Guardian report examines ‘Climategate’

I hate to say it, but on rare occasions it is difficult to figure out where science ends and politics begins. I have always believed there is a clear distinction between scientific findings and public policy. But a few members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change blurred the line, whether we like it or not.

I just finished reading a 12-part series about Climategate published in The Guardian, a British publication. The series includes annotated comments written by those close to the issue.

If you care about climate change, you probably should pay attention to politics surrounding this issue. That means you probably should know about the controversy surrounding the stolen e-mails of a few key climate scientists.

This series, by reporter Fred Pearce, offers context that one cannot get by reading the e-mails alone. I was impressed by the balance that Pearce brings to the issue, neither defending nor attacking the scientists for their apparent failings. But he does comment on the personalities of the scientists as well as the skeptics who constantly stirred the pot.

The so-called scandal incident does not discount the accumulated evidence about climate change on many fronts, but these researchers did refuse requests for data from climate-change skeptics and they may have interfered with the normal peer-review process. It is also possible that we may never see another “consensus” report on climate change like those written in the past, Pearce says.

In a note introducing the 12 articles, The Guardian editors call this series a “unique experiment,” and an “attempt at a collaborative route to getting at the truth.” In addition to the normal comment section from readers, the series includes sections of text highlighted in yellow. These annotations link to comments provided by people judged to be close to the situation. As I understand it, the record remains open for knowledgeable people to make comments.

As the editors state, “We hope to approach that complete account by harnessing the expertise of people with a special knowledge of, or information about, the emails. We would like the protagonists on all sides of the debate to be involved, as well as people with expertise about the events and the science being described or more generally about the ethics of science.”

Fred Pearce paces his story for dramatic effect, which makes the series an enjoyable read. Here are his opening paragraphs:

“This story is dark; there are no heroes. Environmentalists will be distressed at what happens in the labs; many may think we should not publish for fear of wrecking the already battered cause of fighting climate change. But some of it, according to the British government’s Information Commissioner, may have been illegal.

“Remember two other things. First, this was war. The scientists were under intense and prolonged attack, they believed, from politically and commercially motivated people who wanted to prevent them from doing their science and trash their work. And they had, as their most vocal protagonist Professor Michael Mann puts it in one email, “dirty laundry one doesn’t want to fall into the hands of those who might potentially try to distort things …”

“Meanwhile, their attackers came to believe that the scientists were fraudsters. In many ways, what follows is a Shakespearean tragedy of misunderstood motives.”

Read on in Part 1 of the series.

13 thoughts on “Guardian report examines ‘Climategate’

  1. “I hate to say it, but on rare occasions it is difficult to figure out where science ends and politics begins.”

    One place is at our fourth estate. With subtle little spinnings like, “the so-called-scandal”.

    So what’s new?

  2. “…on rare occasions it is difficult to figure out where science ends and politics begins.”

    Excellent opening line, and good job of including easy links to the original Guardian story.

    Science did not spring fully formed from its mother’s ear as did Garganuta, nor do I see any good reason to believe that the accepted methodology of science has reached the final point of its evolution. It really wasn’t all that long ago, by global warming standards, that Galileo (often called the father of modern science) was tried by the Inquisition and spent the rest of his life under house arrest for promoting the idea that the earth orbited the sun.

    Other famous examples abound. I can’t say from personal experience, since I am less than a century old, but I suspect that throughout its evolution, science has never been exempt from politics. And don’t even get me started about adding engineering into the mix of science and politics, which is what is necessary to apply science to real world problems. Sometimes I think it’s a wonder we get anything done at all. But we do. On the average. Not everything works the way our brightest minds plan it the first time. Local case in point: Galloping Gertie.

    So what can we do? As far as I know, we keep digging for the truth, trying to keep an open mind to hear the story the data are trying to tell. Don’t expect final answers, but keep our scientists and politicians accountable for the best clues possible at the moment. Easier said than done, of course, as humans we are not known for our objectivity. Even Galileo was not infallible. His work contained errors that Einstein said, “would hardly have been accepted as proof by Galileo, had his temperament not got the better of him.”

  3. BlueLight,
    You are right. “so-called scandal” sounds so mealy-mouthed. I don’t need to be judgmental on this point, so I altered the text to call it an “incident.”

    Thank-you for your thoughtful comment. What we know about the world is not always straightforward, even if we were able to keep politics out of the discussion. There is a human factor that brings passion and drive to the work of scientists, and that can be a good thing, but sometimes their passion can drive them over the line.

  4. Gore and The UN IPCC should be forced to give back their Nobel Peace Prize. The flaws in Gore’s film and the errors in the 2007 UN IPCC Report that have been discovered since the award was given should disqualify both parties. Irena Sendler who risked her life daily during World War II to save the lives of over 2,500 Jewish children is much more deserving. Please sign the petition to demand that Gore and the UN IPCC have their award taken away.

  5. Chris, this is obviously an important story to tell in detail, and it sounds like you and Fred Pearce are trying to do that. This incident doesn’t negate the vast preponderance of evidence that global warming (or wierding, as Tom Friedman calls it) is real and it is caused by human combustion of fossil fuels. I heard Bill Ruckelshaus, as distinguished a statesman as any, confirm those facts, with the only caveat that the speed of warming is the only debatable issue.
    It’s upon us now and there are clear signs that it’s accelerating, and the all-too-human defensiveness of some of the researchers does not alter the immense body of long-term measurements that tell us our globe is warming.

  6. You are right, of course, Howie, and we don’t need to be afraid of the truth. If people take the time to read this entire series, they will understand something about climate change and about this controversy called “climategate.”

    The final part of the series is titled: “Climate science emails cannot destroy argument that world is warming, and humans are responsible”

    There are now well over 2,000 studies (my own count) about climate change, including some that raise questions without answers.

    If people are really interested in the science, one place to follow the action is Science Daily’s “Climate News” section.

  7. The issue for me is not about warming, or cooling for that matter. It’s about policy. I care more about people than animals, so I would tend to favor policies that favor humans.

    Each year, some people die from excessive heat and others die from excessive cold. In 2003, when 35,000 died in a European heat wave, the media raised an alarm. What they didn’t mention was that 175,000 fewer people died that year from excessive cold.

    Yes, this example is about a limited weather phenomenon, not climate change, but it begs the question. Would more people be better off if the climate was warmer than cooler?

    Another question: Since polar bears evolved from land-based bears, would the species return to land and hunt fish in streams if the ice melted?

  8. Mark, out of three,1000 page reports with 18,000 references, exactly two errors have been found (and one of them is better attributed to the Dutch, rather than the IPCC).

  9. For me, the revelation that material in IPCC reports came – not from research – but from the World Wildlife Fund, serves as troubling indication that the cause is open for like-minded economic and political interests to insert their agendas.

  10. The WWF report was research, it simply did not go through the same peer-review that a study in Nature might. Again, one case in tens-of-thousands hardly means the whole report(s) are suspect.

  11. Thanks, Cameron. I had not seen that blog item by Gavin Schmidt. It is a little confusing, but Gavin has posted four annotations to the Part 3 report in the Guardian, to which he raises these objections.

    So now do we need to figure out whether all these concerns that Schmidt raises over the Guardian series really amount to something? Maybe the errors are more akin to the errors in the IPCC report — minor when it comes to the big picture.

    I know I don’t have time to figure these things out. But I still appreciate the Guardian’s effort in giving Gavin Schmidt and anyone else the chance to footnote the stories.

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