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Socialism Today 143 - November 2010

A heated debate

The Climate Files

By Fred Pearce

Published by Guardian Publishing 2010


Climategate broke in late November 2009 after huge amounts of emails and other documents from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia (UEA) were published on the internet. They were seized on by bloggers who spun them as a global conspiracy by scientists to fool the world about man-made climate change. MANNY THAIN reviews a recent book detailing the scandal and its consequences.

THE LEAKED FILES added to the already growing public cynicism towards scientists in general and the theories of human-made climate change. Searching questions were directed at some of the world’s most eminent climate scientists. The ownership of data and the scientific peer review system were put in doubt. It went further still. The way science as a whole is conducted was under the microscope.

The Climate Files, a well-written, fast-moving account by Fred Pearce – writer on climate science for years for the Guardian – delves into what happened. His intention is to rescue climate science. He also throws a harsh spotlight on scientific malpractice, and raises questions on how scientists should operate in the future. From the outset, however, their cause was not helped by the mute response of the CRU and UEA. "Silence sounded like guilt", says Pearce.

Before getting into the main part of the story, Pearce gives some interesting background to the beginnings of climate science from the predictions of a new ice age in the 1940s-70s. The CRU was established in 1972. Phil Jones, the central player in the email controversy, joined it in 1976 (aged 24). He became CRU joint director in 1998, its sole director in 2004.

An important date in the recognition of global warming as a serious threat was October 1985. In Villach, Austria, 89 scientists from 23 countries discussed the role of greenhouse gases. They met as individuals. This was important, above all for those from the US, usually held on a tight leash by the Reagan administration. After six days they signed a declaration recognising "substantial warming", "attributable to human activities".

In 1988, global warming grabbed the world’s attention during a drought in the US. By the end of the year, scientists had persuaded the UN to let them establish the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess "the scientific, technical and socioeconomic information relevant for the understanding of the risk of human-induced climate change". It was intended as a body of scientists. The Reagan administration, however, opposed this and lobbied for the creation of an inter-governmental body.

Playing hockey at the IPCC

NONETHELESS, FOR OVER a decade, the IPCC set the agenda, though not without controversy at times. Pearce details the flawed way it operates. Drawing up IPCC reports, for example, is a messy business. The chapters are drafted by scientists. Government representatives meet to agree the summary. If there are any discrepancies, the chapters have to be changed. Clearly, this is not the fault of the scientists. But it does not merely reflect a compromised balance between them and policy-makers. In fact, it reflects the inability of capitalist powers – based as they are on a profit-driven system of competition between corporations and nation states – to achieve genuinely open, international cooperation.

The summary to the IPCC’s third climate assessment, published in 2001, included the famous ‘hockey stick’ image – the horizontal shaft turning upwards into the blade as temperatures rise abruptly. It had previously featured on the cover of a World Meteorological Organisation report in 1999. One of the key difficulties in global warming research is that thermometer records are available for only 160 years. To go back further in time, therefore, requires looking at other data, known as proxies, from which temperatures are estimated. The scientists who came up with the hockey stick were led by Mike Mann, physicist turned paleoclimatologist at Penn State University since 2004.

There are dangers in mapping temperatures from proxy data. For instance, tree-ring records, the main component in the hockey stick, sometimes reflect changes in moisture rather than temperature. To fill in some gaps and help create a global picture, Mann had included a tree-ring series from central China and a data set from pre-1400 bristlecone pines in the US. Both are regarded as potentially unreliable. The CRU emails show that there had been debate among scientists in September 1999 on whether the hockey stick should be included in the IPCC summary – the only part of the report most people outside of the scientific community read.

Despite the liberties Mann may have taken in his hockey-stick research, however, other studies, using different statistical techniques or combinations of proxy records, have produced broadly similar patterns. This includes studies of hundreds of wells and deep boreholes worldwide. These looked at how fast changes in temperatures at the surface conduct downwards. On each continent temperatures warmed faster during the 20th century than in any of the previous four. Almost all the studies support the main claim in the IPCC summary: that the 1990s was probably the warmest decade globally for 1,000 years.

Another contentious issue was the effect of urbanisation. Cities are warmer than surrounding areas. As a rapidly growing economy, China became the focus of attention. Some argued that this urbanisation could affect global warming to a much greater degree than was being recognised by Jones and others.

In 2008, Jones returned to this subject in a paper for the Journal of Geophysical Research, looking at more than 700 weather stations in eastern China. He found that the urban heat phenomenon was responsible for 40% of the warming in the area between 1951 and 2004 – the period from the 1980s marking the fastest urban growth. Jones’s revised work may also apply in other fast-industrialising countries, like India and Brazil. It also shows that it was correct to draw attention to the urban heat effect.

It would be wrong, however, to conclude that this changes the global picture of temperature trends to any great extent. Two-thirds of the planet is covered by ocean, far from urban influence, and they are warming, too. But, as Pearce says, "to ignore it is sloppy science". And it had been dismissed by many climate scientists for a number of years, apparently because it did not fit their model.

Blocking tactics

QUESTIONS HAVE BEEN asked about the influence exerted by leading scientists on the publication of material through the peer review system – where papers are reviewed anonymously by other experts in the field before publication. The scientists at the centre of Climategate say that they are safeguarding standards in scientific literature by rejecting bad science. But there are real dangers of conflicts of interest with this process.

In March 2004, Jones emailed Mann saying that he had "recently rejected two papers from people saying CRU has it wrong over [20th-century data from weather stations in] Siberia. Went to town in both reviews, hopefully successfully. If either appears I will be very surprised…"

Another example concerns a paper by David Douglass, an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester, New York, and John Christy, of the University of Alabama. They analysed temperature data from US satellites which, they said, did not confirm what climate-change models were predicting. In 2006, Ben Santer, climate modeller at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California, and linked to CRU, received a copy for peer review. He criticised it harshly, saying it contained "serious scientific flaws". The paper was not printed.

Douglass produced a new version which was published, without peer review, on the International Journal of Climatology website in December 2007. Douglass said it presented "an inconvenient truth" about climate change: "Human-produced greenhouse gases are not responsible for global warming". Fox News reported it and the right-wing Heartland Institute adopted its argumentation.

However, Douglass’s statistical analysis was shown to have been incorrect. Pearce explains the somewhat detailed reasons for this before moving onto the central allegation. Santer could do nothing about the online publication. But he exerted his influence to ensure that its publication in scientific journals was delayed until he had been able to redo much of Douglass’s analysis using the correct statistical techniques and write up his findings.

As Pearce points out – as he does on numerous occasions – the available evidence shows that Santer was right about the science. Douglass’s work did, indeed, contain serious flaws. To date, his criticisms have not been challenged by Douglass. Nonetheless, although Santer denies that he and his colleagues conspired to hold back the publication of the Douglass paper, the emails strongly suggest otherwise. At the time, however, Douglass received all the publicity.

The leaked emails reveal repeated attempts by Jones and others at CRU to block freedom of information (FoI) requests. They were clearly frustrated at the time it was taking to deal with the huge numbers they were bombarded with. As far as they were concerned, these requests were being made solely to disrupt their work and further the climate-change sceptics’ agenda. They could well have been correct in that assessment. But is that justification for their actions?

Section 77 of the Freedom of Information Act makes it an offence for public authorities to act so as to prevent intentionally the disclosure of requested information. The Information Commissioner’s office (ICO) felt that UEA had not handled FoI requests correctly, and said that the only reason it did not take legal action was because the statute of limitations, set at six months, had elapsed. Jones and co also hid behind confidentiality agreements between individuals and organisations.

There was a siege mentality taking hold. And, in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate talks in December 2009, CRU scientists were getting increasingly jittery.

Sceptical overdrive

A BIG QUESTION remains: who was the leaker or hacker? Three main groups remain suspect: UEA dissidents; people acting for a corporation or state, maybe to influence the Copenhagen talks; bloggers hostile to CRU. It could even be that mismanagement of the CRU server had made the information publicly available accidentally.

There were three stages to the publication of the large zip file on the internet. Each could have been done by different people. Firstly, the assembly of 4,660 files, some of them dating back to 1991. Secondly, the copying, which took place mainly on 30 September, 10 October and 16 November 2009. Thirdly, the distribution. According to Pearce, it "was done in a reasonably sophisticated manner" as files were loaded onto the ‘open proxies’ favoured by hackers to cover their tracks, involving servers in four countries.

Suffice it to say, they made it onto a number of websites, went round the world and caused a sensation. Climate-change sceptics have made the most of it. One of the most-quoted extracts is from Jones in 1999. In it, he says he will use "Mike’s Nature trick" to "hide the decline". The phrase has been spun as an attempt to stop the truth getting out that global temperatures had levelled out in the first decade of the 21st century.

Republican and Tea Party wild cannon, Sarah Palin, denounced the emailers as a "highly politicised scientific circle" who "manipulated data to ‘hide the decline’ in global temperatures" (Washington Post, 9 December 2009). That particular email from Jones, however, had been sent in 1999. The previous year had been the warmest year in the warmest decade on record – so there was no decline to hide. Again, the sceptics’ attitude was clear: don’t let the truth get in the way of a good headline.

The decline referred to the apparent drop in temperatures according to an analysis of tree rings. Up to around 1960, tree rings correlated well with changes in temperature. That has changed in the past half century – no one is certain why, although there are a few theories being worked on. The ‘trick’ was the technique used by Mann in his hockey stick paper in Nature in 1998. That made it possible to merge tree-ring data from earlier times with more recent thermometer data. All Jones was doing was explaining what he had done in the paper.

In the US, the campaign was revived to overturn a 2007 declaration by the American Physical Society that evidence of man-made climate change was "incontrovertible". In Britain, Lord Lawson launched the Global Warming Policy Foundation to "bring reason, integrity and balance" to the debate – in same way he attacked Britain’s workers as Thatcher’s chancellor, perhaps. Most of its trustees and advisers are recognised climate sceptics. Lawson refuses to say who funds the organisation – and, as a private concern, it is not subject to FoI legislation.

On the defensive

THE RESPONSE BY the UEA and CRU to the release of the emails was a public relations disaster. There was an initial denunciation of the supposed hackers, but complete silence over what had been revealed. UEA staff were instructed not to talk to the media. The response of most environmental groups was even more muted. They kept their heads down. It left the field open for sceptics to dominate the discussion and they made the most of it. It was not until February, three months later, that Jones and others began to surface.

Changes in procedure at the IPCC had been noted well before Climategate. The IPCC report in 2007 was notably cautious. Previously accused of hyping up the science, the summary’s authors downplayed it this time. There was no mention of the possible collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, rapid melting in Antarctica, a shutdown of the Gulf Stream or the release of greenhouse gases from the soil, ocean bed or permafrost.

Then came the complete failure of the Copenhagen talks at the end of 2009, followed swiftly by controversy over the claim that the Himalayan glacier could melt away by 2035. That was simply wrong. Some scientists had questioned the claim before it was published, but it found its way into the IPCC report anyway. There were other discrepancies between the summary and chapters. The result has been a gradual erosion of the reputation of the IPCC to the point where it is now severely damaged, maybe irreparably so.

The political plates had shifted. The answer of many in the environmental movement to global warming is to make individuals pay for reducing greenhouse gas emissions with increased taxes, etc. This lets the big corporations off the hook and hits working- and middle-class people hardest. The ground has been left open for right-wing, corporate, climate-change sceptics because of the lack of a coherent alternative being put forward. Such an alternative would require the rational planning of production, distribution and resources. That is impossible under capitalism. It would require genuinely democratic, economic planning in a socialist system. The sceptics have become increasingly confident. And, as the financial crisis began to develop – and since the recession has begun to bite hard – their position has been consolidated further.

Who’s asking the questions?

THREE ACADEMIC REVIEWS and a parliamentary inquiry were launched into Climategate. None of them showed the CRU in a good light. Scientific bodies, such as the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Statistical Society, criticised the CRU for its misconduct.

Jones admitted that it was not standard CRU practice to publish all data and methods: "Maybe it should be, but it’s not". When he was asked how often scientists reviewing his papers asked for details of his raw data, methodology and computer codes, he answered: "They’ve never asked". Pearce laments: "The rigour of peer review came crashing down before our eyes".

Science relies on producing findings that others test out. Climate science, reliant as it is on complicated modelling and projections, can be difficult to replicate. That is one reason that sceptics have felt able to claim that bad science has proliferated. It is also why there have been increasing demands for the release of raw data. On the other hand, it is also why researchers, who have sometimes spent decades assembling masses of data, can be reluctant to hand it over to those they perceive to be, and who very often are, opposed to the theories of human-induced global warming.

Some of the most vocal sceptics have clear agendas. As Pearce writes: "The scientific sceptics are few in number but the power often lies with the people from this political end of the spectrum – the fossil fuel companies and right-wing think-tanks and newspaper proprietors – who are keen to publish their views". Many of them fit "the stereotype of right-wing attack dogs", he says. Pearce also speaks of "a new breed of critic", "amateur scientific sleuths driven more by curiosity and healthy scepticism for received wisdom". Mann is unconvinced: "I think what is happening is the anti-science machine industry has fully exploited the resources made available by the worldwide web. I would imagine that much of what might appear to an outsider to be organic, to be grassroots, is actually connected, funded, manned by those connected with the climate change denial movement".

Inbuilt systemic secrecy

WHAT IS CERTAIN is that the global reach of the internet has opened up new, vast areas of widely accessible information, and that people are prepared to use it. Ultimately, it is up to the ‘scientific community’ to come to terms with that. But how far is it possible to open up access to data, especially in a capitalist system?

In this system, for obvious reasons, private companies jealously guard research projects, secreted away behind business confidentiality. The public sector is also affected. As a direct consequence of Climategate, Britain’s Meteorological Office boasted that it was making a load of data ‘publicly available’. It transpired that much of it was old data already accessible via the World Meteorological Organisation. In fact, one of the CRU’s tightest confidentiality agreements was with the Met Office. This was confirmed by a Met Office spokesman, who said that it has "to offset our costs for the benefit of the taxpayer, so we have to balance that against freedom of access".

Meanwhile, the vested military and economic interests of competing nation states are protected under official secrets acts. To genuinely open up scientific research and ensure real cooperation would require an end to such inbuilt secrecy. As mentioned earlier, that would require fundamental, systemic (socialist) change.

The biggest danger arising from Climategate is that the baby gets thrown out with the bathwater. The logic of the sceptics’ position is that we do not need to curb greenhouse gas emissions. There is a legitimate discussion to be had on the extent of their impact. However, the vast majority of scientific study backs the view that a combination of human and natural phenomena could bring about potentially cataclysmic events in the next decade or so. That is a key issue we must not lose sight of.


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