figures and conclusions were to appear in the short “summary for policy makers”- usually the only part of the IPCC’s multivolume reports that the media and politicians read- required changing what appeared in individual chapters, a case of the conclusions driving the findings in the detailed chapters instead of the other way around. Comments such as one from Jonathan Overpeck, writing in 2004 about how to summarize some ocean data in a half-page, reinforce the impression that politics drives the process: “The trick may be to decide on the main message and use that to guide what’s included and what is left out.”
No amount of context can possibly exonerate the CRU gang from some of the damning expressions and contrivances that appear repeatedly in the new emails. More so than the 2009 batch, these emails make clear the close collaboration between the leading IPCC scientists and environmental advocacy groups, government agencies, and partisan journalists. If there were only a handful of such dubious messages, they might be explained away through “context”. But they are so numerous that it doesn’t require an advanced degree in pattern recognition to make out that these emails constitute not just a “smoking gun” of scientific bias, but a belching howitzer.
Since the beginning of the climate change story more than 20 years ago, it has been hard to sort out whether the IPCC represents the “best” science, or merely the findings most compatible with the politically driven climate policy agenda. Both sets of emails have lifted the lid on the insides of the process, and it isn’t pretty.
A good example of how the political-scientific complex works hand-in-glove to tightly control the results comes from May 2009, when the IPCC authors were working on a “weather generator,” which they hoped would produce climate change scenarios tailored to localities. This is a small but hugely controversial aspect of climate modeling, and one where politicians and advocacy groups may well be asking scientists to do the impossible. But there’s research money in it, so scientists are only too happy to oblige.
In a 2008 email from Jagadish Shukla of George Mason University and the Institute of Global Environment and Society to a large circle of IPCC scientists, Shukla put his finger squarely on the problem: “I would like to submit that the current climate models have such large errors in simulating the statistics of regional [climate] that we are not ready to provide policymakers a robust scientific basis for ‘action’ at a regional scale. .??.??. It is inconceivable that policy-makers will be willing to make billion- and trillion-dollar decisions for adaptation to the projected regional climate change based on models that do not even describe and simulate the processes that are the building blocks of climate variability.” Despite this and other cautionary messages from scientists, Jones, DEFRA, and the IPCC charged ahead with the weather generator anyway.
Other problems with climate modeling are more subtle and less easily discerned from the emails. In particular, there is much discussion about the political pressure to tune the climate models to isolate and emphasize the effect of carbon dioxide only, even though there are other important greenhouse gases and related factors highly relevant to a complete understanding of climate change. Carbon dioxide was emphasized because it is the variable that the policymakers made central to their monomaniacal mission to suppress fossil fuels to the exclusion of other policy strategies, such as “geoengineering,” that might be considered in the event of drastic climate change. Here and there Jones and his compatriots complain about this constraint, but go along with it anyway.
Climate science establishment has greatly exaggerated what it knows. The effect of fluctuations in solar activity have been consistently downplayed in the climate models and IPCC reports, despite a steady stream of science journal articles- most of them peer reviewed- that argue for a more substantial weighting of solar factors.
As all the new emails are dissected and analyzed, no doubt Jones and the CRU circle will be able to claim to have been misinterpreted or wrongly besmirched in many instances. But between their boorish behaviors, attempts to conceal data and block FOIA requests, and dismissal of dissent, the climate science community has abdicated its credibility and done great damage to large-scale scientific inquiry.
It is worth revisiting one of the most infamous statements in the climate change saga, which came in 1989 from the late Stanford environmental scientist Stephen Schneider (who turns up in many of the emails in both Climategate features):
"On the one hand, as scientists we are ethically bound to the scientific method, in effect promising to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but—which means that we must include all the doubts, the caveats, the ifs, ands, and buts. On the other hand, we are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we’d like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broad based support, to capture the public’s imagination. That, of course, means getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have. This “double ethical bind” we frequently find ourselves in cannot be solved by any formula. Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."
The lesson of the Climategate saga is that scientists who become advocates, or allow themselves to become adjuncts to an advocacy campaign, damage science and policy-making alike. They end up being neither effective nor honest. One of the poignant revelations of the new emails is that some of the scientists seem to grasp this. Tommy Wils, a British climate researcher at the University of Swansea, wrote in a 2007 note to a large list of recipients: “Politicians like Al Gore are abusing the fear of global warming to get into power (while having a huge carbon footprint himself).”
Had the climate scientists been more honest about their doubts, and more willing to discipline their allies, they might not be going through the present agony of having their dirty laundry exposed.
According to “FOIA,” the online name of the hacker/leaker behind the release of these emails, there are another 220,000 emails still out there, blocked by a heavily encrypted password that “FOIA” vaguely threatens or promises to release at some future date. Stay tuned for -Climategate III.