Why the Climategate controversy matters…

The leaked emails suggest that Projection and Anecdote are the key planks of the science of global warming.

Andrew Orlowski

Topics Science & Tech

Turn on the radio or TV at any point in the past two weeks, or eavesdrop on our professional commentariat, and you’ll certainly have heard the mantra that despite Climategate, the ‘science behind global warming’ remains as strong as ever, and unquestionable.

For Guardian columnist George Monbiot, the behaviour of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, revealed in the files, was disgraceful, yet as he called for director Phil Jones to resign he also assured us that the scientific basis was ‘unimpeachable’ (1). Even Benny Peiser, director of the new Global Warming Policy Foundation, hastened to tell BBC’s Newsnight that ‘we are not questioning the basic science of global warning’, instead preferring that the Foundation express concern about ‘transparency and openness’ (2).

But why is a scientific hypothesis beyond question? If the phrase ‘an informed citizenry’ is to be more than a pious and empty sentiment, we need to make rational decisions with all the evidence available. If we are to give our consent to dramatic changes in public policy, we need to know all the weaknesses of a hypothesis. Reason is not the privilege of an elite.

‘Climategate’ has pulled back the curtain of authority, and let the public in to have a look at the state of the ‘science’ for themselves. The picture we can see isn’t pretty, and the lasting damage will not be to science. It may be the opening of a gulf between the public and their media and political elites that is so wide, it may never be bridged.

The problem for advocates of the manmade global warming hypothesis – and by extension, for the political and media elites – is that demonstrating it reasonably was always going to be extremely difficult. Contrary to expectations, there’s no smoking gun, no fingerprint that tells us, beyond reasonable doubt, that it was mankind with fossil fuels wot dun it. The carbon isotope carbon-14 (3) and the Tropospheric Hotspot have briefly starred in the role – but the former proved ambiguous (biomatter produces the ‘telltale’ isotope, too) and the latter has been elusive (4); heat isn’t being trapped where the greenhouse models predicted it would be.

Of the dozen or so factors influencing climate, for one candidate to emerge as dominant we would need to discount the effects of others. Factors governing inputs and outputs into the elegant ‘energy budget model’ are still largely guesswork; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admits knowledge of most of the feedbacks is low, but this flatters the science. We’re not sure if more energy is radiated back to space than we thought, and if more carbon is being absorbed than predicted: both seem to be happening. Yet both are enough to wound the hypothesis fatally. Since CO2 by itself causes little effect, less than a degree’s worth of warming, this is a theory that needs a lot more science.

And the ‘mountain of evidence’ so often cited is descriptive of the effects of climate change – such as the population dynamics of a species – and gives no clue as to the causes of the change.

Faced with all this, fence-sitting agnosticism seems a safe option. This was the default position of the media and political classes less than a decade ago. Why did they abandon it?

There is almost a tragic quality to the CRU correspondence. Academics in this infant field had been burdened with a duty to deliver on their hypothesis, but couldn’t do so other than through conjecture or modelling. In private, we see them unable to explain the energy budget, floundering as much as a newcomer might. 1997 finds the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research’s (UCAR) Tom Wigley admonishing scientists who want to express mitigation policies in a letter to The Times. The evidence doesn’t support the claim, he advises (5). A dozen years later, Wigley is unable to administer a hint of caution in public (6), lest the entire edifice collapse.

‘The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment’ – this ‘moment’ is in its second decade – ‘and it is a travesty that we can’t’, says colleague Kevin Trenberth in one of the leaked CRU emails, and Wigley agrees. Climate has refused to play along as predicted, and the experts are confounded. The elegant energy budget model is useless. ‘What surprised me was to discover how weak and uncertain the science was’, Lord Lawson told the makers of Channel 4’s The Great Global Warming Swindle. Now we can see why.

From Climategate, we can now see why the most apparently authoritative rhetoric crawls with weasel words: coulds, maybes, balances of probabilities, and think-it-likelys abound. The Royal Society’s much-quoted position on climate change is a good example (7).

We can also begin to explain the increasing reliance on anecdote, and on computer modelling. The former suggests recent changes are anomalous, and substitutes for causation; the latter makes claims to predict the future, but only at the exclusion of other forcings. Critics of the theory were obliged to discard observations, and defer to the models.

Listen to the careful formulation of Susan Watts of the BBC’s Newsnight, or Bob Watson of the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, or the University of East Anglia itself: the same words are used in response to Climategate again and again – that earth is warming and this warming can only be explained by human activity. This emphasises the correlation, yet evidence of causation remains unspoken. None of the anecdotal evidence points to a single explanatory forcing. Projection and Anecdote are the two shaky planks of the theory.

Yet the media chose not to present these ambiguities in recent years. Why? The established news institutions have watched a proliferation of rival media in recent years and attempted to reassert their authority by reducing and overdramatising stories. In the simplified world they present to viewers, readers and listeners, dangers become ‘urgent’ and the morality clearly delineated for us. The Good Guys wear White Coats. The dispassionate approach, so useful in presenting matters of scientific contestation, has been abandoned.

The absence of technical and scientific grounding amongst the chattering classes has created a vacuum, filled with an unquestioning faith in the Good Guys. Scientists are untainted by human foibles, such as intellectual corruption. Their workings are as mysterious as the telepathy they (doubtless) use to communicate their concepts, and their processes, such as peer-review, remove all room for doubt, leaving only a residue of gleaming truth. Such is science viewed from Islington. David Aaronovitch typified this amazement that anyone could doubt the ‘consensus’ (8). It seems inconceivable, to the commentariat, that scientists have prejudices, too, and that the publication process (peer review) is not some Kitemark of quality but is vulnerable to being hijacked. All of which is demonstrated in the Climategate files.

Politicians have also outsourced their authority, finding in climate a risk-free way of restoring their moral superiority. Unable to articulate a political vision of their own, they ceded judgement and then policymaking to the scientists. Yet the politics is prior to the science (9) – apocalyptic environmentalism posits a prior relationship with nature in which man is at best, a nuisance. The phony ‘urgency’ which gives rise to the precautionary principle arises not from science, but from the view of man as an unwelcome intrusion on the ‘natural’.

Imagine an approach to scientific enquiry which demanded that we know how much mankind effects the climate – through greenhouse gases and particulates – in sufficient detail that it could be handed to an engineer. The ability to manipulate our climate for the benefit of humanity will almost certainly come in useful. But the approach requires a positive view of humanity; the Climategate years show how little faith in our inventiveness and ability to organise our media and political elites have had in us.

Andrew Orlowski is executive editor of The Register.

(1) Pretending the climate email leak isn’t a crisis won’t make it go away, Guardian, 25 November 2009

(2) Newsnight, BBC, 3 December 2009

(3) Human Caused Global Warming, Open Source Systems, Science, Solutions

(4) See Cloudy outlook for climate models, Register, 27 December 2007

(5) ‘Dear Eleven’, Opinion Times, 20 Novemebr 2009

(6) ‘Still Lacking’, Opinion Times, 20 Novemebr 2009

(7) Climate Change, The Royal Society

(8) Strip away the figleaf and reveal naysayers, The Times (London), 24 November 2009

(9) Hacking the Climate Da Vinci Code, Climate Resistance blog, 23 November 2009

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Topics Science & Tech


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