There have been some seminal moments in the climate debate where the issues, and attitudes (and tactics) have come to a head and made themselves very clear. Three occasions when the lid has come off and the contents boiled over.
The Hockey Stick
1988. It was a drought in the US and the Senate’s investigation of it that brought public attention to James Hansen’s views that ‘the abnormally hot weather plaguing our nation’ was due to global warming. James Hansen (at right) being at the time head of the NASA Godard Institute for Space Studies, one of the three primary global sources of aggregated climate data (‘GISS’ in the documentation).
That same year, Margaret Thatcher became a vocal advocate for concern about anthropogenic (human made) climate change. It was convenient — she bent her shoulder to this task at around the time she was closing coal mines in the north of England and promoting the virtues of nuclear energy. She was also, of course, a scientist (chemistry) by training. Prince Charles supported her views but, in a very different political environment, her friend Ronald Reagan did not.
Reagan’s administration, worried about the influence and impact of politically unfettered scientists speaking out about climate change, successfully lobbied for the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to provide reports subject to detailed scrutiny and approval from government delegations before publication.
As such matters go, this all happened fast. The IPCC, set up by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program, was created later in 1988. Its formal purpose was to prepare assessments on all aspects of climate change and its impacts, with a view to formulating realistic response strategies. (Although what Roy Spencer thinks is: ‘Unquestionably, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed to build the scientific case for humanity being the primary cause of global warming.’)
Its first summaries were comparatively uncontroversial: human influence was suggested as being only as likely as natural variability to be causing climate change. But by the late 1990s a number of teams of climatologists were producing findings that recent warming was indeed exceptional and suspicion increased that the source of this was anthropogenic.
In 1998, Michael Mann (at left), Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes published a paper subjecting paleoclimatological data (from sources such as lake sediments, coral and ice cores, in this case bristlecone tree rings) to new methods of statistical analysis which they had developed to show variation in the patterns of global surface temperature in the northern hemisphere going back 600 years.
For a scientific paper it drew considerable publicity. The New York Times highlighted its finding that the 20th had been the warmest century in these 600 years. However these proxy data are inherently imprecise. Mann said so himself. ‘We do have large error bars. They become more sizable as one gets farther back in time… . There is still quite a bit of work to be done in reducing these uncertainties.’ But nonetheless the Times quoted Mann as saying: ‘Our conclusion is that the warming of the past few decades appears to be closely tied to emission of greenhouse gases by humans and not any of the natural factors’.
A further paper published in 1999 went back a further 400 years subjecting additional data to the same statistical techniques with the same results.
The Third IPCC Report gave considerable prominence to the group’s findings and the summary graph which encapsulated them. The Report was in fact launched in front of the graph as a massive background image as well as featuring it on the cover. It looked like a hockey stick. For 950 years the trend line was more or less flat then whoosh, up with a rush.
Why did it matter? If it was unusual, if it was as big as claimed, if it was happening now and if, as claimed, it seemed increasingly likely to be the product of greenhouse gases produced by human activity, it provided evidence of what some scientists had been suggesting for some time — evidence, and an image. Without these data, the heart might get chopped out of the argument.
Since 1965 there had been references in scientific and historical literature to a period called the ‘Medieval Warm Period’ lasting from about AD 950–1300. A much cooler period termed the Little Ice Age is believed to have followed. The existence of these ‘anomalies’ was noted in the first progress report of the IPCC in 1990.
But the first hockey stick sidelined the Medieval Warm Period. It illustrated just one big kick-up commencing in the mid 20th century.
The hockey stick was an easy focus for media coverage, and immediately became a focal point for both sides of the debate.
Astrophysicists Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunus were two of the earliest respondents to these papers claiming that the methodology was flawed, that other data made it clear that warming had ended early in the C20th and that the Medieval Warm Period which provided evidence for alternative views had been ignored. Any contemporary variations would be the result of solar activity.
Members of the US government bought in. A Senate hearing chaired by John McCain was held in 2000 to discuss the report Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change which had been released in June for public comment. Witnesses at the hearing included Fred Singer, whose statement cited the Oregon Petition as evidence of the mainstream nature of his views. He said there had probably been no global warming since the 1940s. ‘Satellite data show no appreciable warming of the global atmosphere since 1979. In fact, if one ignores the unusual El Nino year of 1998, one sees a cooling trend.’ From this, he concluded that, ‘The post-1980 global warming trend from surface thermometers is not credible. The absence of such warming would do away with the widely touted “hockey stick” graph.’
Pat Michaels (contrarian? denier?) emerged as one of the leaders of the anti-Mann/hockey stick movement through his blog World Climate Report. Keith Briffa and Phil Jones from the East Anglia Climate Institute (UK) separately published papers coming to the same conclusions as Mann et al despite using different methods. The battle lines were forming.
The Bush administration’s Council on Environmental Quality chief of staff Philip Cooney, a lawyer who had formerly been a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute, edited the first draft of the Environmental Protection Agency Report on the Environment removing all references to reconstructions showing world temperatures rising over the last 1,000 years, and inserted a reference instead to Soon & Baliunas’s papers. It was in this context that Senator James Inhofe made his ‘manmade global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated’ contribution.
Stephen McIntyre (left), a Canadian with a background in mining, appears. He believed he had the skills to audit what Mann and Co had done, and asked for and received the base data. With the help of Ross McKitrick (at right), an economist, a critique of the hockey stick paper was published six months later. ‘The hockey stick shape’, they said, ‘was primarily an artefact of poor data handling and use of obsolete proxy records.’ The Cooler Heads Coalition (a collaboration of most of the major climate change denying organisations) made hay with the paper.
Late in 2004 Mann and nine other scientists including Gavin Schmidt another Director of NASA’s Godard Institute, set up the blog RealClimate ‘a resource where the public can go to see what actual scientists working in the field have to say about the latest issues’. Early in 2005 McIntyre set up the competition, the blog Climate Audit.
If you read recent postings you’ll catch the flavour: Schmidt saying they need some new blood after ten years; McIntyre running through issues of his current court case v. Mann.
These two blogs will take you to most of the more sane tastemakers in the climate debate. If you want a dose you can try the Climate Sceptics Party, JoNova or Watt’s up with that. They are mesmerizing in their intensity. (Andrew Bolt sometimes writes about other things. These folk don’t.)
But if you want to find a source for all the fury, the hockey stick could be it.
In 2005 Congressman Joe Barton, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce demanded that the IPCC and the three authors of the ‘hockey stick’ papers provide full records of their work. The scientists were asked to provide not just data and methods, but also personal information about their finances and careers, information about grants provided to the institutions they had worked for, and the exact computer codes used to generate their results. Amid an outcry focusing on charges of bullying and harassment, the scientists complied. But the controversy has continued.
The blog of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a ‘free-market think tank’, opens an article on Mann with the line: ‘Penn State has covered up wrongdoing by one of its employees to avoid bad publicity.’ It initially included the line: ‘Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky [a convicted child molester] of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and planet.’
This is not atypical of the nature of debate. In this recent case Mann chose to sue. He has by now had plenty of practice in political contestation.
Political scrutiny of climate science funding has continued. In fact a consistent denialist theme, rarely stated so gloriously as this quote, is: ‘The true solution to “man made global warming” is to stop the self-perpetuating funding of the people employed to study it.’
Some of the detail of this debate is dealt with in the next blog••• in this series. But it might be noted that even at the time of its initial publication, the hockey stick pattern was largely confirmed by four other independent studies and has subsequently been replicated by more than 20 different modeling processes using the same, similar and different data. Seven of them are contained in this graph.It might also be noted that contradictory versions, grounded in science and otherwise, are a bob a dozen. This is the deniers’ preferred version.
An Inconvenient Truth: ‘Ok kids I’m going to show you a film. But just before I do …’
Al Gore’s talk and slide show was turned into a film released in 2006 and seen by many millions of people. But not by then US President George W. Bush, who when asked whether he would watch the film, responded: ‘Doubt it.’ Senator Inhofe didn’t plan to see the film (in which he appears) either, comparing it to Adolf Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. ‘If you say the same lie over and over again, and particularly if you have the media’s support, people will believe it.’ (Godwin’s Law has proved a popular move in climate change debate. Dr Tim Ball’s contribution can be read here for example.)
The film — which featured the hockey stick mentioned above in such a way that Gore was required to use a platform lift to get to its upper limits — was intended to make a splash/cause a heatwave, and it did.
As it gathered popular momentum some politicians took steps for it to be available for school programs.
However, in the US 50,000 free copies were offered to the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) which declined to take them. In correspondence the NSTA explained that the DVDs would place ‘unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA’s] capital campaign, especially with certain targeted supporters’, and that it saw ‘little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members’ in accepting the free DVDs. Different distribution mechanisms were offered via advertising space in the NSTA magazine and newsletter but publicity via paid advertising didn’t quite seem to be the point to those making the offer. Discussing this issue, the ‘Washington Post’ noted that in the previous decade the NSTA had received $6 million from Exxon Mobil, which also had a representative on the NSTA board.
In the UK, as part of a nationwide ‘Sustainable Schools Year of Action’ launched in late 2006, the British Government, Welsh Assembly Government and Scottish Executive announced that copies of An Inconvenient Truth would be sent to all secondary schools in the UK. Study of the film was included in the science curriculum for all fourth and sixth-year students in Scotland.
Early in 2007, Stewart Dimmock (at left, and I’m sorry about the photos but that’s what’s available), a school governor from Kent mounted a legal challenge with the at the time undisclosed assistance of Christopher Monckton (below), arguing that schools are legally forbidden to promote partisan political views and, when dealing with political issues, are required to provide a balanced presentation of opposing views.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Burton, stated that the requirement for a balanced presentation did not require that equal weight be given to alternatives to a mainstream view, and ruled that it was clear that the film was substantially founded upon scientific research but was being used to make a political statement and to support a political program. He went on to rule that it contained nine scientific errors which can be read here.
Make up your own mind. There may well be an issue with hyperbole and wavering relevance. But nine among hundreds ….
The judge made a requirement that these errors must be explained before the film was shown to school children. [Imagine. ‘Hey kids …’] Failure to do so would be a violation of education laws.
The government acted on this ruling. Dimmock complained that ‘no amount of turgid guidance’ could change his view that the film was unsuitable for the classroom. Monckton remains an active campaigner against IPCC views.
The Copenhagen Summit of 2009 is a matter of particular interest to Australians because it was when the Government of the time appeared to give up on ‘the greatest moral challenge of our time’ — also known as Rudd’s meltdown. (A sidelight: Edward Snowden’s monster leak of 2014 revealed that the US and Chinese government negotiators had both been spying on other conference delegations at the Summit and formulated their tactics accordingly.)
‘Climategate’ provided some additional flavour to the proceedings. What happened? You may remember.
Several weeks before the Summit, servers at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, one of the world’s three main climatic data collection and management points, were hacked and more than 1000 emails and 2000 computer files were copied to various locations on the Internet.
Emails exchanged by Phil Jones, the head of the CRU, Keith Briffa, the tree ring expert, Tim Osborn, a climate modeller at CRU and Mike Hulme, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research were the particular targets. These four had all contributed in various ways to IPCC reports.
At the time, a short comment appeared on Stephen McIntyre’s Climate Audit website saying that “A miracle has happened’. Very shortly after excerpts from the material began appearing on climate change skeptic websites and blogs before finding their way into the mainstream media.
The two most publicised quotes are these.
Jones to Michael Mann, Ray Bradley and Malcolm Hughes: ‘I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.’ [Nature is a scientific journal]
Kevin Trenberth to Mann: ‘The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t’.
Andrew Bolt’s commentary is reasonably representative of the climate change skeptics’ characterisation of the situation.
So the 1079 emails and 72 documents seem indeed evidence of a scandal involving most of the most prominent scientists pushing the man-made warming theory — a scandal that is one of the greatest in modern science. I’ve been adding some of the most astonishing in updates below — emails suggesting conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more.
But a better sense of how they were treated by groups of skeptics can be found in a book called The Climategate Emails (2010) edited and annotated by John Costella and published by the Lavoisier Society. Mining magnate Hugh Morgan wrote the introduction in which he asserts, inter alia:
The Climategate emails demonstrate that these people had no regard for the traditions and assumptions which had developed over centuries and which provided the foundations of Western science. At the very core of this tradition is respect for truth and honesty in reporting data and results; and a recognition that all the data, and all the steps required to reach a result, had to be available to the scientific world at large.
There are two issues which now have to be addressed. The first is the damage which has been done to the standing of science as an intellectual discipline on which our civilisation depends. The second is the status of the IPCC, since that institution is the source of scientific authority on which prime ministers and other political leaders rely to legitimise their statements about global warming.
A portion of a very long response from the US Science and Public Policy Institute (otherwise known as Bob Ferguson with some help from Christopher Monckton and Willie Soon):
Let the climate criminals stand trial, and let them be fined for offenses under the Freedom of Information laws, and let them be imprisoned for their fraudulent tampering with scientific data, and for their suppression of results uncongenial to their politicized viewpoint, and for the sheer venom with which they have publicly as well as privately denigrated all those scientists with whom they disagreed, and for the insouciance with which they interfered with editors of scientific journals and with the process of the UN’s climate panel itself.
Death threats were made against Phil Jones and two of the other scientists. This is not a small matter.
No fewer than seven investigations resulted: the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee; the UK’s Science Assessment Panel; Pennsylvania State University, Michael Mann’s employer; the University of East Anglia; the US Environmental Protection Agency which was consequently petitioned by government agencies, business and industry groups and activists to overturn new regulations related to greenhouse gas because they were based on corrupt science; the US Department of Commerce to investigate whether the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, the third of the key collectors) had been fudging data; and the National Science Foundation to see if Michael Mann had been behaving unprofessionally.
No evidence of professional or scientific misconduct was found in any of these investigations. The two excerpts quoted above are in context quite benign, when explained more so.
Nonetheless, writing in ‘Newsweek’ about the issue, Sharon Begley noted: ‘One of the strongest, most-repeated findings in the psychology of belief is that once people have been told X, especially if X is shocking, if they are later told, ‘No, we were wrong about X,’ most people still believe X.’
In 2011 a second set of 5000 emails apparently from the first hacking was released just before the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Durban. It didn’t have much impact.
The emails certainly reveal informal chatter that few professionals would necessarily have wanted to become public. They’re men (and yes they are mostly men. Judith Curry is the one of the few science women in this argument and she moves from side to side of the fence) in a hurry with a strong sense of embattlement trying to give form to a monster that they have touched and believe in, but whose shape won’t quite make itself known.
There is no bomb to explode to prove unassailably that you can split the atom, and the major end product, the outcome of your work, is something as problematic as persuading others of the legitimacy, and over time the urgency, of your findings.
So what’s true?