The great climate change science scandal

  • Date: 28/11/09

The Sunday Times: Leaked emails have revealed the unwillingness of climate change scientists to engage in a proper debate with the sceptics who doubt global warming.
The storm began with just four cryptic words. “A miracle has happened,” announced a contributor to Climate Audit, a website devoted to criticising the science of climate change. “RC” said nothing more — but included a web link that took anyone who clicked on it to another site, Real Climate.
There, on the morning of November 17, they found a treasure trove: a thousand or so emails sent or received by Professor Phil Jones, director of the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia in Norwich. Jones is a key player in the science of climate change.
His department’s databases on global temperature changes and its measurements have been crucial in building the case for global warming.
What those emails suggested, however, was that Jones and some colleagues may have become so convinced of their case that they crossed the line from objective research into active campaigning. In one, Jones boasted of using statistical “tricks” to obliterate apparent declines in global temperature.
In another he advocated deleting data rather than handing them to climate sceptics. And in a third he proposed organised boycotts of journals that had the temerity to publish papers that undermined the message. It was a powerful and controversial mix — far too powerful for some. Real Climate is a website designed for scientists who share Jones’s belief in man-made climate change.
Within hours the file had been stripped from the site. Several hours later, however, it reappeared — this time on an obscure Russian server. Soon it had been copied to a host of other servers, first in Saudi Arabia and Turkey and then Europe and America.
What’s more, the anonymous poster was determined not to be stymied again. He or she posted comments on climate-sceptic blogs, detailing a dozen of the best emails and offering web links to the rest. Jones’s statistical tricks were now public property.
Steve McIntyre, a prominent climate sceptic, was amazed. “Words failed me,” he said.
Another, Patrick Michaels, declared: “This is not a smoking gun; this is a mushroom cloud.”
Inevitably, the affair became nicknamed Climategate. For the scientists, campaigners and politicians trying to rouse the world to action on climate change the revelations could hardly have come at a worse time.
Next month global leaders will assemble in Copenhagen to seek limits on carbon emissions. The last thing they need is renewed doubts about the validity of the science.
The scandal has also had a huge personal and professional impact on the scientists.
“These have been the worst few days of my professional life,” said Jones. He had to call on the police for protection after receiving anonymous phone calls and personal threats. Why should a few emails sent to and from a single research scientist at a middle-ranking university have so much impact? And most importantly, what does it tell us about the quality of the research underlying the science of climate change?
THE hacking scandal is not an isolated event. Instead it is the latest round of a long-running battle over climate science that goes back to 1990. That was when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the group of scientists that advises governments worldwide — published its first set of reports warning that the Earth faced deadly danger from climate change.
A centrepiece of that report was a set of data showing how the temperature of the northern hemisphere was rising rapidly. The problem was that the same figures showed that it had all happened before.
The so-called medieval warm period of about 1,000 years ago saw Britain covered in vineyards and Viking farmers tending cows in Greenland. For any good scientist this raised a big question: was the recent warming linked to humans burning fossil fuels or was it part of a natural cycle?
The researchers set to work and in 1999 a group led by Professor Michael Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University, came up with new numbers showing that the medieval warm period was not so important after all. Some bits of the Atlantic may have been warm for a while, but the records suggested that the Pacific had been rather chilly over the same period — so on average there was little change.
Plotted out, Mann’s data turned into the famous “hockey stick” graph. It showed northern hemisphere temperatures as staying flat for hundreds of years and then rising steeply from 1900 until now. The implication was that this rise would continue, with potentially deadly consequences for humanity.
That vision of continents being hit by droughts and floods while the Arctic melts away has turned a scientific debate into a highly emotional and political one. The language used by “warmists” and sceptics alike has become increasingly polarised.
George Monbiot, widely respected as a writer on green issues, has branded doubters “climate deniers”, a phrase uncomfortably close to holocaust denial. Sceptics, particularly in America, have suggested that scientists who believe in climate change are part of a global left-wing conspiracy to divert billions of dollars into green technology.
A more cogent criticism is that there has been a reluctance to acknowledge dissent on the question of climate science. Al Gore, the former US vice-president turned green campaigner, has described the climate debate as “settled”. Yet the science, say critics, has not been tested to the limit. This is why the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia is so significant.

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