A week or two back NPR gave some guy about three minutes to complain about how the climate community silenced his breakthrough research on snow patterns in the Sierra Nevada mountains. You see, most warming models predict that snowfall will eventually go up in the Sierra Nevadas. The guy (I forget his name) found that it didn’t. QED, global warming is wrong and he can prove it if only academia’s cruel gatekeepers would let his paper into a major journal. NPR then gave about one minute to a gatekeeper who pointed out that the result has already been published five times.
And so it goes. Frankly, as a practicing scientist I am impressed at how well the climate community at East Anglia looks after angry critics have presumably picked through every email dating back to 1996 and published the most embarrassing selections. Look at it this way. In the course of two graduate degrees and a postdoc I have worked at Universities with reputations ranging from exemplary to very good, yet off the top of my head I can think of a couple of scandals that made the news, others that the University resolved internally and a small number more that did or did not get handled informally. I cannot think of a single department that would smell like roses if someone stole twelve years of private correspondence and released a selection of emails calibrated to make it look bad. Science works fine in aggregate, but this idea that science must have only flawless people doing impeccable work is a strawman set up by the superstitious to discredit empiricism through nutpicking.
As far as I can tell from Kevin Drum’s summary, other than the question of whether researchers deleted some emails that might have fallen under a Freedom of Information request the entire controversy boils down to non-experts misinterpreting ordinary communication in bad faith. That FOIA question, however, is worth talking about. Can you interfere with a Freedom of Information request? No, you can’t. That sounds like misconduct. Fortunately universities have mechanisms to deal with misconduct. Most will mediate a dozen or so exactly like this in a typical year. It seems to me that even if the emails were hacked illegally, East Anglia should still hold the appropriate hearings. If anyone involved did wrong then impose the appropriate sanction (usually ranging from a written reprimand to a limited ban on publication or grant applications). Maybe other scientists think that I’m granting too much to an angry mob. If so, fine. I try pretty hard to keep my personal sympathies separate when it comes to questions of misconduct and punishment.
Separately, Drum links to a complaint about East Anglia’s PR.
I have seldom felt so alone. Confronted with crisis, most of the environmentalists I know have gone into denial. The emails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, they say, are a storm in a tea cup, no big deal, exaggerated out of all recognition. It is true that climate change deniers have made wild claims which the material can’t possibly support (the end of global warming, the death of climate science). But it is also true that the emails are very damaging.
….The crisis has been exacerbated by the university’s handling of it, which has been a total trainwreck: a textbook example of how not to respond….When the emails hit the news on Friday morning, the university appeared completely unprepared. There was no statement, no position, no one to interview. Reporters kept being fobbed off while CRU’s opponents landed blow upon blow on it. When a journalist I know finally managed to track down Phil Jones, he snapped “no comment” and put down the phone. This response is generally taken by the media to mean “guilty as charged”.
….The handling of this crisis suggests that nothing has been learnt by climate scientists in this country from 20 years of assaults on their discipline. They appear to have no idea what they’re up against or how to confront it. Their opponents might be scumbags, but their media strategy is exemplary.
The complaint here is both fair and unfair. One the one hand one can hardly deny that East Anglia shot itself in the groin when the story bubbled for so long without their input. But really, what did you expect would happen? We pay scientists to do science. Especially given the effort that it takes to talk intelligently about climate science*, we don’t pay them very much. I have worked on grants from NOAA, the agency that also funds climate research. The idea of our lab or our department retaining a worthwhile PR firm would certainly amuse the staff who scrambled every year to find money for cookies and coffee at our weekly seminars. The money for scientists to do anything that isn’t science just isn’t there. If you want professional PR to defend science then you have to fund it with something other than the grants that fund the science itself. Forcing researchers with a day job to act as the front line against Exxon’s army of professional denial firms, in the media, is ridiculous and sad. It’s like asking Sidney Crosby to defend Pittsburgh by way of competitive corndog eating.
Especially early in this story’s life cycle, when you could hardly expect an average reporter to make much sense of the science, a sheaf of personality stories (e.g.) complained about the defensive attitude among climate researchers. Again, you have to wonder what people expect. Taken collectively the “science” of warming denial has exactly as much credibility as the anti-evolution brigades. Their ideas amount to a series of turds thrown indiscriminately at the wall (solar forcing, natural cycles, the world is really cooling et cetera ad nauseum) in the hope that something might stick. The same people come back over and over with a new argument every year, as if the argument they made last year (which also proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that carbon-forced climate warming is a hoax) was just a practice round. It should not stretch the imagination to see how a professional scientist could get jaded after decades of attack by angry hysterics who, almost to a man, lack the training to understand what they are talking about (note: meteorologist means “weatherman”).
Congrats to King Pyrrhus
What really confuses me is why the denial crowd is still so angry about this. They already got what they need. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet started to melt this year, and that was the stable half of Antarctica. That arctic ice that deniers like our own BOB have crowed about turned out to be a thin, temporary layer that hid a dramatic loss of once-permanent arctic sea ice. Outside of a very few exceptions (some very cold regions, where warming will not make much difference, have seen increased snowfall), glaciers are shrinking everywhere on Earth.
Let’s say that everyone agreed with the IPCC conclusions tomorrow. Even better, let’s say that everyone agreed with the bulk of climate scientists who think that the IPCC has been far too conservative (actual warming consistently breaks IPCC hundred-year forecasts in five or ten). What do we do? The climate has a decade of intertia built into it. Current models that describe what would happen if we cut our emissions back to the stone age are still scary as hell.
Climate deniers never had to hold out forever. They just needed confusion to last long enough that cutting carbon to keep the climate stable no longer made any sense. It worked! Keeping the public confused for a couple more years won’t do much more at this point. So why the grumpy act? Typical rightwingers, I guess, angry when they’re losing and twice as angry when they win.
(*) Not kidding about this. A set of courses that roughly introduced climate science, required for my Master’s in Oceanography, nearly wiped me out. That semester I learned exactly how many hours of sleep one needs on a continual basis to stay functionally alert (four).