Climategate and the Big Green Lie
by Clive Crook Senior Editor ’The Atlantic’ July 14, 2010
By way of preamble, let me remind you where I stand on climate change. I think climate science points to a risk that the world needs to take seriously. I think energy policy should be intelligently directed towards mitigating this risk. I am for a carbon tax. I also believe that the Climategate emails revealed, to an extent that surprised even me (and I am difficult to surprise), an ethos of suffocating groupthink and intellectual corruption. The scandal attracted enormous attention in the US, and support for a new energy policy has fallen. In sum, the scientists concerned brought their own discipline into disrepute, and set back the prospects for a better energy policy.
I had hoped, not very confidently, that the various Climategate inquiries would be severe. This would have been a first step towards restoring confidence in the scientific consensus. But no, the reports make things worse. At best they are mealy-mouthed apologies; at worst they are patently incompetent and even wilfully wrong. The climate-science establishment, of which these inquiries have chosen to make themselves a part, seems entirely incapable of understanding, let alone repairing, the harm it has done to its own cause.
The Penn State inquiry exonerating Michael Mann — the paleoclimatologist who came up with “the hockey stick” — would be difficult to parody. Three of four allegations are dismissed out of hand at the outset: the inquiry announces that, for “lack of credible evidence”, it will not even investigate them. (At this, MIT’s Richard Lindzen tells the committee, “It’s thoroughly amazing. I mean these issues are explicitly stated in the emails. I’m wondering what’s going on?” The report continues: “The Investigatory Committee did not respond to Dr Lindzen’s statement. Instead, [his] attention was directed to the fourth allegation.”) Moving on, the report then says, in effect, that Mann is a distinguished scholar, a successful raiser of research funding, a man admired by his peers — so any allegation of academic impropriety must be false.
You think I exaggerate?
This level of success in proposing research, and obtaining funding to conduct it, clearly places Dr. Mann among the most respected scientists in his field. Such success would not have been possible had he not met or exceeded the highest standards of his profession for proposing research…
Had Dr. Mann’s conduct of his research been outside the range of accepted practices, it would have been impossible for him to receive so many awards and recognitions, which typically involve intense scrutiny from scientists who may or may not agree with his scientific conclusions…
Clearly, Dr. Mann’s reporting of his research has been successful and judged to be outstanding by his peers. This would have been impossible had his activities in reporting his work been outside of accepted practices in his field.
In short, the case for the prosecution is never heard. Mann is asked if the allegations (well, one of them) are true, and says no. His record is swooned over. Verdict: case dismissed, with apologies that Mann has been put to such trouble.
Further “vindication” of the Climategate emailers was to follow, of course, in Muir Russell’s equally probing investigation. To be fair, Russell manages to issue a criticism or two. He says the scientists were sometimes “misleading” — but without meaning to be (a plea which, in the case of the “trick to hide the decline”, is an insult to one’s intelligence). On the apparent conspiracy to subvert peer review, it found that the “allegations cannot be upheld” — but, as the impressively even-handed Fred Pearce of the Guardian notes, this was partly on the grounds that “the roles of CRU scientists and others could not be distinguished from those of colleagues. There was ‘team responsibility’.” Edward Acton, vice-chancellor of the university which houses CRU, calls this “exoneration”.
I am glad to see The Economist, which I criticized for making light of the initial scandal, taking a balanced view of these unsatisfactory proceedings. My only quarrels with its report are quibbles. For instance, in the second paragraph it says:
The reports conclude that the science of climate is sound…
Actually, they don’t, as the article’s last paragraph makes clear:
An earlier report on climategate from the House of Commons assumed that a subsequent probe by a panel under Lord Oxburgh, a former academic and chairman of Shell, would deal with the science. The Oxburgh report, though, sought to show only that the science was not fraudulent or systematically flawed, not that it was actually reliable. And nor did Sir Muir, with this third report, think judging the science was his job.
Like Pearce, The Economist rightly draws attention to the failure of the Russell inquiry to ask Phil Jones of the CRU whether he actually deleted any emails to defeat FoI requests. It calls this omission “rather remarkable”. Pearce calls it “extraordinary”. Myself, I would prefer to call it “astonishing and indefensible”. I don’t see how, having spotted this, the magazine can conclude that the report, overall, was “thorough, but it will not satisfy all the critics.” (Well, the critics make such unreasonable demands! Look into the charges, they say. Hear from the other side. Ask the obvious questions. It never stops: you just can’t satisfy these people.)
However, The Economist is calling for the IPCC’s Rajendra Pachauri to go. That’s good.
So where does this leave us? Walter Russell Mead is always worth reading on this subject, and I usually agree with him — but I think his summing up in this case is not quite right.
Greens who feared and climate skeptics who hoped that the rash of investigations following Climategate and Glaciergate and all the other problems would reveal some gaping obvious flaws in the science of climate change were watching the wrong thing. The Big Green Lie (or Delusion, to be charitable) isn’t so much that climate change is happening and that it is very likely caused or at least exacerbated by human activity. The Big Lie is that the green movement is a source of coherent or responsible counsel about what to do.
He’s right, of course, that the green movement is not trusted as an adviser on what to do. So what? Its counsel on policy is not required. Nor, for that matter, is a complex international treaty of the sort that Copenhagen failed to produce. Congress and the administration can get to the right policy — an explicit or implicit carbon tax; subsidies for low-carbon energy — without the greens’ input, so long as public opinion is convinced that the problem is real and needs to be addressed. It’s not the extreme or otherwise ill-advised policy recommendations of the greens that have turned opinion against action of any kind, though I grant you they’re no help. It’s the diminished credibility of the claim that we have a problem in the first place. That is why Climategate mattered. And that is why these absurd “vindications” of the climate scientists involved also matter.
The economic burdens of mitigating climate change will not be shouldered until a sufficient number of voters believe the problem is real, serious, and pressing. Restoring confidence in climate science has to come first. That, in turn, means trusting voters with all of the doubts and unanswered questions — with inconvenient data as well as data that confirm the story — instead of misleading them (unintentionally, of course) into believing that everything is cut and dried. The inquiries could have started that process. They have further delayed it.