'Climategate': the beginning of the end for climate alarmism?
Strange that a simple four-letter word - gate - has acquired
such layers of meaning in today's world. But, ever since the infamous Watergate
scandal, which led to the resignation of President Nixon, commentators have
been unable to resist adding the 'gate' suffix to denote a disgraceful affair.
As a shorthand, it is brilliant, but some of the impact is lost because of its
The latest affair to be treated in this way is the leaking
of a large batch of emails from the server of the University
of East Anglia 's Climate Research
Unit. These do not show some of the senior scientists (who monitor the Earth's
temperature) in a particularly favourable light. In particular, the apparent
efforts to avoid scrutiny of the raw data on which published temperature trends
are based is decidedly unscientific behaviour, and has, not surprisingly, been
leapt upon with enthusiasm by critics. George
Monbiot , arch-priest of UK
greenery, felt sufficiently betrayed to call for the resignation of Professor
Phil Jones ,
head of the CRU and author of some of the emails. And the university is taking
this seriously: Professor Jones
is temporarily stepping down while the affair is investigated.
This whole affair says more about sociology than science.
What we see is two groups with entrenched positions: the mainstream scientists
at CRU and other institutions and an assorted range of sceptics who have
varying degrees of concern about the current received wisdom. That the server
was hacked and the emails made public was at least partly due to the fact that
legitimate requests for the raw temperature data used by the CRU were
From the point of view of Professor
Jones and his colleagues, those asking for
the data were being a nuisance and simply seeking to find fault with their
work. They therefore gave a range of excuses for not releasing the data (until
it emerged that some of it had actually been dumped some years previously to
save storage space!). Far from putting off the critics, it made them more
determined to see the data, and the CRU unwittingly created the conditions
which encouraged the hacker.
This is natural human behaviour, but should have no place in
science. The essence of the scientific method is to test a hypothesis by
collecting data and doing experiments. If it withstands this test, confidence
in it improves, although this does not mean it will not be supplanted by a
revised or even radically different hypothesis at some later date. Today's
prevailing paradigm is that 'all knowledge is provisional' (although the
certainty expressed by some climate scientists runs counter to this).
If researchers genuinely believe their work to be correct,
they have nothing to fear from critics, even if they think they have malicious
intent. Unsubstantiated attacks may be a nuisance and waste time in the short
term, but refuting them further strengthens the original case. Some climate
change researchers, in contrast, have been acting as though they are not confident in their work. Because of
their refusal to be open and make their data freely available, they have
damaged their cause. To what extent remains to be seen.
There are various theories about how these emails were made
public: this may not have been a case of deliberate hacking, but rather that
the material was inadvertently put on a server with public access. How they
were obtained is not really the point; it is the content which is important.
But double standards seem to abide on this point as well. Initial reports
nearly all used the term 'stolen', which is unusual for this sort of case. Some
of the same people who have deplored this would doubtless have been pleased to
see material similarly 'stolen' which discredited a major oil company or, indeed,
a group of sceptical scientists.
There is a parallel here with the treatment of sceptics by
the environmentalist and scientific establishment. Ad hominem attacks are commonplace, with activists routinely
suggesting that dissent is funded by 'Big Oil'. Rather than argue against their
opponents - which surely puts them on a firm footing if the evidence is as
irrefutable as they suggest - they try to discredit them. Many senior
scientists are no better; even Lord Rees ,
President of the Royal Society, recently referred to climate sceptics as 'village
The climate change issue - the defining issue of the first
decade of the 21st century - has exposed swathes of modern science
to be little more than activism and advocacy for a sincerely held view.
Scientists should be capable of taking part in rational dialogue, even if they
profoundly disagree with each other. Resorting to name-calling is deeply
Neither is this one-way traffic. The high-handed and
dismissive behaviour of the climate change lobby has led to equally intolerant
behaviour form the more radical wing of the sceptics. Some have been content to
point out the unscientific behaviour in the CRU coterie, but others have made
accusations of deliberate fraud. This spat has turned into a classic dialogue
of the deaf, but hopefully the more reasonable voices on both sides of the
debate will ultimately triumph.
But after all the talking, all the preparation and all the
hype, the Copenhagen conference is
finally upon us. Next week, the delegates will gather in the Danish capital, to
be joined by selected world leaders - including President Obama - some days later. The conference will finish on 18th December, the
best possible gloss will be put on whatever political agreement finally
emerges, and the exhausted participants will begin to recuperate for the next
Not everyone who subscribes to the current global warming
hypothesis wants success in Copenhagen ,
though. James Hansen ,
activist scientist par excellence,
believes that the draft Copenhagen
treaty is deeply flawed and would like to see it rejected so that the parties
start from scratch. For the truly committed, no compromised is tolerable.
Boer , head of the UN's climate change agency, has
talked of a treaty being ready by next June. Maybe, but there is still a
mountain to climb before a binding agreement is signed which would cover the
post-Kyoto period. And even then, it is likely that many countries which ratify
a future treaty will not feel bound to honour their commitments. Such has been
the outcome of Kyoto .
In the meantime, the dual pressures of an economic crisis
and a dubious public make real progress towards radical policy goals
unachievable. 'Climategate' will not have made a radical difference, but it is
part of the slow drip of inconvenient messages which are eroding the black and
white message of 'the science is settled and we're all doomed'. To change
metaphors in mid-paragraph, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the high
tide of climate alarmism has been reached.
The Scientific Alliance
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