Few things are more important for our future than understanding and trying to deal with climate change. But the case for urgent action against climate change has been badly damaged by the astonishing stupidity of climate scientists, and not just at the University of East Anglia.
With climate-change denial being the official policy of the Bush administration, and given the fact that the denialists had access to a lot of questionable funding from corporations such as Exxon, it was perhaps not surprising that the climate researchers concerned were somewhat paranoid. But somewhere, somehow, the message that truth is the best propagandist for truth seems to have got lost.
There is a huge wealth of data about climate change. Some of the most convincing is contained in the Greenland ice-core series. The Greenland ice-cores show the correlation between atmospheric CO2 and climate over a period of about half a million years – amazingly, actual samples of the atmosphere from 500,000 years ago are preserved in bubbles in the ice-core, along with bits of pollen, volcanic ash and other things which help the researchers calibrate the data and deduce the temperature. In fact, everywhere you look in the geological record, you will find links between atmospheric CO2 and temperature.
However, it gets harder to find the correlations in the recent data – because there’s lots of small-scale variations, with timescales of days to centuries. There was, in particular, a period called the Mediaeval Warming when the Northern European climate was warmer than it was now. And for some researchers, eager to show that the late twentieth-century warming is due to anthropogenic CO2 – that’s CO2 released by us burning fossil fuels – this was inconvenient. So it seems that they fiddled the figures and then concealed the evidence. And now they’ve been found out. Which mean that the denialists can claim that everything to do with climate-change science is suspect, and probably wrong.
Unfortunately, it isn’t. There are lots of potential explanations for the Mediaeval Warming, and for the Little Ice Age that followed it. I’m not a climate scientist, but if I were I’d be inclined to investigate whether the Mediaeval Warming could have been caused by an acceleration of the Gulf Stream, perhaps related to changes in the pattern of meltwater distribution as the icecaps were still in retreat following the last Ice Age.
The point is that these are all fairly minor quibbles. What we do know is that when atmospheric CO2 was last at the levels we expect it to reach some time this century, global temperatures were much higher than they were today, there was little to no polar ice, and sea levels were as a result much higher. Cause and effect is not absolutely proven, and probably never will be: science does not work like that. It is about probabilities, and margins of error.
This would never have happened had science always conducted itself openly. The data from the Greenland icecore is produced by NASA, and it is available on the web – most of it is still quite hard to manipulate (I’m toying with writing a web-app to mine it, if someone will kindly fund me). There are other data sets which are not so open, indeed, which are jealously guarded by the climate researchers concerned. Why? What are they worried about?
I’ve maintained for some time that no scientific research should ever be published (and in scholarship, “published” means “published in a peer-reviewed journal”) unless the raw data that informs the research is published (meaning made available to the public) at the same time. Knowledge should be public, and especially knowledge about something as important as climate-change. By not being transparent in their methods, these climate scientists have given us good reason not to trust them. And because what they have to say, and what they are working on, is very important, that’s a very bad thing for all of us. Shame on them.