On Climate-Gate

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

While thousands of climate change scientists, policy-makers and thought-leaders gather in Copenhagen to consider what to do about the future of our planet, most climate change skeptics are stuck on dissecting a scandalous incident that occurred in the virtual world last month.

This so-called "Climate-Gate" stems from the efforts of a hacker who accessed a number of files and emails at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, one of the most respected institutions in the world conducting climate science analysis.

The information obtained from the CRU includes a variety of commentary by leading climate scientists that personally disparages high-profile climate skeptics, and includes attempts to coordinate efforts to retaliate against them in various ways. I suppose the bitterness is a natural human reaction to criticism, which has become very personal and nasty in recent years, but it's petty and reflects badly on the scientists: they should be above the fray and mentally/emotionally strong enough to withstand sometimes insulting challenges from others by the virtue of the unquestioned quality of their work.

Of more consequence are the allegations that data was fudged to produce results that misleadingly suggest that the climate is worsening far more than it is in actuality. To the extent there is one, the "smoking gun" of Climate-Gate -- which some skeptics are comparing to the publishing of the formerly-secret Pentagon Papers as a watershed turning the tide against the Vietnam War -- is the following passage in a confirmed email from Prof. Phil Jones, Director of the CRU:

"I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline." (emphases added)

Of course, the climate skeptic community has jumped on this trove of emails with glee. The conspiracy theorists smell blood. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK), who has long dimissed the climate change issue as a hoax, called for hearings on the matter. A variety of anti-climate-change blogs have wondered why mainstream media haven't given sufficient (in their view) coverage to Climate-Gate (see example posting).

Referring back to Prof. Jones' damning email, I personally have no problem with the use of the word "trick." I've used it, and heard it used many times in many contexts, to colloquially describe a series of analytical steps that are completely legitimate but novel and clever to compress what would be a lot of work requiring a lot of time to a little bit of work that can be done quickly and efficiently.

However, I am more troubled by Prof. Jones' use of the highly dubious and damaging phrase "hide the decline," and it's not so easy to completely wash this away. It appears that certain temperature data in question were considered spurious and were dismissed by many as somehow in fundamental error, so another set of data were used as a proxy in its place -- producing a result that showed a greater increase in planetary temperatures.

To be clear, I think there's a lot of science and a lot of data that show -- and still show compellingly -- that something is happening to the climate that is likely to be human-induced. In other words, I don't think that Climate-Gate brings down the entire edifice of climate science -- a stance well-articulated by a recent article in The Economist. But, this particular episode involving Prof. Jones doesn't smell right -- and in fact, as of December 1, Prof. Jones has stepped down as Director of the CRU, pending an investigation. Whether or not the analytic approach and data assumptions were/are valid, it sure gives an appearance that the results were jury-rigged to produce an answer more desirable to the authors.

And this is the point of John Tierney's excellent article in the December 1 New York Times: that the scientists were "oblivious to one of the greatest dangers in the climate-change debate: smug groupthink. These researchers...seem so focused on winning the public-relations war that they exaggerate their certitude -- and ultimately undermine their own cause."

It is inaccurate to claim, as some have, that climate science is "settled." I have long said that climate science is far from certain, and that there are lots of unknowns that merit further study to gain better understanding. I have also said that there probably is enough known about climate change that we should do something about it -- because we'll never have perfect information, just as we never have perfect information about important issues requiring tough choices that we must nevertheless decide upon, such as battle plans (or even going to war in the first place) or rescuing the financial system.

Unfortunately, both sides of the climate debate -- passionate scientists and policy advocates vs. heated skeptics and supporters of the status quo at any cost -- have moved beyond rational debate into the mystical. Indeed, as reported by The Telegraph in the U.K., a British judge has recently ruled that "a belief in man-made climate change ... is capable, if genuinely held, of being a philosophical belief for the purpose of the 2003 Religion and Belief Regulations." In other words, belief in climate change can be considered a religion.

Is this what we've come to: holy wars about the climate?

Let's bring things back to some basic precepts about which no rational person can argue. First, carbon dioxide is a potent greenhouse gas. Second, the human race is pumping roughly 25 billion tons per year of that stuff into our atmosphere -- 25 billion tons per year that wouldn't otherwise be in our atmosphere. Third, the Earth is the only known planet we can plausibly inhabit.

The truth is we really don't know how the carbon dioxide we artificially introduce into the atmosphere will manifest itself in climatic impact. But it doesn't take a rocket scientist to conduct this thought-experiment and conclude that such emissions could have an important impact, and might even have a serious and damaging impact, on the long-term well-being of our planet.

Do we really want to keep conducting a global experiment with the only place in the universe where we can live for the foreseeable future? Especially if we can mitigate the experiment at modest economic costs? (By modest, I mean modest relative to the size of expenditures on discretionary human phenomena such as wars and bailouts.)

I take encouragement from hearing a voice of sanity emerge from an unlikely source, cutting through the din of the irrational diatribes in the wake of Climate-Gate. Last week, James Murdoch, the Chairman and CEO of Europe and Asia for News Corporation -- the parent company of Fox News and The Wall Street Journal , two outlets not generally sympathetic to the climate change issue -- wrote a very thoughtful editorial that was published in The Washington Post. His punchline:

"You do not need to believe that all climate science is settled or every prediction or model is perfect to understand the benefits of limiting pollution and transforming our energy policies -- as a gradually declining cap on carbon pollution would do. This is the moment to champion policies that yield new industries, healthy competition, cleaner air and water, freedom from petroleum politics and reduced costs for businesses."

With a simple statement like this, maybe Murdoch can achieve what the climate scientists at CRU and elsewhere have been unable to accomplish with attempts at sophisticated analysis. Coming from a person of Murdoch's credentials, those otherwise uninclined can perhaps begin to see more clearly the need to adopt energy policies that can improve our economy and our environment, even while acknowledging the limitations of our understanding of climate science.

Let's not waste time investigating the crimes of the robbers behind Climate-Gate, as Richard Graves has suggested on The Huffington Post. Let's move on past Climate-Gate, and take action towards building a better future for ourselves.