Public trust in climate science hit by 'Climategate'
OPINION:The climate change conference begins under a cloud of suspicion following leaked e-mails suggesting global warming evidence has been fabricated, writes RICHARD TOL
RECENTLY, E-MAILS and other documents were apparently stolen from a computer belonging to the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia.
The CRU is a major data centre for climate research. Senior staff at the CRU have been influential in the formulation of policy advice in the United Kingdom, the European Union and the United Nations. The stolen data was posted on the internet and has been the subject of much debate and speculation since.
Some have argued that the e-mails conclusively demonstrate that climate change is a fabrication of a small clique of environmentalists masquerading as scientists. That is plain nonsense. But what was in the e-mails, and what are implications for the science and policy of climate change?
The e-mails contain a lot of chit-chat. There is complaining about colleagues, and discussions about ending other people’s careers. There are e-mails about tax evasion and bending budgets to fit the rules. This is not pretty, but none of our business.
Other things do matter. The e-mails reveal a systematic effort to deny legitimate freedom of information requests. They contain evidence that the rules of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were deliberately broken to include a paper that supports a particular point of view. The e-mails show an intolerance of views and facts that do not support the received wisdom of the people involved. One of the stolen documents reveals that a key result, the instrumental record of the global mean temperature since 1850, cannot be reproduced.
This is serious stuff. Reproducibility of results and open-minded discussion are cornerstones of scientific conduct.
The initial response of the people involved was that no judgment can be based on illegally obtained evidence. That is true in a court of law, but not on the internet.
People who for some reason or other oppose climate change policy had a field day. Belatedly, the director of the CRU stepped down, investigations were announced and data archives were opened.
From a scientific point of view, Climategate is irrelevant. Insiders have long known that some CRU staff were venal, secretive, and sloppy environmentalists. The CRU specialises in collating data from other institutes and repackaging it. Their main product, an estimate of the global mean surface air temperature from 1850 to 2009, is primarily used to explain climate change to the public.
Research unit data that has been used in other research has been corroborated by independent data from other sources. CRU’s work is therefore peripheral to the science of climate change. Nothing has changed in our understanding of the seriousness of the problem.
From a policy perspective, Climategate is a disaster. Many people will only ever have seen a graph of the temperature going up in tandem with the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, and think that this constitutes the whole of the “scientific proof” that warming is real and man-made. They now know that the temperature record was constructed by someone who believes that climate change is real and disastrous but would rather destroy his data than let them be checked by an outsider.
The official response has not helped. It took the University of East Anglia 10 days to decide to investigate e-mails that can easily be read as breaking legal, financial, and academic rules. The chairperson of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has trivialised the matter.
There is little reporting in the media on what is a serious scandal in the largest environmental problem of our time. Politicians who favour emission reduction have by and large ignored Climategate. The European Commission, which often uses CRU staff as consultants, has yet to issue a statement. Environmental organisations and the influential journal Nature have rushed to the defence of the research unit.
From the outside, the impression is simple. Something fishy was going on. They do not want to talk about it, must be a cover-up so.
The scale of the political fallout is beginning to emerge. Climategate has apparently pushed a few Australian senators to vote against the climate Bill, which failed to pass by a few votes. Saudi Arabia will table a motion for a full investigation at the UN climate negotiations in Copenhagen. The US Senate will probably start an inquiry also.
Last Friday, the university announced that an independent review would investigate whether data was indeed manipulated. It may not be sufficient to quell the outcry.
Climate change is a complex problem. We will need 50, probably 100 years to resolve it. We will need global co-operation. We will need to spend hundreds of billions of euro. This cannot succeed unless the debate is fair and based on rigorous scientific results that do not hide that there are still many things about which we simply do not have a clue.
You can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
The CRU may have had us fooled for a while. A risk now now exists that public opinion will follow fools who disregard basic physics and claim climate change is not real. The apparent dishonesty and incompetence of the CRU has further polarised the climate debate, and put a solution further out of reach.
There are no immediate implications for Ireland. A carbon tax should be levied because it does less damage to the economy than higher labour taxes. But just as France will go to South Africa in shame, so environmentalists assembling today in Copenhagen know that one of their champions is a cheat.
Richard Tol is a research professor at the Economic and Social Research Institute in Dublin and professor of the economics of climate change at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam