Sunday, January 10, 2010

3. Climategate

In November, 2009, an unidentified whistleblower (or perhaps an external hacker) uploaded to the Internet thousands of emails, computer programs and other data from computers at the Hadley Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. This is one of the two principal repositories for the surface temperature records that have provided the basis for claims of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). (The other is at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City.)

The authenticity of the leaked documents has not been challenged, and they have essentially destroyed the scientific credibility of the CRU and GISS as well as all the climate data they have published.

The Climategate file reveals a truly outrageous history of collusion between prominent climatologists at CRU, GISS, the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, Penn State and many other institutions, aimed at deliberate falsification of the data so as to make global warming seem worse than it really is. The emails include discussions of how to avoid releasing data requested under the US and British Freedom of Information Acts (FOIAs), how to discredit any scientists whose work might cast doubt on the AGW theory, how to corrupt the peer review process for climatological journals, and how to force journals to fire editors who dare to publish skeptical papers.

One of the major topics in the emails was the question of how to get rid of the Medieval Warm Period. The history of temperatures before the invention in the 18th century of the first reliable thermometer depends on various proxies, such as the thickness of tree rings. These data as well as contemporary accounts show that the climate from 900 to 1300 AD was considerably warmer than today. Vineyards flourished in England and there were Viking farms in southern areas of Greenland that are now buried in ice. The problem perceived by the Climategate cabal was that there is no indication that the mild climate in that period caused the deleterious effects that are supposed to be an inevitable consequence of global warming. In fact, climatologists and historians always referred to this period as the Medieval Climate Optimum until it became politically incorrect to suggest that a warmer climate might be better. The emails therefore discuss plausible ways to "correct" the proxy record so as to eliminate the higher temperatures or, failing that, to prove that they were a local phenomenon, limited to the North Atlantic, and thus did not constitute global warming.

It could perhaps be argued that the emails are mere irresponsible chatter between friends and colleagues, rather than evidence of a deliberate, active conspiracy. It is not possible to make this kind of excuse for the printouts of computer code that the file includes. These are absolutely damning, since they include routines that can have no other purpose than to fabricate false data. While there is as yet no proof that these particular programs were in fact used to process temperature measurements, they show beyond any reasonable doubt that CRU staff were working on ways to distort the record without leaving traces that might let critics detect the tampering (e.g., by finding statistical anomalies in the results).

The raw surface data consist of many millions of continuous temperature records covering more than a century at thousands of stations all over the world. To make Climategate much worse, the CRU crew say that they did not have enough storage capacity for all this information, so they simply discarded the data after applying their corrections and calculating the global averages. Without that data, there is no way to check the calculations or to improve the algorithms used to apply corrections. In other words, the validity of the published temperature record rests on the unsupported word of scientists who have shown themselves quite willing to falsify data so as to support their preconceived agenda.

It is not yet known whether the staff at GISS have preserved all the raw information that they have collected over the years. Even if they have, the apparent fact that senior GISS scientists were complicit in Climategate means that any records they produce will now be suspect.

The most charitable interpretation of Climategate is that these people were so genuinely worried about the horrors of global warming that they felt justified in violating the cardinal ethics of their profession. The existence of this attitude among climatologists was noted as long ago as 1989, when Discover magazine interviewed Stanford professor Stephen Schneider. He said "We are not just scientists but human beings as well. And like most people we'd like to see the world a better place, which in this context translates into our working to reduce the risk of potentially disastrous climatic change. To do that we need to get some broadbased support, to capture the public's imagination. That, of course, entails getting loads of media coverage. So we have to offer up scary scenarios, make simplified, dramatic statements, and make little mention of any doubts we might have… Each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. I hope that means being both."

This flimsy, unprofessional rationale will not prevent assessment of Climategate by future historians as the most shocking scientific scandal since the Piltdown Man paleontological hoax in 1912. In view of the international restructuring, the economic dislocations, the limitations to individual freedom and the trillions of dollars involved in proposed efforts to curb AGW, it is also the most consequential fraud ever attempted in any field of endeavor. In comparison, Bernie Madoff's famous ponzi scheme seems like pilfering pennies from the petty cash box.

The full list of culprits in this appalling chicanery has not yet surfaced, but it is already clear that they constitute a Who's Who of the scientists who have provided the alleged scientific basis for the reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). A few of them may face charges related to concealment of information legitimately requested under the FOIA, which is a felony, but in most cases their actions were unethical rather than criminal. Before the Climategate revelations, such flagrant transgressions by reputable scientists were so unthinkable that there seemed no need to make them illegal.

Faced with this situation, the British National Weather Service (a.k.a. the Met Office) has announced that they will begin the daunting task of reconstructing the original data file by collecting whatever historical records are available from each and every weather station around the world. The estimate is that this immense effort will take at least three years.

As expected, the AGW Establishment is trying to minimize the impact of these events. While it is of course true that the alleged malfeasance of individuals may obscure but does not change the actual scientific data, there is no doubt that Climategate is a disaster for the cause. 

Restoring confidence in the whole enterprise demands a though investigation by an international Commission of experts in appropriate disciplines whose probity is unquestioned. The membership of such a Commission must therefore exclude scientists who are contaminated by association with the IPCC and/or Climategate. The Commission staff must include forensic specialists who will examine in detail both the finances and the computer records of all the institutions involved in the scandal.

The record of temperature observations from satellites, as now corrected, shows results that are roughly comparable to the compromised surface records. Many of the adjustments to the original satellite data were suggested by members of the Climategate cabal, so one possibility is that the changes were somehow rigged so as to produce this result. Since the scientists working directly on the satellite measurements have not been implicated in the scandal, another and perhaps more probable interpretation is that the CRU staff and their accomplices at other institutions confined their manipulations to data obtained before the advent of the satellites, so that the recent surface record is reasonably factual. The Climategate Commission must determine which of these interpretations is correct.

In any case, the validity of the temperature records (and of any argument that we should take action to curb AGW) will remain in doubt until the British Met Office finishes its painstaking regeneration of the raw datafile and the investigative Commission delivers its findings.

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