Posts Tagged ‘Climategate’

Putting some perspective on ‘Climategate’

April 13, 2010

This post is a reply to Claudio Ruiz-Spohn’s Facebook comment on my United Youth Development Organization article Climate Change Information Mismanagement. I felt it warranted a reply.

First of all, here is Claudio’s comment:

Of course it is. Misinformation on purpose. Read the leaked e-mails from the University of East Anglia – therein you will will read, first hand, about the key scientists, working on behalf of the IPCC, and the exact communications which state how the climate change data has been and is being manipulated to arrive at the conclusion that global warming is made-made.

The result of this prefabricated data is: global tax on anything (ranging from the production of your plastic pencil sharpener to how many kids you can have), tax = control over any person and their actions, complete management of any economy, definite stunting to growth of 3rd world countries and reduction in poverty/hunger. Any some of the richest people on the Earth will become even more incredibly vastly richer.

Just Google it, there’s tonnes of information out there:…
e.g. just one:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/earth/environment/globalwarming/6636563/University-of-East-Anglia-emails-the-most-contentious-quotes.html

Thanks Claudio for that post. Not quite the intention of the initial shout, but better some tangental reaction than no reaction.

My initial shout aside, which was about how environmental and development practitioners do not make adequate use of available information about climate change, and incidently needs an urgent update, which I will endeavour to post soon, here’s my reaction to your post:

The emails emerging from University of East Anglia (UEA) are shocking and regrettable.

It is shocking to see the level of misdirection some scientists deem necessary to protect what they see as truth about climate change and its anthropogenic cause (a theory confirmed by overwhelming evidence). It is shocking that they resort to hiding data that conflicts with the consensus from the media and the non-scientific public, for fear that they will misinterpret it.

And it is regrettable because their actions have damaged the climate change expert community in ways that the raw data never would have. It has damaged the reputation of organisations reaching far beyond UEA itself, including the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

I don’t have faith in the IPCC, because faith has nothing to do with it. I do have a strong confidence in its work.

The IPCC brings together the work of thousands of scientists, geographers, and social scientists from around the world to provide a state-of-the-science collation of the best global understanding of climate change and its impacts. No-one gets paid to provide research for the IPCC’s reports. Researchers get paid through their ‘day-job’ positions at universities and research centres around the world to conduct studies. The studies are often published in peer-reviewed journals years before appearing in IPCC material (see bottom of post for explanation of the peer review process). The IPCC then picks from the existing research papers with the greatest methodological merit, through further peer-review, to appear substantively unchanged in its collation reports (the Assessment Reports). The final stage of the IPCC report-writing process is to produce synthesis presentations that summarise the thousands of pages of research. These syntheses are what most people who are not professionally involved with climate change turn to.

Given these existing checks and balances, it is important not to get carried away by the UEA emails. What the emails show is that some scientists worry so much that data that conflicts with the consensus conclusions of the IPCC will be misconstrued by the general public and media, that they are willing to abandon the proper way of dealing with such data in favour of subversion. The irony is that in doing so, and by being found out, they have undermined the IPCC evidence in a way that the raw data never could have. They have fed the ‘climate-deniers’ with ammunition to put into disrepute the entire system. Scientists tend to be their own worst enemies.

Although these scientists were by all standards foolish and weak, it is not hard to see why they may have thought their actions were a good idea. Look at how the media deals with data! The details of science is boring for most people. Non-scientists might like the big scientific stories, but they are not interested in the details.

When scientists find data conflicting with a hypothesis they consider probably true, they know that the data might be due to a methodological weakness, or revealing a special case, or at its strongest warrants a reformulation of the hypothesis that is being put into question. They know how rare it is for one set of data to overthrow an entire theory that has been confirmed by thousand of other methodologically sound studies. But most non-scientists don’t necessarily (care to) understand that, and might prefer the adventure of a huge theory being overthrown, especially if it supports them not having to make a change in their lifestyles, as is the case with climate change. So in the hands of non-scientists, the kind of data that UEA had has potent destructive effect, not scientifically destructive, but politically destructive – which in the case of climate change is just as important. And the media acts as a multiplier for the popular, non-scientific opinion and data distortion.

So in fear of the data being misunderstood, a few foolish scientists at UEA tried to hide it to avoid harming the conclusions of the IPCC. Only it backfired. Monumentally. Let’s note that atmospheric and oceanic scientists and climatologists have had fairly firm confirmation of global, anthropogenic climate change for over 20 years (IPCC was founded in 1989 to compile existing research). So for what has been pretty well understood for a long time by natural scientists to be finally accepted in the mainstream is not something that they want to abandon lightly.

What would have been the appropriate way of dealing with this conflicting data? It would have been to submit it for publishing, have the wider expert community consider it through peer-review, and then either have it rejected if methodological weaknesses were found or if the findings were statistically insignificant, or if the methodology was sound, publish them to counter-weigh the consensus evidence.

Such counter-weight evidence does exist and is presented in the full IPCC reports, and is certainly not omitted (as UEA behaviour, if generalised, suggests). This is not however always apparent from the synthesis reports because the counter evidence is limited and offset with the overwhelming evidence in favour of anthropogenic climate change, and the synthesis reports reflect this net balance.

In conclusion, I am, like you shocked and appalled by the UEA scientists’ actions. But by avoiding the media spin and by considering the IPCC’s process, I continue to have strong confidence in the IPCC and their findings that we are experiencing unprecedented, anthropogenic, global climate change. My original post suggests nothing on the contrary.

Climate change is not a conspiracy to deny us a libertarian ideal by creating some bogus sense of responsibility to our children to ensure our growth is sustainable. Rather, climate change reveals that we do have such a responsibility, no matter how difficult that might be to swallow.

With regard to the right for poor countries to develop, climate change poses immense challenges to this. Unfortunately, wishing climate change away is not going to make these challenges disappear. The sooner ‘climate deniers’ spend time to understand the process that has brought about the overwhelming, global, scientific consensus that anthropogenic climate change is a reality, and realise that the UEA scandal is not representative of the evidence, the sooner we can have constructive conversations about how we can navigate the political minefield of political climate change negotiations to help poor countries lift themselves into prosperity despite climate change.

On peer reviewing: Peer-reviewing is the process where a researcher’s output is reviewed critically by other global experts in the same field. Given the relatively small size of expert communities in a given field, peer reviewers are not uncommonly past colleagues, collaborators and academic rivals of the researcher under review. However, strict guidelines regarding conflict of interest and anonymity limit review bias. Only if the panel of peer reviewers clear the research output, does it get published.