By way of preamble, let me remind you where I stand on climate change. I think climate science points to a risk that the world needs to take seriously. I think energy policy should be intelligently directed towards mitigating this risk. I am for a carbon tax. I also believe that the Climategate emails revealed, to an extent that surprised even me (and I am not new to this milieu), an ethos of suffocating groupthink and resistance to dissent. The scandal attracted enormous attention in the US, and support for a new energy policy has fallen. In sum, the scientists concerned brought their own discipline into disrepute, and set back the prospects for a better energy policy.
I had hoped, not very confidently, that the various Climategate inquiries would be thorough. This would have been a first step towards restoring confidence in the scientific consensus. But no, the reports make things worse, by failing to take seriously the charges that competent critics were actually making, and by failing to rule on the quality of the science, as opposed to the integrity of the scientists. The climate-science establishment, of which these inquiries have chosen to make themselves a part, seems entirely incapable of understanding, let alone repairing, the harm it has done to its own cause.
The Penn State inquiry exonerating Michael Mann — the paleoclimatologist who came up with “the hockey stick” — would be difficult to parody. The inquiry distilled various accusations into four allegations of misconduct. Three of the four allegations were dismissed after the inquiry’s first phase on the basis of little more than a review of the emails and interviews with Mann. The inquiry announced that it found no credible evidence to support these charges and would make no further investigation. (At this, MIT’s Richard Lindzen tells the committee, “It’s thoroughly amazing. I mean these are issues that he explicitly stated in the emails. I’m wondering what’s going on?” The report continues: “The Investigatory Committee members did not respond to Dr Lindzen’s statement. Instead, [his] attention was directed to the fourth allegation…”) Moving on, the inquiry then turns to findings from a second phase concerning the fourth allegation, and says, in effect, that Mann is a distinguished scholar, a successful raiser of research funding, a man admired by his peers – so any allegation of academic impropriety must be false.
You think I exaggerate?
This level of success in proposing research, and obtaining funding to conduct it, clearly places Dr. Mann among the most respected scientists in his field. Such success would not have been possible had he not met or exceeded the highest standards of his profession for proposing research…
Had Dr. Mann’s conduct of his research been outside the range of accepted practices, it would have been impossible for him to receive so many awards and recognitions, which typically involve intense scrutiny from scientists who may or may not agree with his scientific conclusions…
Clearly, Dr. Mann’s reporting of his research has been successful and judged to be outstanding by his peers. This would have been impossible had his activities in reporting his work been outside of accepted practices in his field.
In short, competent critics are not heard. Mann is asked if the allegations are true, and says no. His record is swooned over. Verdict: case dismissed, with apologies that Mann has been put to such trouble.
The problem with this is not that the conclusions are wrong; it is that the process that yielded them is so unpersuasive. If I were Mann, I would feel that the inquiry had let me down. The Oxburgh inquiry and the Muir Russell inquiry have also vindicated Mann and the other Climategate emailers on accusations of scientific misconduct. To be clear, while I think all three inquiries leave a lot to be desired in terms of their reasoning and procedures, I don’t question their conclusions on that point. What I question is the inquiries’ failure to deal properly with more plausible complaints lodged by critics-complaints about groupthink, withholding of data, deafness to contrarian views, and an undue desire to protect the public from awkward complications. In other words, the issue was not just the integrity of the scientists, on which the inquiries have ruled, but the quality of the science, which the inquiries have largely neglected.
I am glad to see The Economist, which I criticised for making light of the initial scandal, taking a balanced view of these unsatisfactory proceedings. My only quarrels with its report are quibbles. For instance, in the second paragraph it says:
The reports conclude that the science of climate is sound…
Actually, they don’t, as the article’s last paragraph makes clear:
An earlier report on climategate from the House of Commons assumed that a subsequent probe by a panel under Lord Oxburgh, a former academic and chairman of Shell, would deal with the science. The Oxburgh report, though, sought to show only that the science was not fraudulent or systematically flawed, not that it was actually reliable. And nor did Sir Muir, with this third report, think judging the science was his job.
Like the Guardian’s Fred Pearce, The Economist rightly draws attention to the failure of the Russell inquiry to ask Phil Jones of the CRU whether he actually deleted any emails to defeat FoI requests. It calls this omission “rather remarkable”. Pearce calls it “extraordinary”. Myself, I would prefer to call it “astonishing and indefensible”. I don’t see how, having spotted this, the magazine can conclude that the report, overall, was “thorough, but it will not satisfy all the critics.” (Well, the critics make such unreasonable demands! Look into the charges, they say. Hear from the other side. Ask the obvious questions. It never stops: you just can’t satisfy these people.)
However, The Economist is calling for the IPCC’s Rajendra Pachauri to go. That’s good.
So where does this leave us? Walter Russell Mead is always worth reading on this subject, and I usually agree with him — but I think his summing up in this case is not quite right.
Greens who feared and climate skeptics who hoped that the rash of investigations following Climategate and Glaciergate and all the other problems would reveal some gaping obvious flaws in the science of climate change were watching the wrong thing. The Big Green Lie (or Delusion, to be charitable) isn’t so much that climate change is happening and that it is very likely caused or at least exacerbated by human activity. The Big Lie is that the green movement is a source of coherent or responsible counsel about what to do.
He’s right, of course, that the green movement is not trusted as an adviser on what to do. So what? Its counsel on policy is not required. Nor, for that matter, is a complex international treaty of the sort that Copenhagen failed to produce. Congress and the administration can get to the right policy — an explicit or implicit carbon tax; subsidies for low-carbon energy — without the greens’ input, so long as public opinion is convinced that the problem is real and needs to be addressed. It’s not the extreme or otherwise ill-advised policy recommendations of the greens that have turned opinion against action of any kind, though I grant you they’re no help. It’s the diminished credibility of the claim that we have a problem in the first place. That is why Climategate mattered. And that is why these absurd “vindications” of the climate scientists involved also matter.
The economic burdens of mitigating climate change will not be shouldered until a sufficient number of voters believe the problem is real, serious, and pressing. Restoring confidence in climate science has to come first. That, in turn, means trusting voters with all of the doubts and unanswered questions — with inconvenient data as well as data that confirm the story — instead of misleading them (even if unintentionally) into believing that everything is cut and dried. The inquiries could have started that process. They have further delayed it.
Corrections and clarifications:
I’ve revised this post. Joe Romm’s complaint that I misquoted the Penn State report is correct: the panel dismissed the charges against Mann because they found “no credible evidence”, not because of a “lack of credible evidence”. My original description of the two-phase Penn State inquiry was not as clear as it could have been. I’ve amended it. I’ve added a paragraph, beginning “The problem with this…” in an effort to clarify my position. I’ve also deleted a paragraph which sneered at the Muir Russell report in an unjustified way and which neglected the necessary ellipsis in “trick…to hide the decline”. I’ve retracted a sentence and some overheated asides. The sentence said of the various inquiries: “At best they are mealy-mouthed apologies; at worst they are patently incompetent and even wilfully wrong.” That was much too harsh, and I apologise.