“‘We’re the Experts, Trust Us,’ Has Clearly Gone by the Wayside”

The NYT has a follow-up story on the continuing controversy triggered by the leak of e-mails and internal documents from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit.  The story provides a quick summary of the central issues in the controversy.

The most serious criticisms leveled at the authors of the e-mail messages revolve around three issues.

One is whether the correspondence reveals efforts by scientists to shield raw data, gleaned from tree rings and other indirect indicators of climate conditions, preventing it from being examined by independent researchers. Among those who say it does is Stephen McIntyre, a retired Canadian mining consultant who has a popular skeptics’ blog, climateaudit.org. A second issue is whether disclosed documents, said to be from the stolen cache, prove that the data underlying climate scientists’ conclusions about warming are murkier than the scientists have said. The documents include files of raw computer code and a computer programmer’s years-long log documenting his frustrations over data gathered from countries in the Northern Hemisphere.

Finally, questions have been raised about whether the e-mail messages indicated that climate scientists tried to prevent the publication of papers written by climate skeptics, which were described by the scientists in the e-mail messages as “garbage” and “fraud.”

The story also notes that one consequence of the controversy could be increased transparency of data and methods in policy-relevant scientific research.

“This whole concept of, ‘We’re the experts, trust us,’ has clearly gone by the wayside with these e-mails,” said Judith Curry, a climate scientist at Georgia Institute of Technology.

She and other scientists are seeking more transparency in the way climate data is handled and in the methods used to analyze it. And they argue that scientists should re-evaluate the selection procedures used by some scientific journals and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the panel that in 2007 concluded that humans were the dominant force driving warming and whose findings underpin international discussions over a new climate treaty. . . .

Mike Hulme, a climate scientist at the University of East Anglia and author of “Why We Disagree About Climate Change,” said the disclosures could offer a chance to finally bring the practices of climate researchers and the intergovernmental panel into the modern era, where transparency — enforced legally or illegally — is inevitable and appropriate.

“The I.P.C.C. itself, through its structural tendency to politicize climate change science, has perhaps helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production,” he said in an e-mail message, “just at a time when a globalizing and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.”

Dr. Curry and others said that if nothing else, the e-mail correspondence suggested that climate scientists needed to show more temperance in dealing with their critics.

“We won the war — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and climate and energy legislation is near the top of the U.S. agenda,” Dr. Curry said. “Why keep fighting all these silly battles and putting ourselves in this position?”

As I’ve noted before, I don’t believe these revelations “disprove” global warming.  The weight of existing scientific evidence still firmly supports the hypothesis that human activity is contributing to climatic warming.  The releases do, however, demonstrate that many climate researchers have sought to stifle debate, downplay uncertainties, and exaggerate the risks posed by climate change.

Hulme’s point above about the effect of the IPCC process is particularly important.  The effort to compile an “official” scientific “consensus” into a single document, approved by governments, has exacerbated the pressures to politicize policy-relevant science.  So too has been the tendency to pretend as if resolving the scientific questions will resolve policy disputes.  This is a dangerous pretense.  Science can — indeed must — inform policy judgments, but it does not determine such judgments. It can tell us what is, and perhaps what will be, but it cannot tell us what should be.  A more honest climate policy debate would acknowledge that there are uncertainties, acknowledge that there are risks of action and inaction alike, and focus on the relative merits of different ways to address the real, albeit necessarily uncerain, risks of climate change.

UPDATE: More from the Telegraph.

FURTHER UPDATE: Roger Pielke Jr. comments on the CRU’s moves “towards greater responsiveness and transparency.”

THIRD UPDATE: The claim that without the CRU datasets there are no reliable temperature records is, as far as I am aware, untrue.  Many (most?) of the historical reconstrucitons may be compromised, but that’s hardly the lynchpin of climate science.  As noted on Dot Earth this morning (thanks to , Michael Schlesinger, a climatologist at the University of Illinois), there are four 20th century near-surface global average temperature data sets that track each other fairly closely.  (UPDATE: Although there is substantial overlap in the raw data upon which these data sets are based.)  Moreover, the satellite measurements, which date to 1979, show modest warming — just under 0.2 degrees C per decade.

As I’ve written before, I’d like to believe climate change is a hoax — it would be very ideologically convenient — but I’m not convinced. Interestingly enough, nor are most so-called “skeptics.”  Patrick Michaels and Robert Balling, for instance, in their book The Satanic Gases: Clearing the Air about Global Warming (Cato Institute, 2000) predicted a 0.65-0.75 degrees C increase by 2100 along with a warming-induced 5 to 11 inch rise in sea level.  John Christy, in his contribution to the 2002 CEI book Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths (to which I contributed a chapter on the precuationary principle) likewise accepted that human activity is contributing to a modest warming.  What separates these “skeptics” from other climate scientists is not a disbelief in a human contribution to climate change, but a rejection of apocalyptic scenarios and the notion that climate change is catastrophic.  Finally, given my substantial work criticizing proposed climate policies  (see, e.g., here and here), I’m amused that some think I’m a sucker for squishy climate science.


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