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Climategate and the Soft Middle PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Guest Commentaries
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 03 December 2009 14:34

There are people who say that what's being called "Climategate" is no big deal -- just the sausage-making of science -- and others who say it undermines all claims about human-caused global warming and about the necessity of measures to limit greenhouse-gas emissions.

Those are people with strong, passionate views on climate change, and their reactions support the idea of Climategate as a Rorschach test, that "one's view of the issue is deeply colored by his or her incoming biases," as Stephen J. Dubner said.

But I think this will be a major issue for the rest of us, too -- and for public policy moving forward. And that's as it should be.

Last month, hackers or a whistle-blower released thousands of e-mail messages and documents from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of England's University of East Anglia. With the United Nations Climate Change Conference kicking off on Monday, these documents have been generating a lot of attention, particularly among climate-change skeptics who have dubbed this "Climategate."

Many global-warming-theory apologists say that the e-mail messages and documents reflect a normal, honest, and messy scientific process.'s first response said that the documents and exchanges were "a peek into how scientists actually interact, and the conflicts show that the community is a far cry from the monolith that is sometimes imagined."

On the other side are skeptics who say these documents and correspondence prove a conspiracy to silence dissenters who don't toe the party line of man-made climate change -- that emissions from human activities are responsible for a warming of the Earth near its surface. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change working group claimed in its 2007 "Summary for Policymakers," there is "very high confidence that the global average net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming." In the lay terms of Wikipedia, the core assertion of global warming/climate change is that "most of the observed temperature increase since the middle of the 20th Century was caused by increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases resulting from human activity such as fossil-fuel-burning and deforestation."

That conclusion leads to warnings, most famously from former Vice President Al Gore, that global warming requires swift and drastic government action on a global scale to avoid catastrophe.

Climategate has given skeptics of those claims new ammunition.

"The conspiracy behind the Anthropogenic Global Warming myth ... has been suddenly, brutally, and quite deliciously exposed," wrote James Delingpole.

More specifically, Bret Stephens wrote: "Climategate ... concerns some of the world's leading climate scientists working in tandem to block freedom-of-information requests, blackball dissenting scientists, manipulate the peer-review process, and obscure, destroy, or massage inconvenient temperature data ... ."

While the above quotes have obvious agendas, they touch on important issues. Delingpole's conspiracy (articulated more clearly by Stephens) seems to be supported by selections from the released e-mail messages, such as a damning, widely cited excerpt from this message about dissenting papers: "Kevin and I will keep them out somehow -- even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!" (That snippet, not incidentally, has been taken grossly out of context. The author was referring to two specific articles he believed were flawed.)

These CRU documents, in other words, can be viewed or construed as evidence for a long-held belief among some skeptics that dissent on the issue of climate change has been quashed, creating a false consensus within major scientific organizations and in peer-reviewed scientific journals.

More interesting to me is's claim that the scientific community isn't a "monolith," a seeming acknowledgment that there is no actual consensus on global warming.

Of course there isn't, if one believes (as my dictionary sources do) that "consensus" requires unanimity.

And we shouldn't expect unanimity in science on emerging issues. Scientists observe and measure, and then they interpret the data. Even when the research is well-designed and the validity of the data is undisputed, there is still a decent chance that the conclusions won't be uniform.

And when one delves into predictions, even general agreement can be hard to achieve. So when looking at climate data and peering into the future, there's naturally a wide range of interpretation and projection.

Yet advocates for proposed remedies to global warming -- such as a cap-and-trade system for carbon-dioxide emissions -- stress scientific consensus as a rationale for action.

As a blanket statement, "there is scientific consensus on global warming" is provably untrue. Find a climate scientist who doesn't believe that humans cause global warming, and the asserter has lost his or her credibility.

But in a narrowly defined context, a claim of unanimity is true. In "The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change," author Naomi Oreskes analyzed scientific articles on climate change with the premise that group statements -- such as those of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the National Academy of Sciences -- might "downplay legitimate dissenting opinions. That hypothesis was tested by analyzing 928 abstracts, published in refereed scientific journals between 1993 and 2003 ... with the keywords 'climate change.'"

She found "75 percent ... either explicitly or implicitly accepting the consensus view; 25 percent dealt with methods or paleoclimate, taking no position on current anthropogenic [resulting from human activity] climate change. Remarkably, none of the papers disagreed with the consensus position."

What Climategate has done is attack the "consensus" refrain on two fronts. First, there's the appearance of censorship of dissenting views -- the creation of an artificial consensus. Second, now even the data is in question.

As Will Wilkinson summarized: "The Climategate files strongly suggest that at least some of the science is not rock solid and that the scientific consensus is at least in part the product of silencing or marginalizing those who might upset it."

Megan McArdle added: "There is strong evidence that a small group of scientists has inappropriate power over the process of consensus-building."

Those basic, critical truths have been acknowledged by people on both sides of the issue. Stephens, an obvious skeptic, wrote: "The deeper question is why the scientists behaved this way to begin with, especially since the science behind man-made global warming is said to be firmly settled."

And George Monbiot, in a column satirizing the idea of a wide conspiracy, wrote: "There appears to be evidence here of attempts to prevent scientific data from being released, and even to destroy material that was subject to a freedom-of-information request. Worse still, some of the e-mails suggest efforts to prevent the publication of work by climate skeptics, or to keep it out of a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change."

(He added: "Do these revelations justify the skeptics' claims that this is 'the final nail in the coffin' of global-warming theory? Not at all. They damage the credibility of three or four scientists. They raise questions about the integrity of one or perhaps two out of several hundred lines of evidence.")

So while Climategate won't change the views of hardened partisans, it could still undermine efforts to enact legislation designed to combat global warming.

There's a soft middle that believes that humans contribute significantly to global warming, and that a substantial reduction in carbon-dioxide emissions is probably wise. I would guess this is a majority of voters in this country. I count myself in this group. (I found the Al Gore lecture movie An Inconvenient Truth a bald piece of self-promoting propaganda.)

This is a group that is ambivalent about measures meant to curb carbon-dioxide emissions, that supports their goals but wavers about the approaches, the costs, and the benefits. I am certainly persuadable but not yet persuaded.

For me, the e-mail messages and documents don't prove anything, but they inject doubt about the data and methods and conclusions of climate-change science, and make me less certain about the direness of the situation. That means I'm less likely to support legislation such as cap-and-trade. And if there are enough people like me on this issue ... .

This could have been a year of major milestones for advocates of emissions controls in this country. Cap-and-trade legislation passed in the U.S. House and is supported by President Barack Obama. The upcoming U.N. conference could have focused renewed attention on the issue and created momentum, and voter mobilization could have pushed the Senate to action.

But there's a new source of doubt and skepticism, not just about a proposed solution but about the science underlying it. Climategate has put proponents of emissions reduction on the defensive, and they have a lot of damage control ahead of them.

Comments (5)Add Comment
OOOooooo...such investigative reporting
written by David Glover, December 03, 2009
Where the hell were you so-called "investigative journalists" when Bush Jr. went ahead with his silencing and/or altering and/or tweaking of government originated scientific data? NOWHERE TO BE FOUND!!!
How Global Warming Will Destroy The West
written by Mike Proms, December 04, 2009
If the global warming cabal pulls this off, $585 trillion will be squandered chasing a lie while funding this Brave New World religion... all on a globe that's worth only $63 trillion (before inflation). Amazing.
Reprieve from the Dark Ages
written by Mike Proms, December 04, 2009
If Jones, Mann, et al, pull this off, $585 trillion will be squandered, and Western civilization will slip back to the Dark Ages. But wait. There's hope. Since the advent of Climategate, Australia's parliament flipped, dumping cap-and-trade, along with the politicians who supported it.
Sustainability is a good idea, even though I doubt the Global Warming religion.
written by Chris Rice, December 05, 2009
I have always thought that sustainability is a good idea. "Renewable > Finite" is an easy equation to understand. I have been a proponent of Edible Landscaping, permaculture, and local food production, recycling, renewable power, etc. for a long time. Why? Because it makes economic sense and increases security if you don't have to depend on some nameless faceless people in some distant place for the necesseties of life. It's the practical and the survivalist in me that makes me think that sustainability is the answer. I seek the best gas milage not because the car emits less carbon but because it costs less to operate and I don't like supporting foriegn interests.

On the construction crew I always dreamed that one day I would be able to build on a house that had the windows on the south side with the proper eaves so that you would have winter sun but not summer sun instead of having all the windows on the North side and a million roof projections that do nothing but waste shingles and wood. We'd be slaving away building McMansions that cost $300,000 but instead of spending the extra $6000 to put in Geothermal heat and cooling the buyer was only concerned about having the best countertops. Image is everything and practical is not a part of image I guess.

Anyway, I would like to see sustainable lifestyles become more common place because if my neighbors have themselves taken care of it also increases my security. That's why I'm always giving away fruit, nut, and berry plants.

The problem is that the sustainability movement is now dominated by this global warming mumbo jumbo. We're supposed to get all big eyed and push for this cap and trade and such. I can honestly say that I haven't had a lot of positive government experiences in my life and I see a future where the multinational company is able to pay off their ability to spew as much pollution as they like and meanwhile jackbooted EPA officers will be kicking in the door of some cabin in the mountains of someone just trying to live a sustainable life because they put a log on a woodstove and cooked a meal at the same time as they heated their home.

Everytime the government gets involved the have the opposite effect of the stated goal. They are gonna protect our food supply but every step they take makes it harder for you to raise a few farm animals for you and your small farm customers and it doesn't do anything to slow the real cause of mass sickeness from food borne illness which is having thousands of animals packed together on factory farms . . . and so on . . . and so on . . .

The Earths climate has never in the history of the planet ever not changed. Mother nature is far more powerful than a bunch of humans and she's gonna have her volcanoes and her ice ages and her warming periods with or without humanity. Let's not kick in the guys door just trying to live a sustainable life because he places a sustainably grown and harvested log in his woodstove (more efficient than a fireplace).

Global Warming Yacking
written by Jimi Dice, December 06, 2009
I agree with sustainability. It is these large corporations that are publicizing the pollution and privatizing the profits that are much of the problem with food production and co2 emissions. Of course, the reader is slanted away from reality based reading. Also, there is no reason why the economic costs should be included in the preservation and care of humans.

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