Friday, July 9, 2010

Climategate - no one looks good

No one comes out of the “climategate” email saga looking good. Not the political hopefuls who jumped on the band wagon. Not the sceptic bloggers who allowed their conspiratorial paranoia to get the better of them. Not the climate change sceptic movement generally, whose more extreme members perpetrated a far more vicious kind of bullying and intellectual fraud than they accused their opponents of. Not the scientists at the centre of the saga, who acted to hide data and frustrate those they saw as 'outsiders'. Certainly not the journalist who, in a show of age and banality, appended the tired suffix “gate” to the damn thing.

The third independent review of the emails leaked from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, like the Oxburgh Report and the UK House of Common Science and Technology Committee Report before it, has largely cleared Phil Jones and the other scientists there. It found that their honesty and rigour as scientists was not in doubt. It found no evidence of any behaviours that would undermine the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). What it did find, though, was a lack of openness and an unhelpful and defensive approach to requests for information.

The more serious accusations, such as that researchers cherry picked and manipulated data to achieve the results they wanted, were rejected. The famous 'hockey stick' graph, which shows relatively flat global temperatures for the past thousand or so years and then a spike beginning in the 20th century, was called into question by an email which spoke of using a “trick” to “hide the decline”. This was not a decline in actual global temperatures but in a proxy measure (tree ring data) from the 1960's on. From that time tree ring measures cease to follow actual recorded temperatures and there is a suggestion that pollution is the cause. The report looked at this matter and concluded that the “trick” (of adding in the real temperatures) was used in the sense of 'neat technique' to combine proxy and actual temperature measurements. While the original paper that developed the graph, and the IPCC use of it, had extensively discussed the uncertainties around it and the problem of the divergence of tree ring and actual temperature measurements, the report was critical of its use without these cautions in a World Metereological Organisation report.

Those who had hoped and expected to see the entire edifice of global warming theory come tumbling down as a result of these emails will be in shock. This was probably their best hope of swinging the public debate and it failed. They will be looking for something that makes sense of this result and no doubt some will choose to blame an ever widening conspiracy. The idea that it may be because the evidence actually points to climate change being real is for some people unthinkable. Human history is littered with the corpses of those that would rather die than give up their beliefs.

My hope, though, is that we are able to do something more profound with this moment than lapse back into our respective camps and either gloat or glare. The majority of people are not actually signed up members of any camp in this debate. There is growing concern about climate change because the majority view of scientists seems to be that it is occurring, as a result of human activity, and it carries huge risk for us all. That view has been unaffected by these email leaks, and in fact may become more explicit as scientists respond to the lies and intimidation of some extremists revealed by this saga. But there is also growing concern about what looks like a loss of objectivity among some researchers. The defensiveness and obstructionism among CRU scientists that the emails reveal is unacceptable. If anything, they feed the concern that some scientists are trying to hide something.

One of the failings of the green movement has been in not understanding that people can question the science and indeed the politics of climate change without being anti-science or a cypher for the oil industry. Perfectly reasonable people have perfectly reasonable questions about it and treating them as the enemy is not helpful. Indeed if this saga shows anything, it is the need to depolarise the debate. It may be that the insular tribalism shown by the CRU was a direct response to the aggressive and personal attacks upon them, but it was an unhelpful approach. You don't fight fire with fire, but with water. The challenge for us all, to echo the report, is to find ways to have good public debate that allows the scientific to be discussed, in all its uncertainties, so that people have a better understanding about what we know and what we do not. That problem is, of course, not limited to this issue.

Part of that discussion needs to also be about how we deal with climate change. The National Party made a good start last year with its public consultations but then seems to have ignored them. In my view part of the cynicism about climate change science is driven by the blatant attempt by big business to snatch atmospheric property rights. For example the New Zealand Emission Trading Scheme seems unlikely to do anything to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions since consumers, taxpayers and foresters (bizarrely) are being forced to subside our biggest emitting industries. Its easy to see why some think the whole thing is a scam.

The other issue that the saga highlights is the growing tension between social media and privatised science. All through the western world we have seen a relative disinvestment by governments into science and research and therefore the increasing importance of privately funded science, joint venture research and an emphasis on the commercialisation of research by public institutions. As a result we have seen the growth of interest in, and jurisprudence around, intellectual property rights. How this affects the openness and verification of scientific research is an important discussion. I recall questioning New Zealand's own ESR some years ago about what research they were relying on when they made claims about the efficacy of drug testing in the work place (they were in the process of introducing it into New Zealand on a large scale) to be told that the research was commercially sensitive and therefore not open to scrutiny.

All this is in contradiction to the dynamics of the internet, where everyone expects access to everything and the right to comment on it. While this can open the floodgates to the distasteful, the distorted and the dishonest it can also harness the power of people in the same way that distributed virtual supercomputers harness masses of home PCs . It may be an uncomfortable notion to those who are used to beavering away in a corner of a university with little scrutiny except from their peers but in a world where the myth of value-free and outcome-neutral science and technology is dissolving away, it offers an important opportunity bring some democratic oversight to bear on science. In drawing the importance of this to the attention of scientists, climategate has indeed been a gamechanger.


Anonymous said...

It started as 'Global warming' then it became 'climate change', now its 'just a myth ?'.. Id be more concerned the proposals to start drilling holes in the sea-bed off the east coast, looking for oil. If the current situation in the mexican gulf is anything to go by, we'd better wake-up.

Praises in the name of the most HIGH.. Jah Ras Tafari. Conquering Lion of the Tribe of Judah & Elect of God..

Anonymous said...

Ras Nandor.. so when are you getting back on the political platform.. ALCP ??