Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Climategate (Part II) A sequel as ugly as the original.

The conventional wisdom about blockbuster movie sequels is that the second acts are seldom as good as the originals. The exceptions, like The Godfather: Part II or The Empire Strikes Back, succeed because they build a bigger backstory and add dimensions to the original characters. The sudden release last week of another 5,000 emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of East Anglia University​—​ground zero of “Climategate I” in 2009​—​immediately raised the question of whether this would be one of those rare exceptions or Revenge of the Nerds II.

Before anyone had time to get very far into this vast archive, the climate campaigners were ready with their critical review: Nothing worth seeing here. Out of context! Cherry picking! “This is just trivia, it’s a diversion,” climate researcher Joel Smith told Politico. On the other side, Anthony Watts, proprietor of the invaluable WattsUpWithThat.com skeptic website, had the kind of memorable line fit for a movie poster. With a hat tip to the famous Seinfeld episode, Watts wrote: “They’re real, and they’re spectacular!” An extended review of this massive new cache will take months and could easily require a book-length treatment. But reading even a few dozen of the newly leaked emails makes clear that Watts and other longtime critics of the climate cabal are going to be vindicated.

Climategate I, the release of a few thousand emails and documents from the CRU in November 2009, revealed that the united-front clubbiness of the leading climate scientists was just a display for public consumption. The science of climate change was not “settled.” There was no consensus about the extent and causes of global warming; in their private emails, the scientists expressed serious doubts and disagreements on some major issues. In particular, the email exchanges showed that they were far from agreement about a key part of the global warming narrative​—​the famous “hockey stick” graph that purported to demonstrate that the last 30 years were the warmest of the last millennium and which made the “medieval warm period,” an especially problematic phenomenon for the climate campaign, simply go away. (See my “Scientists Behaving Badly,” The Weekly Standard, December 14, 2009.) Leading scientists in the inner circle expressed significant doubts and uncertainty about the hockey stick and several other global warming claims about which we are repeatedly told there exists an ironclad consensus among scientists. (Many of the new emails make this point even more powerfully.) On the merits, the 2009 emails showed that the case for certainty about climate change was grossly overstated.

More damning than the substantive disagreement was the attitude the CRU circle displayed toward dissenters, skeptics, and science journals that did not strictly adhere to the party line. Dissenting articles were blocked from publication or review by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), requests for raw data were rebuffed, and Freedom of Information Act requests were stonewalled. National science panels were stacked, and qualified dissenters such as NASA prize-winner John Christy were tolerated as “token skeptics.” The CRU circle was in high dudgeon over the small handful of skeptics who insisted on looking over their shoulder, revealing the climate science community to be thin-skinned and in-secure about its enterprise​—​a sign that something is likely amiss. Even if there was no unequivocal “smoking gun” of fraud or wrongdoing, the glimpse deep inside the climate science community was devastating. As I wrote at the time (“In Denial,” March 15, 2010), Climategate did for the global warming controversy what the Pentagon Papers did for the Vietnam war 40 years ago: It changed the narrative decisively.

The new batch of emails, over 5,300 in all (compared with about 1,000 in the 2009 release), contains a number of fresh embarrassments and huge red flags for the same lovable bunch of insider scientists. It stars the same cast, starting with the Godfather of the CRU, Phil “hide the decline” Jones, and featuring Michael “hockey stick” Mann once again in his supporting role as the Fredo of climate science, blustering along despite the misgivings and doubts of many of his peers. Beyond the purely human element, the new cache offers ample confirmation of the rank politicization of climate science and rampant cronyism that ought to trouble even firm believers in catastrophic climate change.

In fact, the emails display candid glimpses of concern inside the CRU circle. Peter Thorne of NOAA (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration), who earned his Ph.D. in climate science at East Anglia in 2001, wrote Phil Jones in a 2005 message, “I also think the science is being manipulated to put a political spin on it which for all our sakes might not be too clever in the long run.” An appeal to “context,” which the climate campaigners say is crucial to understanding why excerpts such as this one are unimportant, does quite the opposite, and only points to the problems the climate change campaigners have brought upon themselves by their tribalism.

This exchange between Thorne and Jones, along with numerous similar threads in the new cache, is concerned with what should and shouldn’t be included in a chapter of the IPCC’s 2007 fourth assessment report​—​a chapter for which Jones was the coordinating lead author along with another key Climategate figure, Kevin Trenberth. The complete chapter (if you’re keeping score at home, it’s Chapter 3 of Working Group I, “Observations: Surface and Atmospheric Climate Change”) lists 10 “lead authors” and 66 “contributing authors” in addition to Jones and Trenberth. One of Jones’s emails from 2004 displays how explicitly political the process of assembling the IPCC report is: “We have a very mixed bag of LAs [lead authors] in our chapter. Being the basic atmos obs. one, we’ve picked up number of people from developing countries so IPCC can claim good geographic representation. This has made our task harder as CLAs [contributing lead authors] as we are working with about 50% good people who can write reasonable assessments and 50% who probably can’t.”

The final chapter was amended along lines Thorne recommended, but several other objections and contrary observations (one in particular from Roger Pielke Jr. about extreme weather events that has been subsequently vindicated) were scornfully dismissed. And appeals to context avoid the question: Is this “science-by-committee” a sensible way to sort out contentious scientific issues that hold immense public policy implications? Perhaps a politicized, semi-chaotic process like the IPCC is unavoidable in a subject as wide-ranging and complex as climate change; future historians of science can debate the issue. But the high stakes involved ought to compel a maximum of open debate and transparency. Instead, the IPCC process places a premium on gatekeepers and arbiters who control what goes in and what doesn’t, and it is exactly in its exercise of the gatekeeping function that the CRU circle has shredded its credibility and trustworthiness.

One thing that emerges from the new emails is that, while a large number of scientists are working on separate, detailed nodes of climate-related issues (the reason for dozens of authors for every IPCC report chapter), the circle of scientists who control the syntheses that go into IPCC reports and the national climate reports that the U.S. and other governments occasionally produce is quite small and partial to particular outcomes of these periodic assessments. The way the process works in practice casts a shadow over one of the favorite claims of the climate campaign​—​namely, that there exists a firm “consensus” about catastrophic future warming among thousands of scientists. This so-called consensus reflects only the views of a much smaller subset of gatekeepers.

Beyond additional bad news for the hockey stick graph, is there anything new in these emails about scientific aspects of the issue? This will take time to sort out, but I suspect anyone with the patience to go through the weeds of all 5,300 messages and cross check them against published results may well discover troubling new aspects of how climate modeling is done, and how weak the models still are on crucial points (such as cloud behavior). Some of the new emails frankly acknowledge such problems. There are arcane discussions about how to interpolate gaps in the data, how to harmonize different data sets, and how to resolve the frequent and often inconvenient (because contradictory) anomalies in modeling results. Definite examples of political influence have emerged already from a first pass over a sample of the massive cache.

In the editing process before the IPCC’s 2001 third assessment report, Timothy Carter of the Finnish Environmental Institute wrote in 2000 to three chapter authors with the observation, “It seems that a few people have a very strong say, and no matter how much talking goes on beforehand, the big decisions are made at the eleventh hour by a select core group.” In this case, decisions at the highest levels of what specific figures and conclusions were to appear in the short “summary for policy makers”​—​usually the only part of the IPCC’s multivolume reports that the media and politicians read​—​required changing what appeared in individual chapters, a case of the conclusions driving the findings in the detailed chapters instead of the other way around. This has been a frequent complaint of scientists participating in the IPCC process since the beginning, and the new emails show that even scientists within the “consensus” recognize the problem. Comments such as one from Jonathan Overpeck, writing in 2004 about how to summarize some ocean data in a half-page, reinforce the impression that politics drives the process: “The trick may be to decide on the main message and use that to guid[e] what’s included and what is left out.”

No amount of context can possibly exonerate the CRU gang from some of the damning expressions and contrivances that appear repeatedly in the new emails. More so than the 2009 batch, these emails make clear the close collaboration between the leading IPCC scientists and environmental advocacy groups, government agencies, and partisan journalists. There are repeated instances of scientists tipping their hand that they’ve thrown in their lot with the climate ideologues. If there were only a handful of such dubious messages, they might be explained away through “context,” or as conciliatory habits of expression. But they are so numerous that it doesn’t require an advanced degree in pattern recognition to make out that these emails constitute not just a “smoking gun” of scientific bias, but a belching howitzer. Throughout the emails numerous participants refer to “the cause,” “our cause,” and other nonscientific, value-laden terms to describe the implications of one dispute or another, while demonizing scientists who express even partial dissent about the subject, such as Judith Curry of Georgia Tech.

Since the beginning of the climate change story more than 20 years ago, it has been hard to sort out whether the IPCC represents the “best” science, or merely the findings most compatible with the politically driven climate policy agenda. Both sets of emails have lifted the lid on the insides of the process, and it isn’t pretty.

A good example of how the political-scientific complex works hand-in-glove to tightly control the results comes from May 2009, when the IPCC authors were working on a “weather generator,” which they hoped would produce climate change scenarios tailored to localities, so as to promote favored adaptive measures (sea walls, flood control, drought readiness, etc.).

This is a small but hugely controversial aspect of climate modeling, and one where politicians and advocacy groups (the World Wildlife Fund was especially keen to have this kind of work done) may well be asking scientists to do the impossible. But there’s research money in it, so scientists are only too happy to oblige. Kathryn Humphrey, a science adviser in Britain’s DEFRA (Department of Environment, Forestry, and Rural Affairs​—​Britain’s EPA) wrote a worried note to Phil Jones and several other scientists involved in the project about criticisms of the cloistered working group behind the weather generator scheme, noting, “Ministers have also raised questions about this so we will need to go back to them with some further advice.”

Jones tries to reassure Humphrey that he’s got the working group under control: “As I’ve said on numerous occasions, if the WG [working group] isn’t there, all the people that need [the weather generator] will go off and do their own thing.

This will mean that individual sectors and single studies will do a whole range of different things. This will make the uncertainties even larger!” What Jones is referring to are numerous independent scientific efforts to “downscale” climate models to predict local impacts, and the fact that the results of these separate efforts have been chaotic, rather than demonstrating consensus. Hence the need for someone in authority to marginalize uncertainties and contradictory results. But this is properly called politics, not science.

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