Daily Archives: December 8, 2009

The response of the climate-science establishment to Climategate has been disappointing if predictable. The guild mentality has come to the fore. Campaigns are under way to defend the integrity of science from a scurrilous smear campaign. The message is simple: you are either with us or you are a barbarian.

The first line of response to the leaked or hacked emails, you recall, was to say that they showed science going on as usual–even science at its best, some argued. “Trick” did not mean trick; “hiding the decline” did not mean hiding the decline. These were innocent phrases torn out of context. As for the expostulations of harry_read_me, and discussing ways to punish or silence dissidents, and musing over the deletion of data that might be demanded under FOI requests, er, this is all just part of the healthy cut and thrust of normal scientific enquiry. We all have to let off steam now and then. No conspiracy. Nothing improper.

That did not work–too many of the emails speak for themselves–and the scandal refused to die down. The next line of response was to say that the emails involved just a few individuals, and implicate no more than a sliver of information about global warming. Even if you threw out everything CRU had done, such is the weight of other research that nothing would change. (The newly empowered EPA administrator added a nice wrinkle last night on the PBS Newshour. The work in question was done abroad. Other research was done by Americans. So no cause for alarm. Well, no cause for lack of alarm, if you see what I mean.)

This is a strange defence. Would deleting not just selected CRU data but its entire research effort really subtract nothing from what we thought we knew? If CRU’s work is as redundant as that, taxpayers might wonder if they have been getting value for money. At the very least, in fact, one layer of confirmation would be removed, which is not nothing. And of course CRU’s contribution was much more important than that. The emailers are among the world’s leading, and most influential, climate scientists; they are not just a few marginally significant individuals. It is far from clear how independent the supposedly corroborating research on the temperature record is. Networks of co-authors span these various efforts. A lot of the raw and parboiled data is shared. If the CRU work is impaired–that is the question the emails raise–the effects on the state of our knowledge are non-negligible.

Also note that the first line of defence fatally undermines the second. If the CRU emails show climate science as it is done in the real world, and there is nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed about, then what reason is there to think that the corroborating research, even if truly independent, has been done to a higher standard? If coercing the data, bad-mouthing dissenters, and covering your tracks are business as usual in climate science–which is what we have been told–why expect the other proofs of the temperature record to be any better? I would be far more persuaded by the “plenty of other evidence” line if there had been more of an outcry over the CRU emails from within the climate-science community. There have been some protests, but not many.

Which leaves just the “attack on science”. Circle those wagons. If you criticise one of us, you criticise all of us. No distinction is attempted between intelligent informed critics (of whom there are plenty) and ignorant malicious critics (of whom, admittedly, there are far more). The distinction which is emphasised, rather, is between qualified critics and unqualified–where “qualified” means “people who agree with us”. What could be more anti-scientific?

To criticise the work of a particular scientist or collaborating group of scientists is no more to attack science than criticising a particular journalist is to attack press freedom, or criticising a particular politician is to attack democracy. Trying to shut down criticism in the name of science is the real attack on science.

No great surprises in Obama’s speech on jobs. As expected, he proposed additional tax relief for small firms, including “a tax incentive to encourage small businesses to add and keep employees”; lower fees and bigger guarantees for loans backed by the Small Business Administration; some additional infrastructure spending; “incentives for consumers who retrofit their homes to become more energy efficient”; and extended unenmployment benefits and other reliefs. TARP repayments will help to meet the cost.

There are those who claim we have to choose between paying down our deficits on the one hand, and investing in job creation and economic growth on the other. But this is a false choice. Ensuring that economic growth and job creation are strong and sustained is critical to ensuring that we are increasing revenues and decreasing spending on things like unemployment so that our deficits will start coming down. At the same time, instilling confidence in our commitment to being fiscally prudent gives the private sector the confidence to make long-term investments in our people and on our shores.

No specifics on restoring long-term budget control. The overall theme was modesty. Obama pitched these new proposals not as a bold “second stimulus” but as bunch of good small ideas to build on the first. The administration perceives that its fiscal options have narrowed. The recovery had better not fizzle out.

Like Paul Krugman, I am puzzled by James Hansen’s piece in the NYT attacking cap and trade. Hansen writes:

Because cap and trade is enforced through the selling and trading of permits, it actually perpetuates the pollution it is supposed to eliminate. If every polluter’s emissions fell below the incrementally lowered cap, then the price of pollution credits would collapse and the economic rationale to keep reducing pollution would disappear.

Eh? If the system succeeded so well that emissions came in below the cap, that would be a problem? If cutting emissions is the goal, I can think of worse. And in that case, anyway, couldn’t you just lower the cap?

Hansen explains his objection in even simpler terms:

Still need more convincing? Consider the perverse effect cap and trade has on altruistic actions. Say you decide to buy a small, high-efficiency car. That reduces your emissions, but not your country’s. Instead it allows somebody else to buy a bigger S.U.V. — because the total emissions are set by the cap.

Or consider the salutary effect cap and trade has on selfish actions. Say you decide to buy a big SUV. That increases your emissions, but not your country’s. Instead it obliges somebody else to buy a small high-efficiency car–because the total emissions are set by the cap.

Cap and trade, as Krugman points out, makes the price outcome uncertain (if it is allowed to bind). The carbon tax that Hansen appears to prefer makes the quantity of emissions uncertain. That is why those calling for strong action on greenhouse gases usually prefer cap and trade. Perhaps Hansen’s distaste for a market in emissions–somebody might make some money off this–is confusing him. But a tax would be mediated through a market too, obviously.

I’m for a carbon tax, because I would rather set the price than the quantity. It has other advantages too: it is harder to game and makes international co-operation on climate change easier to arrange. Cap and trade with a price collar, as proposed in the Senate bill, combines desirable elements of both, and might be the best way forward, on economic as well as political grounds.

But Hansen’s article makes no sense at all. Paraphrasing Wegman on the hockey stick, Bad reasoning + Correct Answer = Bad Economics.

1,200 limos, 140 private planes, and caviar wedges. Andrew Gilligan, Daily Telegraph. Did it have to be quite so elaborate?

Climate scientist threatens boycott of NYT reporter. Roger Pielke Jr. When I was an editor I always used to delete “He just doesn’t get it,” because it is smug, lazy, and overused. But if ever there was a case of just not getting it, Michael Schlesinger is the man.

Stolen email, stoking the climate debate. Clark Hoyt, NYT. A balanced though contestable piece about the way the Times has covered Climategate.

…Revkin and Tierney both told me that, after that broad understanding among scientists [ie, "the temperature measurement by Jones’s group was only one of several showing a long-term warming trend, and that there was no doubt that carbon dioxide produced by humans was a major factor"], there is sharp debate over how fast the earth is warming, how much human activity is contributing, and how severe the impact will be.

Does the Times do full justice to that “sharp debate”? Regardless, Schlesinger’s complaint certainly enhances the paper’s credibility. I can’t say the same for his.

And could somebody please tell the Times that the plural of email is emails?

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

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