Climate of conflict


If respected scientific bodies can’t come to agreement on supposedly fact-based issues, how can the public be expected to come on board, asks WILLIAM REVILLE

AT THE HEART of science is the objective search for truth. However, the scientific investigation of climate change may not merit high marks in this respect. The majority and the minority scientific explanations of current climate change are contradictory and both sides loudly accuse each other of dishonesty.

For example, John Gibbons, climate change lobbyist, opened his debate with Prof Ian Plimer, Australian geologist and climate sceptic, on Pat Kenny’s radio show on December 2nd, by calling Plimer “a grade-A charlatan”. Let us hope the discussions in Copenhagen will be more measured.

In the most recent explosive development in the climate debate (on November 20th), a computer hacker stole e-mails and documents from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the UK, and posted them on the internet. The e-mails appear to reveal scientists on the majority side of the debate massaging data to suit their anthropic global warming (AGW) hypothesis, dragging their heels on freedom of information requests, and conspiring to block scientists who oppose AGW from publishing their results (see my qualifying comments later).

The majority scientific position is enunciated by the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). It claims that the world is warming because of man-made emissions of greenhouse gases and predicts that, unless this warming is arrested, disastrous environmental consequences will ensue. The minority scientific position (“climate sceptics”) holds that any warming simply reflects natural variations beyond human control and is not significantly caused by man-made greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, expending huge monies to arrest global warming would be useless. Rather, we should prepare for more warming.

The theft of CRU information was illegal but this pales into relative insignificance compared to the apparent irregularities revealed inside CRU. For example, deliberate frustration of genuine freedom of information requests is illegal. And the scientific irregularities revealed, if true, are very serious. One senior scientist writes: “ . . . I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temperatures to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onward) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline”. Other e-mails seem to reveal attempts to hide medieval warming and to block sceptics from publishing their results. On the other hand, some e-mails express doubts about AGW. One scientist writes: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t”. Both sides are prepared to use dodgy tactics. For example, on the minority side, the Bush administration attempted to silence Nasa climatologists who published papers supporting AGW. Undoubtedly some climate sceptics are influenced by the fossil fuel industry, as the majority side charges, but many are respected scientists. It amuses me when the AGW side self-righteously points to fossil fuel industry influence on the minority scientific side but says nothing about the green agenda or the agendas of the governments who appoint scientists to the IPCC.

In the 1970s, climatologists predicted that an ice-age was imminent and environmental biologists warned that acid rain would destroy wildlife. We hear no more of these dangers since global warming moved centre stage. There is an understandable temptation for environmental scientists, who depend on government grants, to exaggerate dangers. As Roy Spencer, Nasa scientist, said in 1990: “It’s easier to get funding if you can show some evidence for impending climate disasters . . . science benefits from scary scenarios”. The AGW scenario blames our “predicament” on human profligacy. Patricia Fara suggests in her critically acclaimed book Science: A 4000 Year History (OUP 2009) that modern scientific forecasters and their green supporters fulfil the same psychological need as the old religious prophets who preached that the end of the world will be God’s punishment for sinners.

The CRU affair will undoubtedly weaken the AGW case, but we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The “incriminating” language in many of the leaked e-mails can be at least partially excused as insider language (eg using “tricks”), as the macho posturing and ugly gamesmanship that commonly occurs privately between scientists, and by interpreting the remarks in their proper context. And it is undeniably true that atmospheric CO2 levels have steadily increased since 1850 and the 20th century has experienced global warming. I cannot believe that so many expert scientists on the majority side can be as naïve and mistaken as the minority side charges.

The CRU affair at least calls for independent re-analysis of much of the data underpinning AGW. The general public would like to do the right thing by the environment but is confused by conflicting scientific pronouncements and bitter accusations. Climate science badly needs to get its act together.

William Reville is associate professor of biochemistry and public awareness of science officer at UCC. See