Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/03/02/parliament_climategate/

Climategate hits Westminster: MPs spring a surprise

'Don't panic, carry on' isn't working

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Science, 2nd March 2010 10:32 GMT

Parliament isn’t the place where climate sceptics go to make friends. Just over a year ago, just three MPs voted against the Climate Act, with 463 supporting it. But events took a surprising turn at Parliament’s first Climategate hearing yesterday.

MPs who began by roasting sceptics in a bath of warm sarcasm for half an hour were, a mere two hours later, asking why the University of East Anglia’s enquiry into the climate scandal wasn’t broader, and wasn’t questioning “the science” of climate change. That’s further than any sceptic witness had gone.

In between, they’d wrought an admission from CRU director Phil Jones that he’d written some awful emails, and that during peer review nobody had ever asked to see his raw data or methods.

Perhaps the Honourable Members had noticed an incongruity. The Vice Chancellor of East Anglia, with Jones seated next to him, had said CRU had made a significant contribution to the human scientific understanding of climate change. Yet the practices of CRU looked more tatty and indefensible as the hearing went on. How could CRU be crucial to the science, but the science could not be discussed? Something was not quite right.

The final report, expected before the election, may not reflect the events of the day. But it’s worth recording. The shift was down to Graham Stringer BSc, an analytical chemist and the only scientist on the MPs' committee.

Lugubrious might be a word invented especially for Stringer, who had run Manchester for 12 years before becoming an MP in 1997. He’d shunned the glamour of high office, and become a local hero back home by campaigning against the Manchester congestion charge.

Graham Stringer

But Stringer had done his homework, and through patience and dogged persistence, he began to swing the chairman behind him. Mirroring the collapse in public sympathy for climate science since the scandal broke, the stalwarts so vocal at 3pm were silent by the close.

The last half hour, in which three of the biggest global warming advocates assured the Committee to keep calm, don’t panic, and carry on - had a slightly surreal air to it.

Enter Dr Jones

Science Select Committee chair Phil Willis, who’s stepping down at the election, acknowledged the phenomenal global interest in the hearing. Sceptics had feared that with the two critics on first it would be a whitewash. It didn’t go according to script.

Phil Jones appeared drawn and nervous, with the University Vice Chancellor Edward Acton at his side. A succession of sympathetic questions from MP Ian Stewart (Lab, Wigan) allowed Jones to state his prepared defence.

If temperature code and data wasn’t available from CRU, Jones said, it was available from NASA and NOAA in the United States. The “hide the decline” statement, where the team had replaced wayward proxy temperature data with instrumented data, was immaterial: all temperature series showed similar increases since the 19th Century. And the softest of softballs from Stewart – are the last three decades the highest since modern instrumentation? – gave Jones the chance to agree. Yes, the last three decades are the highest since the Thames ice fairs of the Regency era. (“Since records began” sounds so much better.)

Graham Stringer (Lab) opened up with a “it's nice to meet you having read all your emails over the past few days”.

'It's not rocket science'

Jones initially stated that the methods were published in the scientific papers, “there’s no rocket science in them”. He can’t have thanked his boss Acton for butting in to say that CRU was “not a national archive” and had no obligation to preserve the raw temperature data.

Willis, who’d earlier given Lord Lawson and Benny Piesar of the Global Warming Policy Foundation a withering roasting, wasn’t impressed. “We can’t understand why you wouldn’t want to,” he complained.

“We are longing to publish it,” claimed Acton, a bit too unctuously.

“Why can’t independent people check your scientific papers?” asked Stringer.

UEA Vice Chancellor Edward Acton

“It isn’t traditionally done,” replied Jones. Stringer continued, quoting Jones' email to Warwick Hughes, famous before Climategate broke, refusing to give data. Jones had said, "Why should I make the data available when your aim is to find something wrong with it?"

Stringer said scientists make their reputations by proving or disproving what other scientists have done. He forced Jones to admit that contrary to his initial statement, the code wasn’t available for independent scientists to test the work. So how can science progress, Stringer wondered.

Jones admitted he had “obviously written some very awful emails”. Stringer said science “shouldn’t have to rely on an individual request for other scientists to get the data”.

Previously sympathetic MPs were beginning to be more hostile. One asked why it was so unusual for somebody to replicate Jones' work from scratch. Jones said that during the peer review process, nobody had ever asked for raw data or methodology.

In the University’s written submission, Acton complained about bothersome sceptics making the work of his scientists more difficult – and wanted the leaker found. (And presumably strung up.)

In this, Stringer saw a comparison between the Expenses Scandal and Climategate.

“The Speaker lost his job because he thought it was more important to pursue people who’d leaked the expenses, than the issue, the way members had claimed expenses. Aren’t you going the same way,” he asked Acton, “prejudging the outcome of the enquiry?”

credit: Josh

Acton said he hoped not. Stringer said Acton should be rejoicing at the publicity shed on his scientists' work.

“It’s just a fact of life in climate science,” Jones said.

Stringer felt the taxpayer was being cheated. The attitude seemed to put the scientists above ordinary scrutiny, and beyond questioning by the people who paid their wages. He mentioned that the US DoE part paid for CRU’s work. Jones replied they can go get the raw data elsewhere.

Acton didn’t help when he said UEA was “longing” to release the raw data. If that was true now, everyone knew it wasn’t true for years.

By this point Jones and Acton appear to have lost the sympathy of the Committee’s Chair, Willis.

What staggered him, he said, was Acton’s statement that the integrity of the UEA was the most important question. “Surely scientific integrity on the world's leading global question should be the question. Have you not miserably failed?” he asked.

It was a sign how differently the middle ground views climate scientists since the Climategate Affair broke.

FOIA: Vexatious or justified?

The Information Commissioner for seven years until last summer ,Richard Thomas, was invited to put the FOIA requests in context. Several Jones emails show him vowing to “hide behind” UK FOIA law, briefing University staff to refuse requests to sceptics, and asking colleagues to destroy email.

The University, in another PR blunder, had objected to a statement from the current IC office that the Climategate emails showed prima facie evidence of criminal activity. They hadn’t been found guilty, they complained. That’s because the IC couldn’t investigate, Thomas pointed out, and again renewed his call for the six month time limit on complaints to be closed.

Ian Stewart (Lab) was determined to show that the FOIA requests were harassment. Sixty were in play last summer, four years after Jones had refused to release raw data by email with the notorious “so you can find something wrong with it” reason.

Thomas said there is an exclusion for vexatious requests. But the number demanded wasn’t that great. “Sixty doesn't strike me as a large number. Half a million were being made in the first year. It's being used not just by media, researchers and campaigners but by the general public.”

Stewart wanted Thomas to express sympathy with what he viewed as beleaguered researchers. Thomas said sympathy wasn’t the right word.

Stewart persisted. Thomas said a ‘crown jewels’ approach where only the minimum deemed necessary should be withheld.

“The simplest approach where the requirements generate a defensive attitude… is proactive disclosure in the first place. Where there is no good reason, why not disclose it and avoid the hassle?”

Stewart again interrupted his answer. Thomas stood firm: “I do not think hassle justifies the deliberate destruction of information.”

Asking after Muir

Sir Muir Russell, former VC of Glasgow University, was picked by Acton to head East Anglia’s enquiry into the emails. He too might have been surprised that the questioning was more pointed than anticipated.

Stringer implied the staff Russell had chosen were inadequate. He noted that the NAS Hockey Stick hearings had “boiled down to McIntyre vs Mann and required the best statisticians in the world. I ask you to look at that again – you may need a statistician.”

Russell said Michael Mann had emailed him at one minute to midnight and “if that takes us into the statistical area, then fine”. The MPs didn’t look impressed.

Willis acknowledged the global interest in the hearing. “The reason this has caused so much interest around the world, is that it challenges the basic assumption of the majority of scientists. Yet you’ve ruled out an appraisal of the science work of CRU, although the VC is going to do that separately?”

Russell said he was asked to focus on the processes.

“It would have been possible to construct an enqury to do that, it wasn’t what I was asked to do – which is examine the methodological and handling issues.”

It became clear that this wasn't just a requirement, but a preference. He was in his comfort zone dealing with process issues.

Willis said he saw only a narrow overlap between the two: the integrity of the methodology and disclosure affected the integrity of climate science.

Russell said it was a process enquiry not a substance enquiry – one for the great book of bureaucrats’ quotes. He looked alarmed at the prospect of an enquiry looking at climate science. “Where would it end? What kind of questions would people ask?”

What indeed.

Stringer felt scientists who disagreed with the majority view should be represented.

Honours List

None of this could have been predicted when Lord Lawson and Benny Piesar from the Global Warming Policy Foundation opened the hearing. Both got a duffing up, with Tim Boswell (Con) and Stewart trying to turn it into an inquiry into Nigel Lawson. Lawson had said the GWPF refused donations from energy interests, but kept donors anonymous.

The GWPF had made a tactical decision not to question the science, but procedures – similar to Russell’s view of his remit. They’d stressed that if Jones and colleagues had behaved properly, there would have been no FOIA requests implying there would be no leak and no inquiry.

That chimes with the view that Climategate is a disaster of the climate scientists’ own making. At that stage in the day, MPs were sceptical that anything significant was being withheld, and if it was, it was for justifiable, perhaps even honourable reasons.

Three hours later, the day closed with three big guns of the scientific establishment and most prominent advocates of warming: former IPCC chair Bob Watson, the Government’s chief scientific advisor John Beddington, and head scientist at the Met Office, Julia Slingo OBE. Since the story broke, Watson has been a prominent in emphasising the "Keep Calm and Carry On" message: that the science is untouched, and cannot be questioned.

The three were slightly too chummy and jovial, and seemed unaware of the connection MPs had made: that rotten scientists perhaps mean rotten science. ®