The angels and demons of climate change

At the very least, the leaked emails in “Climategate” show that science is a very political affair.
Javier Cuadros | Dec 1 2009 | comment  

If temperatures were not already warm enough, the email leak from the University of East Anglia (UK) will make sure that the United Nations climate change summit in Copenhagen next week will be held in great weather.

In the unlikely event that you have not heard about “Climategate”, here is what happened. Hackers broke into servers at the University's Climate Research Unit (CRU), a key centre for the study of climate change and downloaded 13 years of private emails and documents. They posted them online on a blog called The Air Vent. The hackers explained: "We feel that climate science is, in the current situation, too important to be kept under wraps. We hereby release a random selection of correspondence, code and documents. Hopefully it will give some insight into the science and the people behind it."

Climate change supporters dismissed the revelations which emerged as bloggers trawled through 13 years of emails as a storm in a teacup. But sceptics regard them as a "smoking gun", evidence that some climatologists colluded in manipulating data to support their hypothesis that climate change is real and is being largely caused by the actions of mankind.

Some of the emails are, at the very least, embarrassing. In one of them, from Professor Phil Jones, the director of the CRU, to an American colleague, the death of a sceptic is described as "cheering news". In another he suggests that a "trick" was used to "hide the decline" in temperature. They even include fantasies of violence. An American wrote to Professor Jones: "Next time I see Pat Michaels [a climate sceptic] at a scientific meeting, I'll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted."

The first point, on which everyone agrees, is that the action was illegal. Let the law take its course. However, this is irrelevant to the question debated. The debate is centred, or should be, on whether the science of Global Warming, alias Climate Change, has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt that (1) there is a global warming of the planet and (2) it is caused by human activity.

My opinion is no, it hasn’t, as I have argued before in MercatorNet. It does not matter how many times the rhetoric about an overwhelming consensus is repeated. The consensus has been politically, not scientifically, generated. The statement of this consensus has the same value as, for example, that other famous statement that Iraq was piling up arms of mass destruction. It is part of a political campaign, not of an educational campaign.

The word campaign brings to mind the second point. The email hacking is obviously part of a campaign and the leak was timed to damage the meeting in Copenhagen. But again, the global warming case is also a campaign. The difference between the two is that one is sustained by the governments of some of the most powerful states in the world, the media and environmental groups, and has access to taxpayers' money, while the other is sustained by a group of diehards using their own money.

The third and central point is that there is a hint of foul play that may have been exposed. The foul play, if it did happen, may have a tremendous effect in the lives of millions of peoples around the world and for generations to come. Isn’t it common sense to call for an investigation? Isn’t it even ethically demanded? The official reaction to such an enquiry is pitifully suspicious. It also lacks logic.

Somebody is accusing a group of people of tinkering with scientific data in order to produce a certain desired result, and of not wanting to make these data available because this could reveal the tinkering. In response, this group of people answers that there is nothing to discuss on the whole issue because their data have proven the truth of their results. This is basically the content of the official response to the alleged leak. Can the reader spot the gap in the logic?

Unwillingness to share data and methods of analysis by certain scientists supporting the man-made global warming interpretation has been mentioned before. Nigel Lawson provides examples with names, dates and the specific issues in his book An Appeal to Reason: A Cool Look at Global Warming.

Finally, some of the official answers to the email leak argue that the implicated scientists have published their studies in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and this makes it virtually impossible to assert that they tinkered with their data.

I cannot help but smile at such an argument. Scientists, both authors and reviewers, as well as the editors of scientific journals, are human. They have their share in our common lot of error, taste for success, fear of peer pressure and interest in financial resources. A very recent case is an example of how scientific peer-review can be fooled. Jan Hendrik Schön, a physicist working at the Bell Labs in the USA, published a long string of articles during the 1990s and 2000s in Science (one of the two most prestigious scientific journals in the world) with results that he fabricated. He did it single-handed and it took years to expose him.

Science is difficult. It relies on a multitude of data, assumptions, simplifications and interpretations that try to make sense of the facts. Any cutting-edge science worthy of being considered for publication deals with opinion as much as with fact, precisely because it is trying to break new ground. Climate science is the epitome of this complexity, as it deals with the planet globally and the innumerable processes going on in the atmosphere, oceans and lithosphere in a mutual feed-back loop. Yes, there is a very substantial possibility that a great number of papers on the matter have substantial limitations that will be identified in the future. Some of them may even have intentional errors.

The genuineness of the leaked emails should be investigated. Let us see whether these angels of climate change are completely pure and whether some demons of denying have some goodness in them -- as they may be actually interested in the truth of the case.

Javier Cuadros is a scientist and works in London, UK.

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