Original URL: https://www.theregister.com/2009/11/30/crugate_analysis/
Climategate: Why it matters
The scandal we see and the scandal we don't
Analysis Reading the Climategate archive is a bit like discovering that Professional Wrestling is rigged. You mean, it is? Really?
The archive - a carefully curated 160MB collection of source code, emails and other documents from the internal network of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia - provides grim confirmation for critics of climate science. But it also raises far more troubling questions.
Perhaps the real scandal is the dependence of media and politicians on their academics' work - an ask-no-questions approach that saw them surrender much of their power, and ultimately authority. This doesn't absolve the CRU crew of the charges, but might put it into a better context.
After a week of scrutiny of the emails, attention is now turning to the programming source code. Three quarters of the material released is the work of the academics, much of which they had jealously guarded. This includes a version of the world's most cited and respected temperature record - HADCRUT - and a number of surveys which featured prominently in the reports of the UN's climate change panel, the IPCC. The actors here shaped the UN reports, and ultimately - because no politician dare contradict the 'science' - shaped global policy.
The allegations over the past week are fourfold: that climate scientists controlled the publishing process to discredit opposing views and further their own theory; they manipulated data to make recent temperature trends look anomalous; they withheld and destroyed data they should have released as good scientific practice, and they were generally beastly about people who criticised their work. (You’ll note that one of these is far less serious than the others.)
But why should this be a surprise?
The secretive Jones is no secret
The secretive approach of CRU director Jones and his colleagues, particularly in the paleoclimatology field, is not a secret. Distinguished scientists have testified to this throughout from the early 1990s onwards. A report specifically commissioned four years ago by Congress, the Wegman Report, identified many of the failings discussed in the past week.
Failings are understandable, climatology is in its infancy, and the man-made greenhouse gas theory is a recent development. However no action was taken. A little like Goldman Sachs, the group that includes the CRU Crew was deemed to be too important to fail - or even have the semblance of fallibility.
A lightning recap of what CRU is, and what role it plays, helps bring the puzzle out of the shadows.
CRU was founded in 1972 by the 'Father of Climatology', former Met Office meteorologist Hubert Lamb. Until around 1980, solar modulation was believed to be the driving factor in climatic variation. A not unreasonable idea, you might think, since our energy (unless you live by a volcano vent) is derived from the sun. Without a better understanding of the sun, climatology may be reasonably be called "speculative meteorology".
But CRU's increasing influence, according to its own history, stemmed from politicians taking an interest. "The UK Government became a strong supporter of climate research in the mid-1980s, following a meeting between Prime Minister Mrs Thatcher and a small number of climate researchers, which included Tom Wigley, the CRU director at the time. This and other meetings eventually led to the setting up of the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research, within the Met Office," the CRU notes.
Lamb (who died in 1997), however remained sceptical of the greenhouse gas hypothesis to the end.
In addition to inheriting all the problems of climatology, the greenhouse gas hypothesis has several unique issues of its own, and addressing them is a challenge for the most scrupulous researcher. How CRU addressed them was to define climatology for two decades - and ultimately defined the public debate and policy, too.
The gas theory is based on an elegant 'energy budget' model, but it leans heavily on positive feedbacks resulting from greenhouse gases such as CO2 in order to produce the warming CO2 cannot do by itself. Yet no simple empirical laboratory tests are of use here. Nor is there a ‘fingerprint’ or tell-tale signal that anthropogenically produced gases are the primary forcing factor. Hence climatology's increasing reliance, since 1980, on a range of anecdotal evidence and computer modelling.
In a fiercely contested field, both methods were fiercely guarded. The result of this was the blurring of the line between correlation and causation, and hindcasting and forecasting. Slowly, but surely, an "assertion" was becoming "proof".
The first IPCC report in 1990 used the established temperature record created by Lamb. It's very different to the one we're familiar with today - and that's the work of CRU director Phil Jones, CRU's pioneer dendrochronologist Keith Briffa, and their colleagues in (mainly) US institutions.
You can see the difference here.
Lamb's temperature graph, featured in the first IPCC report in 1990
Without the error bars (grey), the Medieval Warm Period disappears Source: IPCC TAR 2001
Although Lamb's version is supported by historical accounts, archaeology, geology and even contemporary literature, two key differences are the decreased significance of the Medieval Warming Period (CRU and its allies prefer the term 'MCA', or "Medieval Climate Anomaly") and a radically warmer modern period.
Jones and his team began to produce work that contradicted the established picture in 1990 - and CRU was able to do so from both ends. By creating new temperature recreations, it could create a new account of history. By issuing a monthly gridded temperature set while making raw station data unavailable for inspection, it defined contemporary data. So CRU controlled two important narratives: the "then", and the "now".
In the FOIA.ZIP archive, we find Jones unambiguous in an email: "We will be rewriting people's perceived wisdom about the course of temperature change over the past millennium," he wrote.
In text books co-authored with Ray Bradley (1992 and 1996) and a landmark paper with Ben Santer (1996), Jones described artificial reconstructions that questioned the established historical record. Jones and Briffa were both co-authors of a 1995 paper for Nature - Unusual Twentieth-century Summer Warmth in a 1,000-year Temperature Record from Siberia - that used a tree ring reconstruction from the Urals to claim that the mean 20th Century temperature is higher than any period since 914. Sympathetic researchers in the US produced similar graphs, again emphasising that modern warming (0.7C in the 20th Century), was anomalous.
Since these scientists declined to document their methodology and the raw sample, they were difficult to dispute. By 2001, with the IPCC's Third Assessment Report or TAR, the new version of history was the established one. The 'Hockey Stick' controversy only broke three years subsequently.
"We also have a data protection act, which I will hide behind."
- Phil Jones
That resulted in the Wegman report. Although CRU hadn't produced the Hockey Stick (the work of American metereologist Michael Mann) or used his statistical techniques, Wegman implicated leading CRU figures as part of a close knit network.
In our further exploration of the social network of authorships in temperature reconstruction, we found that at least 43 authors have direct ties to Dr. Mann by virtue of coauthored papers with him. Our findings from this analysis suggest that authors in the area of paleoclimate studies are closely connected and thus ‘independent studies’ may not be as independent as they might appear on the surface.
Wegman also criticised their workmanship:
[...]the paleoclimate community; even though they rely heavily on statistical methods they do not seem to be interacting with the statistical community. Additionally, we judge that the sharing of research materials, data and results was haphazardly and grudgingly done. In this case we judge that there was too much reliance on peer review, which was not necessarily independent. Moreover, the work has been sufficiently politicized that this community can hardly reassess their public positions without losing credibility.
Wegman had identified other networks in climate science which also "peer reviewed" each other's work, removing criticism from the record, and acting as gatekeepers.
Over four years later the 'Climategate' archive provides evidence to support this. We find Jones discussing how to avoid FOIA requests, advising the deletion of email and telling his own information officers not to release data to critics. Earlier this summer, CRU said that it had failed to maintain the raw station data it had gathered, citing lack of storage space.
But to what purpose were these networks acting?
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".