Not the BEST way to debate climate

A study prompted by ‘Climategate’ has been held up as proof that sceptics are wrong. The truth is far murkier.

Ben Pile

Topics Science & Tech

In late 2009, not long before the Copenhagen climate-change conference, thousands of private emails by climate researchers based at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) were leaked on the internet. The content of the emails raised questions about the propriety of high-profile scientists both at CRU and at other institutions. The authors of these emails seemed to have been taking liberties with statistics, concealing their data and methodology from scrutiny, and treating the critics of their research with contempt. In particular, one email, in which a researcher tried to work out how he might ‘hide the decline’ in temperature data, went viral.

In the wake of this affair, dubbed ‘Climategate’, Richard Muller, a professor of physics at the University of California at Berkeley, said: ‘Quite frankly as a scientist, I have a list of people whose papers I won’t read any more. You’re not allowed to do this in science; this is not up to our standards.’ Muller announced that he would be ‘leading a group to re-do all this in a totally transparent way’.

The first results from Muller’s group – Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) – have now been released. Rather than publishing their findings in a peer-reviewed journal, however, Muller and his associates took the somewhat unusual step of publishing draft copies of their studies, and then made themselves available for comment in the media. Fuelling controversy further, Muller wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal, which an editor titled ‘The Case Against Global Warming Skepticism: There were good reasons for doubt until now’.

The article – and particularly the title – caused delight among climate-activist journalists, scientists and other commentators. ‘Sceptical climate scientists concede Earth has warmed’, announced New Scientist. ‘BEST reconfirm: warming is happening’, said the influential Carbon Brief blog, which is staffed predominantly by activists from environmental NGOs. Channel 4 News science correspondent, Tom Clarke, was asked, ‘so does this finally vindicate climate change science?’. ‘In a word, yes’, he replied. According to Clarke, the BEST team’s discovery that the world is warming got those implicated by Climategate off the hook.

From the copy it had generated, it would seem that BEST had ended the debate. But this interpretation of the BEST results soon started to unravel. Climate scientist, and contributor to the BEST project, Judith Curry observed, ‘the spin on the press release and Muller’s subsequent statements have introduced unnecessary controversy into the BEST data and papers’. Curry’s comments were picked up by journalist David Rose, who wrote: ‘The Mail on Sunday can reveal that a leading member of Professor Muller’s team has accused him of trying to mislead the public by hiding the fact that BEST’s research shows global warming has stopped.’

Exciting stuff. But that was not actually what Curry had told Rose. ‘To set the record straight, some of the other sentiments attributed to me are not quite right’, she wrote on her blog. Meanwhile, Muller was also distancing himself from the headline of the article in the Wall Street Journal. ‘It doesn’t represent the article’, he told a journalist in New Mexico.

Confusion reigns. Sceptics pointed out that, in spite of the claims that the debate was now over, the BEST study also argued that the ‘human component of global warming may be somewhat overestimated’. The data still suggested that there has been a stalling of global temperatures over the past decade, and the study’s attempt to rule out one of the main concerns sceptics have about the way temperature data is recorded appeared to have some serious shortcomings. Even Muller, the project’s leader, didn’t seem to be making consistent statements about what his research meant for the climate-change debate.

None of this fazed the BBC’s environment correspondent, Richard Black, who continued to cover the affair on the assumption that good science was under attack from irrational sceptics. For example, he declared: ‘The original “hide the decline” claim is one of the most easily debunked in the entire pantheon of easily-debunkable “sceptic” claims. [CRU researcher] Phil Jones wrote the email in 1999, immediately following what still ranks as one of the hottest years on record, and well before the idea of a “slowdown” or “hiatus” or even “decline” in warming gained currency. So it can’t have had anything to do with hiding a global temperature decline.’

The expression ‘hide the decline’ is what ultimately led to Climategate becoming such a major story. Defenders of those implicated by the leaked emails argued that ‘hiding the decline’ simply referred to a mathematical technique, rather than a conscious effort to deceive. But there was nonetheless good evidence that something untoward had been intended.

If the sceptics’ interpretation of the ‘hide the decline’ claim was as easy to debunk as Black claimed, Richard Muller would not have needed to bother with the BEST project. Rather, as Muller outlines in an influential lecture, the phrase seemed instead to relate to an unorthodox joining up of temperature datasets, which emphasised data that suited the global warming narrative and played down the data that was deemed ‘inconvenient’ to it. It was for this reason that he decided to establish the BEST project. In his attempt to dismiss the ‘hide the decline’ claim, it seemed Black had simply invented a straw man for critics to knock down.

Had Black wished to overcome the limitations of mediocre journalism, to get to the heart of the debate, there are many well-informed sceptics he could have turned to for comment and advice. One such is Andrew Montford, author of The Hockey Stick Illusion and a report published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) on the Climategate affair.

‘He’s not representing what the sceptics’ arguments are’, Montford told me. ‘The majority of sceptics say “yes, carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and the world has warmed”.’ Montford agrees that there is no definitive ‘sceptic’ argument. This fact mirrors the many varied positive claims that are made on the other ‘side’ of the climate debate, but which seem to emerge axiomatically from the fact that ‘climate change is happening’. But the question is not ‘Has the world been getting warmer?’ but ‘How much warmer will it get in the future and what will be the impact?’. That is a much more difficult question to answer.

However, by simply saying that ‘climate change is real’, a variety of activists, researchers and politicians can deliver a great deluge of non-sequiturs about sea-level rise, species extinction, drought, famine, resources wars and so on. And a cascade of familiar remedies follows: the creation of powerful political institutions, a transformation of the global economy and the de facto rationing of energy and regulation of lifestyle. The speed with which these conclusions and policy implications are drawn suggests that this debate is as much about politics and professional status as science.

The climate debate is, in reality, as complex as the whole of human social life and natural science combined. But such a complex state of affairs does not make for easy reportage, especially by journalists who don’t seem able to digest nuance and complexity, let alone reflect meaningfully on them. And so to take issue with any aspect of the debate is interpreted as denying that the Earth has warmed approximately 0.7 degrees Celsius and that humans had some part in that warming.

So what does the BEST study really reveal according to sceptics, and how has it changed things in the post-Climategate world? Montford tells me that BEST ‘doesn’t really change anything’. For Montford, Climategate simply revealed a group of people ‘just being civil servants and trying to hide the fact that they’re not doing much’ and who have ‘commercial incentives to keep everything under wraps’. There is, in fact, little dispute about the temperature changes over the past few decades.

BEST merely confirmed what most sceptics agreed was probably happening anyway. Nonetheless, the BEST story was widely reported as representing a meaningful end to the climate debate. Muller had made ambiguous comments, which were amplified by an incautious sub-editor. A phantom news story appeared out of an uncontroversial study. Journalists were reporting from inside their own heads, not from the real world. And that is an interesting phenomenon, and one which needs some explanation.

Complex debates are reduced to simple, moral stories of ‘scientists versus deniers’, in part because of the shortcomings of news organisations and their journalists’ attachments to the debate. Anxieties about the end of the world give moral orientation to commentators. Taking a stand to ‘save the planet’ elevates journalists who, without the narrative of possible climate disaster, would quite probably struggle to overcome mediocrity and define a sense of purpose for themselves. It looks like bravery, but it is merely vacuity that drives sensationalism.

However, vapid journalism – ‘churnalism’ – is not the whole story. The controversy generated by the treatment of BEST’s result speaks volumes about wider and unrealistic expectations of science. Politicians, activists and scientists are as vulnerable as journalists to the idea that science can supply them with uncorrupted objectivity and unambiguous instruction. Given that Muller himself didn’t seem able to supply clarity to the debate – in spite of the science – it is no surprise that arguments downstream have even greater difficulty getting the story straight. In this case, science, rather than shedding light on the material world, obscures the debate.

Climategate, and other events in late 2009, such as the failure of the climate-change summit in Copenhagen to find a successor to the Kyoto protocol, revealed that too much had been invested in science. Science is, after all, produced by humans prone to error and vice. Climate scientists had refused to reveal their data or show their workings, and several alarming claims about climate change, such as the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers, were found to be groundless.

This would have all been without consequence had there been more circumspection about the role of science. But rather than reflect on such expectations, the BEST project aimed to reproduce the science with virtue, with ‘transparency’. It made no difference, though, because before it had even been published, BEST became a peg on to which the same old prejudices, myths and politics were hung. BEST came to ‘vindicate climate science’, exonerate climate scientists and force ‘sceptics’ to concede that the Earth had warmed.

BEST says nothing about any of these things, of course. Sceptics weren’t ‘denying’ that the world had warmed. The debate wasn’t divided between climate science and its critics. And ‘Climategate’ remains an embarrassment to those who refused to release data (or concealed it) and its methodology, as Muller explained. Science cannot end the climate debate, because the climate debate has very little to do with science.

Ben Pile blogs at Climate Resistance.

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Topics Science & Tech


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