'Climategate' emails: Scientists defend science

November 28, 2009

Climate change deniers, conservative politicians and right-wing newspaper columnists were all but incontinent with delight. Flooding the internet in mid-November were thousands of documents and private emails that had been exchanged over more than a decade by prominent climate scientists.

The emails were posted anonymously after hackers penetrated the server of one of Britain's main climate change research centres, the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia.

Here was the chance, opponents of orthodox climate science evidently told themselves, to discredit forever the "theory" of anthropogenic — that is, human-caused — global warming.

What would the emails reveal? Doubts about the climate change case, bullying of scientific dissidents, suppression of evidence, outright scientific fraud?

Even if the messages revealed nothing of the kind, the myth would have taken wing: that the great global warming scam had met with its "Climategate".

The Australian on November 24 quoted right-wing Liberal Senator Nick Minchin stating: "These emails reveal at least prima facie evidence that supporters of the theory of anthropogenic global warming are going to considerable lengths to doctor evidence and to suppress information and intimidate those who don't support that theory."

Adelaide University professor of mining geology and leading climate change denier Ian Plimer was still more categorical. "This substantiates what I hinted at", Plimer told the Australian. "Here we have the Australian government underpinning the biggest economic decision this country has ever made and it's all based on fraud."

But what have the deniers actually trawled from their ocean of stolen messaging?

Probably the most damning single allegation relates to a remark by CRU chief Dr Phil Jones about the use he made of work by a colleague, Dr Michael Mann of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

"I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

To believe the denialist bloggers, that is a confession of gross falsification — signed, sealed and delivered. But take its context into account, and the passage becomes completely innocuous.

A "trick", in the jargon of scientists, is an ingenious way of overcoming a problem. Mann's "trick" involved juxtaposing observed temperature records to "hide" a false decline implied by tree-ring temperature data known to be partly inaccurate.

What else, then? Might scientists be artificially boosting temperature rises through choosing to believe computer models, rather than the objective evidence?

Dr Kevin Trenberth of the US Center for Atmospheric Research complains in one of the emails that modelling of sea surface temperatures "shows there should be even more warming".

"We can't account for the lack of warming at the moment", Trenberth laments, "and it is a travesty that we can't".

The observed data, he surmises, "are surely wrong", and the observing system, he maintains, is inadequate.

But has Trenberth reacted to the discrepancy by suppressing or "doctoring" evidence? There is no suggestion, in the emails or anywhere else, that he has.

On the falsification of research results — a career-ending offence for scientists — all the scouring through the emails has come up with nothing.

But not to worry. As propagators of the anthropogenic warming myth, the scientists are clearly the sort of people who would do such things.

And for true deniers, that is enough.

Those reading the emails not stuck in a conspiracy theory, meanwhile, have been struck by what is not there. There is no evidence of almost everything denialists have confidently maintained goes on in climate research institutes.

RealClimate site observed on November 20 that the e-mails revealed "no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research … no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no 'marching orders' from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords".

The denialists, of course, are not simply buffoons — and correspondingly, the materials released onto the internet have a darker, almost tragic side. They reveal a very human bitterness among climate scientists at attacks that have intensified in recent years.

Modern-day Galileos, the scientists confront an Inquisition based in wealthy right-wing circles and the "think tanks" that serve them.

The pressures on the scientists are described eloquently in a November 23 Washington Post blog interview with physicist and historian Spencer Weart, who said: "We've never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance.

"Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers."

To their credit, leading climate scientists have fought back against demands that they make concessions to bad science. A prominent figure in this resistance has been the CRU's Jones — which perhaps explains why his institute was the target of the hacker attack.

The New Scientist said Jones and Mann in a 2003 exchange of emails discussed urging scientific authors to boycott the journal Climate Research after it published "extremely poor papers" by known denialists.

New Scientist said the journal's editor-in-chief and half the editorial board resigned over the matter.

In 2004, Jones and Mann discussed ways of blocking two papers, whose content they regarded as unscientific, from being assessed for use in a report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

In other emails, ways are discussed of keeping temperature data, largely covered by confidentiality agreements, out of the hands of denialists.

As depicted by denialist bloggers, the atmosphere that has arisen inside the climate science community is one of arrogant intolerance, with dissenting voices ruthlessly silenced. But again, an understanding of the context is vital.

In the first place, anthropogenic global warming is no longer just a theory, but established fact. Trenberth was quoted as saying in the November 22 Washington Post that "it is incontrovertible" that the world is warming as a result of human actions.

Predicted by fundamental laws of physics, human-caused global warming has now been demonstrated by real-world evidence so overwhelming, and from so many sources and directions, that refusal to accept it is simply perverse.

There are no legitimate sceptics any more, just the ignorant or wilful deniers.

Second, within the climate science community there is no longer dissent on the basic concept of human-caused global warming. All working climate scientists — that is, those who publish in peer-reviewed journals — now agree anthropogenic warming is real.

The unresolved questions relate to its degree and precise mechanisms. On these, debate is rich and generally cordial.

Third, tolerance is not a virtue in dealing with people out to subject humanity and nature to intolerable risks.

Jones and his colleagues are aware, like few others, that the consequence of failing to combat denialist pseudo-science would very likely be a catastrophe of civilisation-ending proportions.

Finally, climate change deniers, especially in the US and Australia, are hardly isolated and picked-on. Historically they have been well funded, not least by big energy corporations, and they have huge media resources at their disposal.

Disturbingly, they are gaining ground. In a recent Pew Research Center poll in the US, only 36% of respondents felt that human activities lay behind a temperature increase. That was down from 47% in 2006.

In Australia, the corresponding figure in September this year was a far-from-overwhelming 67%.

So when Jones, Mann and others mount a tough, uncompromising fight for scientific rationality, do they deserve to be pilloried? Adelaide University Climate Change Professor Barry Brook has, perhaps, the best take on this question.

On November 27 Brook told Green Left Weekly that anyone who wants to criticise the scientists involved should "first place the contents of their email archive for the last 10 years on a public repository, such that anyone has the opportunity to download it, peruse it, and cherry-pick out-of-context statements".

Minchin and Plimer, to name just two, would be unlikely to fare well.

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