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Climategate: Why it matters

The scandal we see and the scandal we don't

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Playing politics - or feeding a demand?

'Climategate' raises far more questions than it answers, and one of the most intriguing of these is how a small group (backing a new theory, in an infant field) came to have such a huge effect on global policy making. Is it fair to hang CRU Director Jones and his colleagues out to dry - as some climate campaigners such as George Monbiot have suggested? If the buck doesn't stop with the CRU climatologists - then who or what is really to blame?

Poring over the archive, it's easy to find a nose here, and a large leathery foot over there - and to conclude that the owner of the room may have a very strange taste in furnishings. The elephant in the room can go unnoticed.

“We can have a proper result, but only by including a load of garbage!”

- source code comment for the HADCRUT temperature set

The CRU team may have stepped into a scientific vacuum, but that doesn't account for the qualities of the climate debate today. It is beset with a sense of crisis and urgency, and the ascendancy of a quite specific and narrow set of policy options that precludes the cool and rational assessment of the problem that an engineer might employ. Or equally, the cost/benefit calculations that an economist might use. (Actually, many have, and here's a good recent example from Richard Tol - but this is not part of the public discourse, or diplomatic agenda as illustrated by the Copenhagen Conference, where the focus is on emissions reductions).

Briffa himself apparently found being "true" to his science and his customer difficult. "I tried hard to balance the needs of the science and the IPCC, which are not always the same," he writes, after wrapping up the chapter on which he was joint lead author for the fourth IPCC report published. in 2007

The ignorance of the natural world displayed by the scientists is remarkably at odds with the notion that the science is "settled". Where's the Global Warming, asks NCAR's Tom Wigley. His colleague Kevin Trenberth admits they can't answer the question. "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't... Our observing system is inadequate." Trenberth goes on further, and admits the the energy budget hasn't been "balanced". Wigley paraphrases him: "we are nowhere close to knowing where energy is going". It is climate experts admitting that they don't know what they're doing.

But were such reservations communicated to the policy makers or media?

As I mentioned earlier, the very nature of the problem itself has led the "science" onto shaky ground - onto modelling (which has no predictive value) and anecdotal evidence (which merely demonstrates correlation, but not causation). That's why the 'Hockey Stick' was a very big deal: it substituted for hard evidence; if fossil fuel emissions affected the climate at all significantly, this remained a future threat, and certainly not an urgent one.

The demand from institutions, (principally the UN, through its IPCC), national policy makers and the media has taken climate scientists into areas where they struggle to do good science. Add professional activists to the mix - who bring with them the Precautionary Principle - and the element of urgency is introduced.

The situation is largely self-inflicted. The scandal is that science has advanced through anecdote and poorly founded conjecture - and on this slender basis, politicians and institutions lacking vision and confidence (and given the lack of popular support, legitimacy too) have found a cause.

Perhaps some readers may find this too forgiving of the participants. Three years ago Jones confessed to climatologist Christy both the state of the "science", and some of his own motivations.

"As you know, I’m not political. If anything, I would like to see the climate change happen, so the science could be proved right, regardless of the consequences. This isn’t being political, it is being selfish".

Bootnote To get a sense of the scope of the code, see Bishop Hill (and again here) and the remarkable four year log file by 'Harry' discussed here and here. ®

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