Commentary Magazine


Ignoring ‘Climategate’

Since Climategate broke, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change admitted that its much-cited 2007 claim that the Himalayan glaciers would have melted by 2035 was unsubstantiated by scientific evidence. Further media reports revealed Michael Mann, one of the key scientists implicated in Climategate, is still receiving millions of dollars in grant money from the 2009 stimulus package. Yet policymakers in Washington and around the world press on, even as the climate-change evidence becomes more and more dubious.

In late November 2009, an anonymous hacker with the pseudonym “FOIA” posted confidential data onto a Russian server. The leaked information included a messy hodgepodge of e-mail exchanges, raw scientific data, comments from analysts, and programming, all of which were used by scientists informing the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore. The hacked data appears to show that leading scientists have hidden or manipulated information that does not fit their climate-change thesis, blacklisted dissenting researchers, and circumvented freedom-of-information requests, possibly by destroying documents.

The leak, which has come to be known as Climategate, has undermined two of the most substantial assumptions underwriting the climate-change argument: that the science is accurate and that a consensus exists among scientists. Despite this, leaders in Washington and around the globe continued to pursue climate-change policy without pause.

Climategate challenges the credibility of a group of the most influential climate-change scientists on the planet. At the core of the controversy is Phil Jones, director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, and Michael Mann, director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, along with many other members of the so-called Hockey Team. The team’s name refers to Mann’s famous hockey-stick diagram, which purports to show there has been no warming in the past 1,500 years similar to that in the last 50 years. The e-mails implicate scientists and groups closely affiliated with the UN climate-change panel.

These institutions and individuals constitute the bastion of official climate-change thought, the wards of commonly accepted ideas about what industrial society is doing to the planet. The Climatic Research Unit at the previously obscure University of East Anglia is one of the few in existence that stores temperature data. The UN climate-change panel—an eminent international organization that reviews and assesses research and advises governments—relies heavily on the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit data for its projections. That is significant because the Climategate revelations suggest that East Anglia’s data may have been manipulated to fit the global-warming community’s thesis.

And the UN panel not only advises the world body and leaders across the globe; it is also a key reference for academic climate researchers. The extent to which the now-questionable Climatic Research Unit?/?IPCC data may have contaminated other research has not yet been determined. But the hacked data calls into question the claim that temperatures have recently and significantly risen because of human activity. Today’s climate-change policy agenda rests on this thesis.

In addition to raising questions about the actual scientific method and analysis, Climategate undermines the “scientific consensus” that so many world leaders and bureaucrats have involved when pushing for a more severe policy to combat climate change. The UN panel essentially sets the tone for the official discussion on climate change. But if peer review has been rigged to give voice only to those scientists who believe in climate change, then that “consensus” is weak at best—and nonexistent at worst. Viewed in this light, Climategate makes it more difficult, if not impossible, for the public to place its trust in a “consensus” established by scientists who do not provide or honestly defend the scientific evidence for their assertions.

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The volume of the uncovered e-mails has made for daunting work for researchers trying to get to the bottom of the controversy. But some of the now-published communications go to the heart of the problem of convincing the public that the planet is in grave danger. One message from Jones summed up the worst fears about those dedicated to promoting the warming thesis: in it, Jones spoke of his desire to “hide the decline.”

There is more, much more. For example, in one exchange dated October 14, 2009, between Mann and Kevin Trenberth of the University of Colorado, Mann had accounted to “natural variability” the lack of data showing ocean warming after tropical storms. Trenberth responded by expressing concern that some data necessary to support Mann’s claim was “unfortunately wonting [sic].”

Trenberth wrote: “Saying it is natural variability is not an explanation. What are the physical processes? Where did the heat go?” He was, he said, writing from Boulder, Colorado, “where we have broken records the past two days for the coldest days on record,” and worried that “we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t.” He pointed out that a set of data from 2008 “shows there should be even more warming.” But he concludes: “The data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.”

Another example of the questionable content revealed in the e-mails consisted of a Jones message in which he mentioned two leading skeptics, Steve McIntyre of the blog Climate Audit and Ross McKitrick of the University of Guelph in Ontario. Jones said that if the two “ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.”

Mann also wrote that the “skeptics appear to have staged a ‘coup’ at Climate Research (it was a mediocre journal to begin with, but now its a mediocre journal with a definite ‘purpose’)” and that “we have to stop considering [it] as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal.”

In another e-mail, Mann talked about how he couldn’t find data for specific years and suggested a remedy that critics have called a massaging of the data to fit his thesis. “I’m providing these for your own personal use, since you’re a trusted colleague,” Mann wrote. “So please don’t pass this along to others without checking w/ me first. This is the sort of ‘dirty laundry’ one doesn’t want to fall into the hand of those who might potentially try to distort things.?.?.?.”

The leaked e-mails did not surprise McKitrick. He told me that scientists closely interacting with the IPCC had resorted to “playground bullying, intolerance of dissent.” People at the IPCC are “very insular, very defensive, they don’t like being criticized, and what I mean by that is, if a paper comes out that they disagree with, they’re less likely to grapple with the content [and instead] will attack.” Richard Lindzen, a professor of atmospheric sciences at Harvard and a long-time skeptic, says of the e-mails: “These are not ambiguous. They’re talking about suppressing other scientists. But there’s no surprise. Those of us who are in the field have seen this. The only surprise is that someone actually got hold and sorted these documents.”

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At first glance, Climategate’s leaked correspondence is the Dangerous Liaisons of the scientific world. Despite the drumbeat informing the public that science strongly supports the climate-change thesis, the hacked data paint a picture of a community of experts afraid of scrutiny, willing to use underhanded methods to silence doubters, and content to eliminate evidence that might undermine both their theories and their funding.

Yet the scandal has not led to serious policy reconsiderations or even significant stigmatization for many of the scientists and organizations implicated. Instead, even as fundamental suppositions about climate change were being challenged, the Environmental Protection Agency took initial steps to implement the most extensive carbon-emissions regulations the United States has ever seen. And only a few weeks afterward, the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference, with 192 countries in attendance, began without meaningfully addressing the Climategate e-mails.

In fact, the Climategate whistleblower “FOIA” may face criminal charges in the U.S., as California Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer suggested. “You call it ‘Climategate’; I call it ‘E-mail-theftgate,’” Boxer said. “This is a crime.” Despite the scandal, the climate-change community and its political backers pressed on with resolve, reticent about the Climategate revelations but outspoken about the need to hurry, seal international deals, and pass policy based on the ideas undermined in the offending e-mails. Scoffing at the notion that the science should be double-checked, they said the need to address the warming problem overwhelmed any other consideration.

The general attitude of those in attendance at Copenhagen was that Climategate was irrelevant, a mere distraction. Those who actually addressed the e-mails minimized their importance. Despite the seemingly damning content of his own e-mails, Michael Mann flatly denied that he had deceitfully used data, stifled scientific debate, or attempted to get around any freedom-of-information requests. The leak, he said, is part of an “orchestrated, contrarian attack effort that’s decades old.” Such responses shift the focus away from the content of the e-mails and onto the motives of those who uncovered them. If the leaked data were employed by “deniers” who wished to ignite debate about questions unworthy of discussion, then there was no reason for anyone to bother with the e-mails.

This was good enough for the world leaders. “It is said that the science around climate change is not as certain as its proponents allege,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said during the Copenhagen conference. “It doesn’t need to be. What is beyond debate, however, is that there is a huge amount of scientific support for the view that the climate is changing and as a result of human activity. Therefore, even purely as a matter of precaution, given the seriousness of the consequences if such a view is correct, and the time it will take for action to take effect, we should act.”

This dismissive attitude was not limited to climate-change activists and their political enablers. Mainstream-media coverage of the scandal was minimal. Only weeks after the initial revelation of the e-mails by bloggers did stories appear in newspapers like the New York Times. And even then, most articles minimized Climategate’s importance. As Clark Hoyt, the Times’s public editor, wrote in a December 5 column rationalizing the paper’s low-key approach, Climategate was merely a “story,” not a “huge story.”

Hoyt and the paper’s science columnist, John Tierney, conceded that the e-mails proved that “scientists can be petty and defensive and even cheat around the edges.” Tierney said on November 30 that the e-mails proved that Mann’s famous hockey-stick diagram was a pastiche of “homogenized” data—so as to facilitate Jones’s desire to “hide the decline.” But he insisted that this did not invalidate the conclusions that the public had drawn from the research in question. Tierney’s own conclusion was startling, if contradictory: “The story behind that graph certainly didn’t show that global warming was a hoax or a fraud, as some skeptics proclaimed, but it did illustrate another of their arguments: that the evidence for global warming is not as unequivocal as many scientists claim.”

But if, indeed, that evidence was far from certain, why did the rest of the newspaper’s coverage and, indeed, the public debate in Washington and at Copenhagen treat climate change as if it were as “unequivocal” as scientists like Mann and Jones and advocates like Al Gore insisted it was?

Outside of blogs and media like the Wall Street Journal editorial page, the attitude prevailed that Climategate was overblown and should not divert attention from the noble mission to stop the peril of warming. At Copenhagen, mentions of the scandal and related skepticism about warming were limited to gadflies who could be easily silenced. Far from offering persuasive explanations for the concerns raised by Climategate, the climate-change activists spent their time dodging questions.

UN security guards not only stopped the Irish journalist Phelim McAleer from asking Al Gore about Climategate during the conference but also unplugged his microphone; McAleer had tried to ask similar questions to Stanford professor Stephen Schneider, who refused to comment. As McAleer queried Schneider, a staff member attempted to hush him, fiddling with his microphone, and a security guard demanded McAleer and his crew turn off their camera, despite their protestations that they were credentialed members of the media.

Indeed, for the political, scientific, and media elites who gathered at Copenhagen, Climategate was nothing more than a sideshow. The Copenhagen Accord itself is a testimony to how little Climategate was considered; the second point in the 12-point document specifically cites the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, which includes East Anglia and Penn State contributions. Seven East Anglia staffers and two Penn State ones are listed as contributors to that report; three from East Anglia and four from Penn State were its peer reviewers.

Policymakers in the United States and leaders in developed nations extended their belief, repeatedly appealing to the now-doubtful “consensus among scientists.” Worse, they moved forward with negotiations without stopping to critically assess the quality of their information. Obama’s science adviser, John Holdren, spoke briefly about Climategate before Congress, dismissing it as a controversy over data and interpretation that is “not all that uncommon in science.” He then repeated the importance of American leadership toward significant climate-change action in Copenhagen.

As Copenhagen concluded, bloggers, journalists, and scientists had only begun combing through the hacked data, much less double-checking the science. The debate will continue as the merits are weighed between cap-and-trade legislation and bureaucratic regulation, and as Congress decides whether to codify the emissions-limit wishes Obama expressed at Copenhagen. The climate-change believers argue that there’s no time to pause, that any delay could have catastrophic consequences. Yet acting upon misinformation, too, can be dangerous—especially if the origin of the information is corrupt.

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Bringing science into a public-policy debate is risky, blurring the lines that separate it from politics. When those speaking in the name of science claim that the fate of humanity is in danger, when they linger on possible apocalypses, when their science reflects not only a method but also a faith and a moral mission—the relationship between science and politics becomes suspect. Emotions collide with objectivity. At the same time, the consequences of the policy extend not only to science but also to economics and, more fundamentally, to what society values. Global-warming prophets have made no secret that they seek to change the way of life for the average human.

Just as the Climategate story was unfolding in December, the Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson announced that carbon emissions would be classified as pollutants under the Clean Air Act, opening the door for their comprehensive regulation. The EPA requirements would be even more onerous than the cap-and-trade legislation considered by Congress in 2009.

The consequences of these changes will be huge. Efforts to reduce emissions almost intrinsically limit the ability of businesses to function. Like it or not, a trade-off is inevitable: environmental priorities versus economic ones.

According to early estimates, the number of businesses requiring an EPA permit could jump from 12,000 or 13,000 at present to more than 1 million in the near future—a number likely to include not only schools and hospitals but also offices, apartment buildings, and even local bakeries. This new permitting process would be broadly required; given 2008 fuel prices, any business that spent $70,000 a year on natural gas would have been subject; 2009’s cheaper fuel costs would make the cutoff point even lower. The permitting process takes an average of 18 months to complete, and until the permit has been issued, no project can begin. The issuance of any permit is subject to litigation, which can then take years to resolve. And not only new facilities would be subject to EPA strictures; many existing facilities would also need approval to begin something as simple as a refurbishing.

All this means an uninviting atmosphere for entrepreneurs. Using the information from last year’s EPA Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, the Heritage Foundation estimates that by 2029, the cumulative gross domestic product would suffer a $7 trillion loss. That the EPA announcement came just as Climategate was unfolding might seem ironic, but in fact it was purposefully released just as the Copenhagen conference opened. The move was a message that the U.S. was serious about changing its own emissions habits and was determined to broker a deal to ensure that others would do the same.

Despite this grandiose American offering before Copenhagen, little was actually accomplished. The final agreement was not a formal UN decision. Nor was it legally binding. Copenhagen failed because developing countries properly understood their national interest and refused to commit to internationally binding agreements that would cripple their nascent economies. The concessions of the United States did little to tempt countries like Brazil, India, and China to compromise the future wealth they can build on their own if they remain unhindered.

The degree of overlap between the EPA regulation and the action to limit emissions promised by President Obama in his speech in Copenhagen is not yet clear. The president said he is “confident that America will fulfill the commitments that we have made” to cut U.S. emissions by 17 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050—at astounding expense to the American body politic in the form of a smaller and vastly more regulated economy. In addition to cutting domestic emissions, the Copenhagen Accord includes “commitment to a goal” that developed countries will give a $100 billion handout each year by 2020 to poorer countries that seek to reduce carbon emissions. Though the accord says the funding will be shared among private and public sources and across governments, it is likely that the U.S. would contribute much of that money.

If all these measures are intended to act as a hedge against climate-change risk, then the United States will be making the biggest insurance purchase in world history. Policymakers and their publics must ask themselves whether they are willing to make that investment given the questions raised by Climategate.

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The extent of the planet’s warming and the idea that an increase in its temperature is the fault of humankind are matters that scientists may be able to prove decisively someday. But the Climategate e-mails show that, for now, the evidence is far from conclusive. For all the talk about the need for public policy about warming to be governed by science, Climategate illustrates that the belief in global warming may be rooted less in detached science than in the West’s uneasy conscience about capitalism and development.

Those skeptics who argue that the environmental alarmism on display at Copenhagen and elsewhere is the product of a modern pantheistic faith and not the result of empirical reasoning must be taken seriously. The best that can be hoped for in the aftermath of Climategate is that the community that cares about science will live up to the purpose of its studies: to ask questions and observe the evidence with cold eyes.

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