Monday, December 07, 2009

Climategate - in case you missed it...

By now, most of us have probably heard about the hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit of University of East Anglia, which has been labeled repeatedly as the final nail in the coffin for Anthropogenic Global Warming.
From some pretty overwrought accounts the conspiracy to defraud scientifically by thousands of AGW supporters was driven by politics, desire for fame, or a myriad of other reasons.  If so, this raid of the university's computer was an act of heroic espionage that strikes back at an intelligentsia run amok.

After all, the stakes are enormous: perhaps trillions of dollars and unquestionably every American’s personal liberties. Tomorrow, over 20,000 delegates from 193 nations will gather in Copenhagen to craft an agreement which would not only force American power consumption to levels equal to those of about 1910, but would also have us pay reparations for an imaginary “climate debt” we’ve accumulated by building the world’s greatest economy of all time. That debt is based on the amount of CO2 our financial growth has purportedly pumped into the atmosphere, which, according to the conclusions of the IPCC and based largely upon reports from the CRU, has selfishly imperiled the planet by inducing climate change. [More of a remarkably detailed analysis]
Faced with this apparently incontestable rebuttal and clear evidence of scientists behaving badly, this should be grinding the AGW machine to a halt.  But it's not.

There could be several reasons.
  • The "alarmist" camp is too vast and tightly control to be bothered by clear proof of outright fraud and departure from acceptable scientific method.
  • The public is simply too distracted to understand the nature of the disaster that will be caused by GHG emissions control which is illustrated by this damning evidence.
  • The AGW camp is unreasoning and won't consider counterarguments.
  • The issues released are not sufficient to sway the consensus of climatologists.
  • Our news cycle has moved on to other more important developments about Tiger Woods.
Having waded through some material from both sides, here are some comments I found useful. First Sharon Begley - one of my favorite science journalists.
Other e-mails reflect the ugly politicization of climate science, which is unending. Climate scientists have been subject to harassment and character assassination (Google "Ben Santer" and "Wall Street Journal" to see what I mean), and just last week, Rep. James Sensenbrenner accused the researchers of "scientific fascism" and, with GOP colleagues, made the stunningly stupid demand that the EPA therefore stop regulating greenhouse emissions. It may be human nature to respond in kind; in one e-mail, a scientist wishes he could beat up a leading denier. But the scientists should be bigger than the know-nothings. Rather than "circl[ing] the wagons," as Curry put it, respond to misinformation with physics, data, and analysis as, for instance, the RealClimate blog does.
Especially since the science—paleoclimate data, heating in the stratosphere relative to the troposphere, and other fingerprints of manmade climate change—is so compelling. Take the two papers by climate skeptics that triggered that "redefine the peer-reviewed literature" e-mail. Both were cited and discussed in the IPCC report—and have now been shown to be riddled with errors. Science worked as it should, good research crowding out bad. [More]
One of the best even-handed analysis came from Popular Mechanics, and it dovetails with my belief that the same scientific discipline needed for the advances in medicine and technology - not to mention agriculture is at work in climatology.
Outspoken critics often portray climate science as a house of cards, built on a shaky edifice of limited data and broad suppositions. However, it's more realistic to think of the science as a deck of cards, spread out, face up. Some data and interpretations of those data are more certain than others, of course. But pulling out one or two interpretations, or the results of a few scientists, does not change the overall picture. Take away two or three cards, and there are still 49 or 50 cards facing you.

The "house of cards" view results partly from the representation of human-induced climate change in opinion polls and in the press, which split the debate into "believers" and "skeptics." This dichotomy is misleading for many reasons, particularly because it implies that those who are concerned about human-induced climate change believe every single claim made by every scientist on this topic, in the way that some fundamentalists claim to believe in the literal truth of every word in a religious text. Similarly, it implies that all skeptics doubt the entire theory.


For these reasons, and based on carbon isotope data, it is all but certain that the present, unprecedented rise in CO2 is due mainly to human output. But one cannot rule out with complete certainty other factors, for example, global warming itself, that could also be significantly contributing to the atmospheric CO2 increase.

CO2 (and methane) in the atmosphere are nearly transparent to UV and visible radiation, but absorb in the infrared, creating a "greenhouse." If it were not for this, the surface of the Earth would be much colder. This leads to the inference that increasing CO2 will lead to increasing warmth. Also, high CO2 concentration in the air leads to ocean acidification, which is probably bad for coral and perhaps also for plankton that make their shells from calcium carbonate (soluble in acid) and form the base of the ocean food chain.

A good-faith effort has been made to determine average global temperature using the instrumental record, with increasing accuracy and precision as the data become more comprehensive. For sure, the average temperature of the atmosphere has been rising for most of the last 50 years. This is consistent with the greenhouse theory, though one cannot rule out with complete certainty that other factors—variation due to sunspot activity, or the last gasp of a long warming trend caused by variation in the Earth's orbit—might also be contributing to temperature change.

The Arctic ice cap is getting smaller, in apparent response to this global temperature increase. Sea level is rising, due to the thermal expansion of the oceans and, increasingly, to melting of the Greenland and/or Antarctic ice caps. It has been shown to most people's satisfaction that the Greenland ice cap is getting smaller.

There may be other factors, not yet accounted for, which could more or less suddenly emerge, and offset some or all of the future CO2 increase, the warming, the melting and the acidification that are predicted from these simple, well-known observations and the inferences and projections from models based on these observations. That's the nature of science in general. It is really almost impossible to prove beyond all doubt that nothing important is missing from a theory. As a trail sign in Yosemite used to say, "Caution, unknown hazards may exist." In addition, the ecological, economic and social consequences of global warming are also uncertain, adding another layer of unpredictability to this whole scenario.

Most scientists know and acknowledge these uncertainties, and reason as follows. We're in an unprecedented situation, with regard to the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and the rate at which it is rising. Because this is unprecedented, we are not sure what is going to happen. But global warming is very likely, and reasonably probable outcomes could be fatal. Ignoring it would be like Russian roulette. Want to play? I do not. [More]

So, my view is, like all massive scientific efforts climatology is populated with people who make errors, but also with people who catch them.  Scientific advances cannot be built to last on falsified results, so like other observers, I anticipate furious re-examination of the issues outlined by skeptics, to the good of the effort.
The scientific implications of the Climategate files are probably small, but the political implication is certainly large–because of the politicized nature of climate science confirmed by the files. Verification of the existence of conspiring enforcers of orthodoxy weakens the strongest rhetorical weapon in the alarmist arsenal. The idea that the science behind predictions of potentially catastrophic warming is rock solid and that the putative scientific consensus reflects the rock solidity of the science licenses the inference that there is no scientifically respectable excuse for skepticism of or disagreement with the consensus. That is a big stick to thump people with. But the Climategate files strongly suggest that at least some of the science is not rock solid and that the scientific consensus is at least in part the product of silencing or marginalizing those who might upset it. The files have made “How can we be sure that you did not fudge your data” and “How do we know that dissenting voices have been given a fair hearing?” questions that we now must ask rather than questions skeptics can be effectively shouted down for asking. The files show that suspicion is warranted. That’s a big deal.
It is not surprising to see a “Move along! Nothing to see here!” response from alarmists, but there is certainly something to see. Though I’m sure some ideologues will merely amp up their armtwisting thug tactics to protect the fragile perception of consensus they had achieved (precioussssssss!), I predict that the overall response from the scientific community will be healthy and invigorating. Climate science will become more transparent and more rigorously by-the-book because climate scientists are becoming more fully aware that the impulse to jealously protect a public perception of consensus can undermine itself by producing questionable science and a justifiably skeptical public. [More]
Since I was otherwise occupied when this brouhaha erupted, I have had the luxury of not shooting my mouth off immediately.  And it appears to me the emerging result is a needed shakeup in the rules of procedure for the climatological community, and less than hoped for media and public traction for the skeptic side.  In fact, this whole episode may reshape the way this campaign is carried out.

At any rate, I enjoyed this response, if only for the interesting use of the word "febrile".

Finally, a small, but chilling consideration. Very few comments - both pro and con - were concerned about the fact these e-mails were hacked - i.e. obtained illegally. To me it is one more step in our refusal to rule out any method we think will advance our political agenda.  Bear this in mind as more of your correspondence is done via e-mail.

Just as we eroded habeus corpus in the witch hunt for terrorists, so now do we lightly cast aside another important element of privacy.  And for the most part this is done by people who claim to stand for individual liberty.


Anonymous said...

At some level, all their correspondence may have been public property. If the e-mails weren't hacked, they might have been uncovered after someone went through a bunch of paper and legal work.

John Phipps said...


My understanding is the data was - or should have been - public. E-mails on the university server are not.

If they are in the public domain, admissions, salaries, promotions, and various other personnel information would have just lost Privacy Act Coverage.

Anonymous said...

You need to put the book Super Freakonomics on your Christmas wish list. Best read in your recliner after the satisfaction that comes with a complete harvest. Read what they say about fixing climate change. They take the whole book just to make points about solving global warming. Looks like dealing with the problem of global warming is more of a people problem than scientific problem solving.

John Phipps said...


I skimmed part of the book, since I read the previous one. It was pretty brutally panned as bad statistical work by both economists and mathematicians. See the Harvard Business Review for just one example.

It struck me as trying to out-Gladwell Gladwell. In the reach for grabber stories (and a title that would sell) the authors did some slipshod work.

Actually, there are more powerful cases against AGW, but less readable.

buffalobill said...

On the privacy issue...nothing is private anymore, as many are discovering to their dismay. As long as it is not (my) emails that are being hacked, hacking is OK in today's world. Fortunately no one cares about what most of us are doing enough to hack us. That doesn't mean that someone is not hacking case I might have put paranoia at rest...Big Brother Could be!

Ol James said...

..funny!? When special interest uncovers something like this, it's for the good. (remember the beef slaughter house, Newt Gingrich's cell phone calls, etc.,) But when the tables are turned they call foul!! (ACORN, Watergate, etc.)
Besides, I could say, told ya so...but the Science wasn't written in stone...just a Power Point Presentation and a movie. You know how factual they are...

Anonymous said...


I admire you for trying to reason with the climate deniers time and time again. Unfortunately they are a lost cause for now. They see a conspiracy behind every tree and there disconnect with reality doesn't stop with the climate issue. The unstable climate effects are already being seen. Just ask those in the Dakotas with crops still in the fields. Agriculture is on the front line on this issue and it will only take a few bad growing seasons (whether it be mud or dust)and a lot of people will begin to doubt their previous biases. We have whistled by the cemetery for the last two growing seasons and one has to ask if our luck will hold much longer. Odds are working against us. Cheers

John Phipps said...


Thanks for reading. As I have said, I could be wrong, but I reserve the right to place a bet on the outcome.

Just as I don't enjoy being labeled as an alarmist, I try to avoid using the term "denier". We simply disagree on a very tricky problem.

Most great public issue debates resemble the pointed persiflage flowing both directions right now. I have some faith eventually good will come from it nonetheless.