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The Meaning of Motley CRU

Thursday, December 3, 2009

It’s time for climate science to clean house. Whatever investigations come of Climategate, they should not stop with the United Kingdom.

Climate skeptics are having a field day in the blogosphere, celebrating the firestorm of controversy that has surrounded the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU). Until recently, the CRU was considered one of the world’s leading climate research centers, and it has exerted massive influence on the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC, in turn, has positioned itself as the ultimate authority on all things climate, even claiming a Nobel Prize (shared with Al Gore) for its work on global climate change.

If you’ve been living without an Internet connection, here’s a quick overview of l’affaire Climategate. On November 17, 2009, someone posted to the Internet a vast archive of materials that had been hacked or leaked from the CRU. When packed, the materials took up about 62 MB, and consist of more than 1,000 emails from prominent members of the CRU and more than 3,000 documents that included everything from raw data to annotated computer code to lengthy reports documenting the frightfully disorganized state of the CRU’s vitally important data files. While the vast trove of information has not (and probably can not) be verified as 100 percent correct, none of the people cited has denied that the documents are legitimate, and some outside entities who were engaged in some of the email exchanges have confirmed that they are genuine.

Bloggers and skeptics immediately tore into the package, and found evidence suggesting that CRU scientists manipulated data to exaggerate warming; worked furiously to hide their data from outside examination; may have conspired to delete information to avoid freedom of information requests; and may have conspired to keep contrary findings from being published in respected climate journals and IPCC reports (all the while denying the legitimacy of skeptics because they aren’t published in said journals, nor are their papers given credence in IPCC reports).

The CRU scientists decided to simply stop using the inconveniently non-warming tree-ring data after 1960.

First, the data games: the data manipulation that has been most seized upon by bloggers involves the choice of which sources of temperature data should be used to reflect climate trends after 1960. Because thermometer-based measurements of the climate are only about 150 years old (and are quite spotty for much of that time), when scientists set out to construct long-term estimates of temperature trends, they use what are called “proxies,” such as tree-ring measurements that ostensibly reveal the temperatures that the tree experienced as it grew. As it happens, the tree-ring proxies match up with the thermometer measurements up until about 1960, when there is a “divergence” between the two sets of data. The tree rings indicate a global cooling after 1960, while the thermometer data indicates a sharp warming.

The CRU scientists decided to simply stop using the inconveniently non-warming tree-ring data after 1960, and splice the modern thermometer-based temperature readings instead, using statistical methods to smooth out and conceal the transition. In one email, this is discussed as a “trick” developed by Michael Mann, one of the creators of the infamous climate “hockey stick chart,” that would “hide the decline” shown by the tree rings and emphasize the recent spike in thermometer data, preserving the sanctity of the hockey stick. One problem with this is, if the tree rings don’t accurately reflect temperatures since 1960, why should we believe they accurately reflected temperatures in the past? If temperatures could diverge now, couldn’t they have equally diverged in the medieval warm period of 1,000 years ago? If so, current temperatures could be historically unremarkable, cutting away one of the key rationales for blaming human greenhouse gas emissions for recent climate changes.

There’s also the well-known problem in the thermometer record of an upward bias due to increasing urbanization around weather stations. Which is right, the trees, or the thermometers? Perhaps neither.

In another data manipulation discussion, one of the CRU researchers discusses changing the (arbitrary) baseline that is used to define “average temperature,” but is discouraged from doing so, as a less arbitrary baseline would reduce the appearance of global warming. About all we can say now is that it’s unclear that the public has been shown accurate reconstructions of historic temperatures, nor been given the context to understand whether recent climate changes are unusual or caused by human activity.

If the tree rings don’t accurately reflect temperatures since 1960, why should we believe they accurately reflected temperatures in the past?

Now, to the cover-up. Many skeptics have had their doubts about the climate data championed by the IPCC and the CRU, but one of them, Canadian Steve McIntyre, a mathematician who used to pick apart graphical representations of data for a living, decided to do something about it.

McIntyre has been indefatigable in his efforts to get the raw data, and computer codes from the climate science community so that he could check whether or not their work was straight. But the climate scientists at CRU and elsewhere have been just as stubborn in fighting McIntyre’s information requests with every excuse they could find.

The main excuse they gave was that some of the raw data had been provided to CRU with conditions that it could not be released to outside parties. For years, this was the response given to McIntyre and others who requested the data. Surprisingly, within days of Climategate raging across the Internet, the CRU has announced that it got all of those restrictions lifted, and—voila!—is now free to release the data. That is, the data that CRU has “lost” (they have previously said they cannot produce the original data because they have lost it), includes much of the raw temperature data they ever collected. All they claim to have now is data that have been adjusted for a variety of reasons, such as changes in the locations of weather recording stations, urban expansion around weather recording stations, changes in technology used to record temperatures, and so on. However, without the original data, their claim that “the data” show historically unusual warming in the 20th century is likely unverifiable.

In various emails in the Climategate trove, CRU director Phil Jones (who has now stepped down pending an investigation by his university) is shown planning to delete data rather than turn it over in response to Freedom of Information requests, and urging his collaborators to delete emails pertaining to discussions they had regarding which information should be used in the IPCC’s fourth assessment report on climate change.

Finally, and most troubling, are the suggestions that a tribe of incestuous climate scientists may have actively conspired to undermine the peer-review process, until now considered a determinant of what is worthy of scientific consideration, and what is not.

The scientists at CRU and throughout the climate change establishment, along with people such as former Vice President Al Gore, have slammed skeptics for not publishing in the peer-reviewed literature. What the Climategate documents reveal is that this small group of scientists, who are often called upon to peer review each other’s work as well as skeptical articles, have discussed ways of keeping findings they don’t like out of the peer-reviewed literature, even if it required trying to oust editors, boycotting certain journals, or reclassifying a prestigious journal that publishes skeptical articles as a fringe journal unworthy of consideration. They also discuss their specific intention to exclude contrary findings from the IPCC reports, even if they “have to redefine what the peer-reviewed literature is!” Is it surprising that many skeptics simply choose to forgo efforts to place materials in peer-reviewed journals when one knows that it will likely be blockaded by biased reviewers?

Most troubling are the suggestions that a tribe of incestuous climate scientists may have actively conspired to undermine the peer-review process, until now considered a determinant of what is worthy of scientific consideration and what is not.

Science is vitally important for the operation of a highly technological society, and that science must be open and transparent, and must adhere to the scientific method and the institution of science, which has no place in it for hiding data, hiding data-processing, shaping data to conform to pre-existing beliefs, undermining the peer-review process, cherry-picking reports in order to slant political IPCC reports, or slandering critics by comparing them with flat-Earthers, moon-landing conspiracy theorists, or holocaust deniers.

The climate scientists at the CRU have given not only climate science, but all of science, a massive black eye, and should the public lose faith in science, a great deal of the responsibility will accrue to them. The scientists involved in the Climategate scandal should be permanently removed from any position in which they can influence climate policy. They should be excluded from peer-review panels, banned from participating in the IPCC process in any capacity, and kept far away from editorial positions at journals. Their data and methods must be made absolutely transparent and available for outside inspection.

Similar attention must be turned to climate centers such as NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, home of the deeply partisan, highly political James Hansen; the National Climate Data Center at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, now headed up by the equally partisan and political Jane Lubchenco; and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, home to scientist Tom Wigley, also featured prominently in the Climategate emails. It’s time for climate science to clean house. Researchers at all of these institutions are also frequently in contact with the CRU, and collaborate with CRU researchers. Whatever investigations come of Climategate, they should not stop in the UK.

Kenneth P. Green is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Green wrote “Who Should ‘Go First’ on Greenhouse Gas Control?” and on the Obama administration’s plans for “green jobs” and a trading market for greenhouse gas control. He is also the author of a Q&A on climate change.
Green debunked the benefits of the cap-and-trade bill in November Senate testimony. He also recently outlined a sane, alternative climate policy in “Climate Change: The Resilience Option.”

Image by Darren Wamboldt/Bergman Group.

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