Posted 9 July 2010

Dr Tim Ball, Canada Free Press:  "Climategate investigations are arrogant insults: most transparent, manipulated brazen cover up possible."    More
The Scientific Alliance, UK:  "Science, if it has value, has to be open and objective; distort those values and you may as well make policy on the basis of belief alone rather than evidence." 



The unsatisfactory nature of inquiries

This week saw the publication of the third and final report into what will forever be known as 'climategate', the publication of leaked (or stolen) emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit. But, like all inquiries, few people will ultimately be happy with the outcome. For the CRU and mainstream climate scientists, the whole affair has been both embarrassing and a distraction from their work. Public confidence in official pronouncements on climate change has been shaken and fixing that will not be an easy task. For Phil Jones, ex-director of the CRU and newly-reinstated director of research, this has been a stressful personal tragedy.

But neither are critics satisfied. The three separate inquiries - the first by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the second, chaired by Lord Oxburgh, which looked at whether there had been scientific malpractice, and the third under Sir Muir Russell, into the content of the emails themselves - all came up with broadly positive conclusions on the behaviour of the scientists involved, although they were criticised for lack of statistical rigour and for being less than open with their raw data.

Sceptics point to deficiencies in the way the second and third reports were carried out, with 'safe' chairs being appointed who were unlikely to produce damning reports. Those who believe strongly one way or the other should not be discouraged from trying to make their case, but ultimately the debate about this affair will just continue as a rather pointless and sterile exercise if either side thinks it can win the argument.

On the other hand, the very fact that this controversy has arisen has changed the nature of the debate completely. Climategate was probably the single most important affair, but errors have also been found in the IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report, which led to the setting up of two more inquiries; one by the Dutch government (which looked at exaggerated figures for the vulnerability of the Netherlands to rising sea levels and has also reported this week) and the other on the ways of working of the IPCC by the InterAcademy Panel, which is still in progress.

The Dutch report was also pretty positive about the IPCC's influential Summaries for Policymakers. However, it made certain criticisms, in particular that there was an emphasis on worst-case scenarios and little mention of the positive effects of warming in some regions. The final inquiry, into the ways of working of the IPCC, is unlikely to be any more critical. Again, many mainstream climate scientists will resent the inquiry in the first place, while sceptics will remain unsatisfied.

But the very process of inquiry has made a big difference, with more openness being demanded. Some of the key figures in the climate change establishment have brought this on themselves by their high-handed and arrogant attitude to legitimate criticisms. By promoting a degree of certainty which exaggerates the real situation, they hoped to build momentum for radical policies which would reduce carbon dioxide emissions. If they had treated moderate critics with respect, it is quite likely that they would have been recruited to the overall process and made a positive contribution. Instead, they ignored or antagonised many and so swelled the ranks of the opposition. Their strategy has been counterproductive and there has had to be an extensive campaign of damage limitation, retrenchment and counterattack.

The BBC website carried a lengthy piece on the Russell inquiry (CRU scientists 'did not withhold data'), which included this section:
" 'We demonstrated that any independent researcher can download station data directly from primary sources and undertake their own temperature trend analysis'. Writing computer code to process the data 'took less than two days and produced results similar to other independent analyses. No information from CRU was needed to do this'. Sir Muir commented: 'So we conclude that the argument that CRU has something to hide does not stand up'.

  • Asked whether it would be reasonable to conclude that anyone claiming instrumental records were unavailable or vital code missing was incompetent, another panel member, Professor Peter Clarke from Edinburgh University, said: 'It's very clear that anyone who'd be competent enough to analyse the data would know where to find it. It's also clear that anyone competent could perform their own analysis without let or hindrance.' "

  • As I understand it, this is a response to a somewhat different question to the one raised by critics, who wanted to see the actual data and methodology used to produce reported outputs. The inquiry's report instead suggests that the critics were not competent to analyse data themselves, which is an important difference and one which still hints at a dismissive and defensive mindset.

    Other commentators also have expressed concerns. For example, the Economist, which normally appears fully signed up to the mainstream climate change agenda, carries an interesting discussion piece about the Dutch inquiry on its website (Accentuate the negative). This goes into some detail about how some specific observations appear to have been extrapolated and generalised. Martin Parry, co-chair of the Working Group II (impacts) report, defends the work: "The IPCC does not just assemble evidence, Parry stresses: it assesses it." That's as maybe, but bias may inevitably creep in.

    The author of the Economist piece makes the following comments:
    *"Perhaps the most worrying thing about the PBL [Dutch Environmental Assessment Agency] report, though, is a rather obvious one about which its authors say little. In all ten of the issues that the PBL categorised as major (the original errors on glaciers and Dutch sea level, and the eight others identified in the report), the impression that the reader gets from the IPCC is more strikingly negative than the impression which would have been received if the underlying evidence base had been reflected as the PBL would have wished, with more precise referencing, more narrow interpretation and less authorial judgment. . . . A suspicion thus gains ground that the way in which the IPCC synthesises, generalises and checks its findings may systematically favour adverse outcomes in a way that goes beyond just serving the needs of policymakers. Anecdotally, authors bemoan fights to keep caveats in place as chapters are edited, refined and summarised."

  • This strongly suggests a desire to make the case strongly rather than simply stick to the facts. Pointing out and questioning this attitude can only be good for science, but it may make it more difficult for radical emissions reduction policies to be implemented. However, science, if it has value, has to be open and objective; distort those values and you may as well make policy on the basis of belief alone rather than evidence.

    But, leaving science to one side, there are in any case three (rather than the more usual one) elephants in the room. The first is the accepted need to pay off accumulated budget deficits, and investing in subsidised and unreliable green technologies is a step in the wrong direction. The second is the evident fantasy that China, India and other major developing nations are going to go anything to curb their own growth in emissions. And the third is one which is probably the most important: available reserves of fossil fuels and the rate at which we are able to extract them. If, as many commentators believe, Peak Oil becomes a reality in just a few years, we will have far more pressing issues to address than trying to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

    The Scientific Alliance
    St John's Innovation Centre, Cowley Road, Cambridge CB4 0WS
    Tel: +44 1223 421242

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