Do Leaked Emails Undermine the Scientific Consensus?
1 Dec, 2009 10:34 am
It's clearly premature to attempt to draw sweeping conclusions about the implications for climate science and policy from the few tidbits that have leaked from the University of East Anglia's Hadley Centre Climate Research, one of the major global sources of climate change data and analysis. At the same time, it strikes me as naive--and perhaps ultimately counterproductive--of those in the "true believer" community who imagine that the publication of such interactions would not naturally lead to serious questions about the scientific basis of some very expensive proposed policy actions to address global warming.
Next, consider email as a medium of discussion. In my career I have seen many emails that their senders would have subsequently preferred to see deleted from all systems, and I have probably written one or two myself. But that's not the reality of a world in which anything you write on a networked system can be divulged later as part of the discovery phase of a lawsuit or in a government investigation. The best advice I've heard on the subject is the lesson some of the authors of the Hadley emails have just learned the hard way: "Don't write anything you'd be embarrassed to see printed on the front page of the New York (or in this case the London) Times."
That doesn't mean I'm naive about how people--even scientists--interact with each other. Anyone who has spent five minutes peering behind the veil of academic politics wouldn't be terribly surprised at some of the caustic, small-minded, and downright vindictive comments that pepper the Hadley emails that have turned up around the Internet. Nevertheless, most of us aren't involved in work that is integral to a global effort to understand and avert the worst outcomes of something on the scale of climate change. These folks are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard, and if they don't, it jeopardizes not just their own reputations but the public's perception of the findings of the larger body of climate science. When I read an email in which one noted climate researcher asks another not to refer to a particular subject in his reply, but just say yes or no, or another indicating the author would delete some data points from a graph showing a recent change in the trend, I'm reminded of some precautionary advice I received at the very beginning of my oil trading career: "Avoid even the appearance of evil."
The basic issue here that many of those responding from the climate change community seem unable or unwilling to grasp is that their real problem is not how particular individuals or groups might exploit this information, but how the information itself could undermine the faith of the public in the integrity of climate science. I use the word faith deliberately, because for most of us it boils down to that. The number of people actually equipped to read the scientific papers in question and ascertain whether the manipulation of charts and data implicated in some of the leaked emails is serious or not is vanishingly small, compared to the much larger number of us who must simply take it on faith that the scientists studying the climate and reporting on alarming changes in it are behaving in a fair, transparent, and unself-interested way, to the greatest extent humanly possible. It would be hard for most of us to read the emails in question objectively and not have that faith shaken, at least a bit.
Now, it's possible this entire episode could blow over in a news cycle or two and have no impact on the impending negotiations in Copenhagen or on the Congressional debate on climate legislation. I wouldn't bet on that, because what little has come out so far fits neatly into the preexisting view by some of climate science as a conspiracy, or at least a process that has been politicized by the funding and bureaucratic power that large sums devoted to climate research have bestowed. If the climate science community wants to put this episode behind it without derailing the public's trust in the scientific consensus on global warming, then the researchers and institutions that are leading this effort should be calling loudly for a full airing of Hadley's linen, and an assessment of the center's practices by an unbiased panel, preferably one well-staffed with scientists from other disciplines. Any perception of a cover-up will only reinforce suspicions that conduct at Hadley wasn't what it should have been, and that at least one pillar of the climate change argument looks shakier than it did just a week ago.
Originally published on Energy Outlook