01 December 2009

Mulling Over ClimateGate

"It's Sunday evening, I've worked all weekend, and just when I thought it was done I'm hitting yet another problem that's based on the hopeless state of our databases. There is no uniform data integrity. ..."

That quote comes from the log of a computer modeler known as HARRY_READ_ME, which documents a struggle to make sense of a database of historical temperatures. The log, along with emails from prominent climate researchers, is at the center of the "ClimateGate" controversy.

Depending upon your point of view, hacked computers at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit reveal either a pattern of deceit, cover-up, and double-dealing or a bunch of grumpy, insular scientists frustrated by distractions to their multimillion dollar research, such as answering climate skeptics or exposing their data to public scrutiny.

Whichever side you're on, you've got to admit this stuff is brilliant.

And while climate skeptics have seized on these emails as the work of "a priesthood protecting the temple from barbarians," as John Tierney put it in the New York Times, others have tried to dismiss it as irrelevant to the UN's advice on global warming.

Bret Stephens, writing in the Wall Street Journal, suggests we "follow the money," positing that an entire industry has grown up around proving the validity of the global warming data and its attendant economic ecosystem.

"Why did the money pour in so quickly?" Stephens asks. "Because the climate alarm kept ringing so loudly: The louder the alarm, the greater the sums. And who better to ring it than people like Mr. Jones, one of its likeliest beneficiaries?"

The "Mr. Jones" to whom Mr. Stephens refers is Phil Jones, a climate researcher whose emails initiated the controversy. In one email he refers to a "trick" he applied to raw data to "hide the decline" in global temperatures. He and others may even have lobbied for the firing of a journal editor who published papers questioning scientific consensus on global warming.

These are the kinds of mean-spirited, dirty tricks that were once associated with the Bush Administration. Remember the hew and cry over former Chief of Staff of the White House Council on Environmental Quality Phillip Cooney's tampering with scientific reports to minimize the anthropogenic connection to climate change?

It just shows that no one is averse to cajoling, tricking or brow-beating to get their point across and win the mindshare game. Does it damage their credibility? It sure does. I thought scientists were supposed to be above politics and positioning, and held themselves to a higher standard.

Don't get me wrong. I do believe climate change is happening. I've seen the results in my back yard and places as far away as India and Indonesia. I'm just not sure that the predictions of doom-and-gloom and disaster deserve to be considered without challenging the assumptions that go into making them.

After all, aren't computer models only as good as the data that goes into them?

These emails call into question the validity of assertions that the global warming hypothesis has been proved. Is it not, despite the concordance of a wide array of climate scientists, still only a hypothesis?

The question remains why did the scientists feel compelled to manipulate raw data in order to prove what they wanted to prove rather than defend their assertion that short-term fluctuations have little relevance in the face of long-term trends?

One solution to all of this has been suggested by Judith Curry, a specialist in climate-hurricane interactions at Georgia Tech, writing on Stephen McIntyre's Climate Audit site.

Dr. Curry identifies "two broader issues raised by these emails that are impeding the public credibility of climate research: lack of transparency in climate data, and 'tribalism' in some segments of the climate research community that is impeding peer review and the assessment process."

Hers is a cogent and sober set of recommendations and I applaud her openness and willingness to engage both sides in that forum. She ends her post by calling for the "climate research enterprise" to adapt to the "need for public credibility and transparency" in the wake of the increasing "policy relevance of climate research."

Let's hope this is the beginning of a new chapter where reasonable dialogue and common sense -- and scientific method -- prevail.