Friday, December 18, 2009

Climategate: Mountain or Molehill?

While the Copenhagen delegates, which now include many heads of state, wrangle about transparency and the size and funding of the pot of money that will be required to assist the developing world in mitigating its emissions and adapting to further climate change, another debate over transparency is brewing. Its range of potential outcomes is wide. At one end it entails a collision between science and the law--two less compatible spheres would be hard to imagine--over the issues raised by the emails and data leaked from the University of East Anglia. At the other extreme concerns about "Climategate" will gradually fade from our consciousness in the manner of Tiger Woods's fall from grace, but perhaps not without raising some interesting questions along the way.

To appreciate how matters might unfold, check out an op-ed in today's Wall St. Journal from Dr. Patrick J. Michaels, a climate scientist on the receiving end of some of those barbed emails revealed by the leak. In addition to calling into question the neutrality of the peer review process that underpins the science upon which the Copenhagen talks and any agreement that comes out of them are based, he provides a hint at the form that future legal challenges to the enforcement of such an agreement, or of rules arising from the EPA's recent endangerment finding, might take. These allegations are serious, particularly when you consider that Dr. Philip D. Jones, until this month the head of the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia, was also one of two Coordinating Lead Authors of Chapter 3 of the Fourth Assessment Review of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC.) That chapter (very large file) deals with actual observations of "surface and atmospheric climate change", including the temperature data. That makes him a key gatekeeper of the consensus.

I only ran across that connection, because I've been following a side debate concerning how actual temperature measurements at thousands of locations around the world over the last century have been tabulated. The barely civil online point-counterpoint between an anonymous blogger at The Economist and the proprietor of a well-known climate skeptic website gives a flavor for this complex topic. Along the way I was surprised to learn how frequently the actual temperature readings are adjusted, interpolated, and in some cases discarded. This involves many assumptions that I'm not qualified to question, though I am left with the conclusion that recent temperature trends fall into much the same category as the pre-measurement historical temperatures reconstructed from proxies such as tree rings. In other words, the familiar temperature trend graphs reflect mainly analysis, not primary data. That puts us all in the position of having to trust that this analysis was done properly and neutrally, and unfortunately that is precisely the trust that the leaked emails have undermined.

In a recent New York Times op-ed, Stewart Brand, an iconic figure and an acquaintance from my former work with Global Business Network when I was at Texaco, proposed a useful taxonomy for our reactions to climate change. He suggested four categories into which those with an opinion on the subject fall: Denialists, Skeptics, Warners, and Calamatists. The views of those in the first and last categories aren't likely to alter much, no matter what science and further evidence reveal about the climate. What they see reinforces pre-existing mindsets. The Skeptics and the Warners, on the other hand, are part of a legitimate scientific debate and are both amenable to adapting their views to new evidence.

I consider myself mainly a Warner in Stewart's terms, having consistently expounded the risks of climate change both in this blog and elsewhere, but I am still willing to give both sides of the argument a fair hearing. I want to see Climategate addressed openly and objectively. If the science turns out to be flawed because of bias and improper manipulation, we need to know that and correct the flaws. If the actual science is unaffected, but the means by which it has been conducted requires reform, then we need to address that as well, because if we don't the public's confidence in its findings won't be high enough to act on them. And I'd rather see this hashed out in an open scientific forum held by a body such as the AAAS and involving many disciplines outside climate science as a true jury of peers, than to see it resolved by litigation, which is where this all could be headed if scientists respond by shrugging it off or circling their wagons.

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