Green view: The shadow of climate gate
It hit just over a year ago, as ambassadors, ministers and heads of state
were preparing to descend on Copenhagen for a climate summit years in
the making. The blogosphere, American cable news and, in time, the rest
of the media lit up with discussions of a swathe of e-mails from the
moderately obscure Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East
Anglia. A person or persons still unknown had posted this e-mail archive,
as well as other computer files from CRU, on to a server in Russia, and
sent messages to various climate sceptic blogs designed to tip them off to
the treasures therein.
A year on, the shadow of climategate, as it was unhelpfully but inevitably
named, remains palpable. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger clearly had it
in mind when he recently said “Last year we had a tremendous setback
because some of the science and some of the numbers were manipulated
and that is very damaging because it gives the other side a way in.” This is
a climategate narrative that seems quite popular among many people
who, like Schwarzenegger, remain committed to the need for action
against global warming—and very popular among people who take the
opposite view: that a significant chunk of science had been frankly
fraudulent, and that the discovery of this fraud had had a very bad impact
on the fight against global warming. Its popularity, though, does not make
this story right. Climategate was not about the manipulation of numbers:
and the setback for the green cause Mr Schwarzenegger espouses was not
climategate, but Copenhagen.
The climategate e-mails led to three inquiries in the United Kingdom. All of
them were flawed in different ways. None of them, though, gave credence
to the idea that “science and numbers were manipulated”. In a report into
those inquiries for Britain’s Global Warming Policy Foundation, an
organisation opposed to action on climate change and critical of the quality
of the science behind that case, Andrew Montford, a blogger with the same
predispositions as the Foundation, sums up the principal climategate
allegations in a way that shows them to be much more about process than
about manipulated findings. He cites an exclusion of sceptical views from
the literature; a misrepresentation of primary research, and its
uncertainties, in some secondary presentations; a lack of openness to
requests for information and a willingness to contravene Britain’s freedom
of information act; a discordance between what the scientists said in
private and what they said in public. Fraud in basic science and primary
data of the sort Schwarzenegger spoke of, and which is commonly said to
have been revealed, does not make the list.
Alleged flaws—in one case, an expressly alleged fraud—in the scientific
work of the CRU researchers and some of those they corresponded with
were common currency among critical bloggers well before the emails
were leaked. Questions about the validity of reconstructions of mediaeval
climate based on treerings, about why some treerings are taken to be
good records of temperature at some points in history but not in the
recent past, about cherry-picking of data, about the traceability or
otherwise of Chinese weather station data and so on had all been aired
long before. The climategate e-mails offered little if any new information
that might move these debates on in either direction.
What they offered was colour—catchphrases like “hide the decline”—and
context. There was clear evidence of circled wagons, shared distaste for
the scientist’s critics, and unwillingness to conform to the quite high
standards of opennness that the freedom of information act—and the
ideals of their calling—seek to impose on scientists. A lot—lost, indeed—of
science would look just the same if its privacy were similarly breached
(and many other areas of human endeavour would look as bad or worse);
but to accept that this is the way of world does little to minimise the
damage. People do not want to believe that scientific knowledge of high
and lasting value is messy and human in the making; scientific culture
does its best to insulate then from that belief. The middle of a media storm
is not the place to wheel out sociologists and historians who might educate
them on the subject.
So there was a pervasive impression of disrepute. And there was evidence
of the sort of secrecy that often has something to hide. These factors
came to colour everything else—and thus to lead to a world where it is
widely thought there was lots of fraud and manipulation going on. If there
had been straightforward fraud things might, in fact, have been simpler.
Climategate did not materially effect the outcome of Copenhagen. The
reasons that the countries which met there could not agree had everything
to do with diplomacy, politics and economics. They had absolutely nothing
to do with what people in the room thought about the probity of a
particular subset of climate science.
What climategate changed was the response that came after. For those
disappointed by the results, climategate provided a focus for displaced
recrimination—something to blame. Doubt about climate change has
regularly been helped along by concerted campaigns, and the climategate
looked like more of the same. After all, no fraud had been found—but look!
The media was all over it! And Copenhagen failed! Conspiracy!
In general people don’t like to be associated with losers, and in
Copenhagen the case for strong climate action spectacularly failed to get
its preferred result. In this light, an increasing post-climategate tolerance
for doubts about warming among the media and some politicians can be
read, with just a little cynicism, as people making tactical use of
climategate to distance themselves from an agenda they had once thought
popular but which now looked increasingly lifeless.
And what of those who were happy Copenhagen had failed? For them,
climategate was a more comforting reason for that failure than the real
ones. Copenhagen did not fail because governments didn’t want action on
the climate, or even because no one is willing to take any action. It failed
because they all wanted other countries to take more and different actions
than the other countries would agree to. For people who don’t want there
ever to be action, though, it is obviously happier to think that the case had
been undermined by some dodgy emails than to recognise than that it still
stood—and indeed still stands—but had simply failed to compel action.
This reaction can be seen in its strongest form in American politics. For the
Republican party, and for those voting for it, it is no longer necessary to
argue about climate change. It has become acceptable to simply ignore it,
professing some mixture of doubt, bafflement and apathy. Don’t we all
know that the climate thing is over?
But though this looks like a reaction to climategate, and to flaws in the
products and processes of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change, those factors are, again, the sizzle not the steak. At its heart this
too is a response to Copenhagen, and the subsequent lack of momentum
on climate action, and the administration’s inability to do anything about
it. The case for action currently feels so weak that it can be held off with a
flat palm of refusal-to-engage. Perceptions of climategate doubtless make
that stance easier to hold. But they aren’t its underlying cause.