ClimateGate

| Mon Nov. 30, 2009 1:15 PM EST

As near as I can tell, ClimateGate is almost entirely a tempest in a teacup.  Among the stash of emails recently hacked from computers at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, one mentioned a "trick" for producing a nice looking graph, but the word "trick" was plainly used in the sense of "technique," not chicanery.  There's nothing questionable there.  Another bunch of emails shows that when scientists are communicating privately they can be as catty and nasty as anyone else.  It's good gossip fodder, but nothing more.  Another set of emails deals with outraged reaction to a particular journal article, but this isn't news.  It was an entirely public incident when it happened a few years ago, and half the board of the journal resigned in protest.  The emailers were determined not to have shoddy science published in peer-reviewed journals, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Then there are some emails about which research should and shouldn't be included in the next IPCC report, which, again, is entirely normal.  Every scientist who worked on the IPCC report surely had opinions about which research was on point and which was shoddy.  Finally, there's the revelation that CRU has destroyed some raw temperature data, but this happened back in the 1980s, before global warming was even on anyone's radar screen, and was obviously motivated by space considerations (they were paper records), not any kind of coverup.  What's more, the raw data is still available from the original sources that provided it to CRU anyway.

Unfortunately, there are also a couple of messages that suggest an effort to destroy emails that might have been subject to a Freedom of Information request.  That's a genuine problem, though it's not clear to me just how big a problem it is.

So on a substantive level, there's really very little to this.  Certainly nothing that changes the actual science of climate change even a little.  The earth is still warming and disaster is still highly likely if we sit around and do nothing.  But George Monbiot thinks we lefties have our heads in the sand if we think that makes any difference:

I have seldom felt so alone. Confronted with crisis, most of the environmentalists I know have gone into denial. The emails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, they say, are a storm in a tea cup, no big deal, exaggerated out of all recognition. It is true that climate change deniers have made wild claims which the material can't possibly support (the end of global warming, the death of climate science). But it is also true that the emails are very damaging.

....The crisis has been exacerbated by the university's handling of it, which has been a total trainwreck: a textbook example of how not to respond....When the emails hit the news on Friday morning, the university appeared completely unprepared. There was no statement, no position, no one to interview. Reporters kept being fobbed off while CRU's opponents landed blow upon blow on it. When a journalist I know finally managed to track down Phil Jones, he snapped "no comment" and put down the phone. This response is generally taken by the media to mean "guilty as charged".

....The handling of this crisis suggests that nothing has been learnt by climate scientists in this country from 20 years of assaults on their discipline. They appear to have no idea what they're up against or how to confront it. Their opponents might be scumbags, but their media strategy is exemplary.

It's hard to argue with this.  Climate change skeptics have gotten fantastic mileage out of this affair, but that's only partly because technical explanations of facially damaging statements are never very convincing to the general public.  An even bigger part of the problem is that a lot of the scientists involved haven't even been providing the technical explanations, leaving that up to others who are trying to get a handle on what's going on.  From a PR standpoint, it's been a disaster so far.

For years the CRU has resisted public release of its underlying datasets, partly for the understandable reason that they're tired of dealing with amateurs who comb though raw data looking for ways to pretend that warming isn't really happening, and partly because they don't have the authority to release it all.  Still, science is all about transparency, and annoying or not, the data should be available.  Now it probably will be, and under the worst possible circumstances.  It's going to be rough sledding for the next couple of years against the fever swamp crowd, aided and abetted by the coal industry.  Buckle up.

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