After climategate: forward to reality

A series of careful reports into the leaked emails of climate scientists provides a consistent account of the "climategate" saga. This allows a welcome refocus on the problems of climate change and the role of the IPCC, says Øyvind Paasche.
Øyvind Paasche
14 July 2010

The bitter controversies swirling around the research findings of and communication between climate scientists seem to have reached a kind of turning-point in mid-2010. After the drama (and even near-hysteria) of the so-called “climategate” affair surrounding the leaked emails of scientists from or connected with the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, a number of reports has been published which enable a calm perspective on a bewildering storm.

These reports also make possible a more measured view of the role of the other institution that has been at the centre of the disputes of 2009-10: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body charged with producing “fair, comprehensive and objectively produced assessments of climate change”. This article offers the view of one working climate scientist on what lessons have been learned and the way forward. 

The context

The fourth and latest assessment report (AR4) of the IPCC was released in 2007. It documents the many shifting scientific frontiers of climate change – those dealing with the past, the present and the future. Soon after it appeared, the panel was awarded - jointly with Al Gore - the prestigious Nobel peace prize. At the time, it seemed that a profound shift was underway in public acceptance of the dangers of climate change and the urgent necessity of taking action. Many, myself included, believed that this was a historic moment; at last, politicians worldwide would seriously address the carbon dilemma.

Two years later, the hope was in ruins. The long-awaited Copenhagen climate-change summit (CoP15) in December 2009 found representatives of the United Nations’s attending 192 member-states unable to reach a meaningful agreement. The expectations there were high, the desire among the delegations and the myriad of NGOs palpable. But the gathering ended in failure.

What made this outcome so disappointing was that the science had delivered. Indeed, in the midst of this major event it was hard not to feel pride in belonging to a scientific community that had produced the data and the knowledge that (in turn) had set the agenda and (in effect) had mobilised all these people. It was the science that had persuaded decision-makers and the public alike - at least on the level of rhetoric and opinion-polls - that the carbon-fuelled economy must be replaced by a greener, environment-friendly model.   But in Copenhagen’s aftermath, it was the science - and the IPCC - that took the hardest battering.

The backlash

If the publication of AR4 was a moment when the doubters and deniers of climate change appeared to have gone quiet overnight, the prelude and aftermath of Copenhagen was the opposite. Three weeks before CoP15, reports began to circulate that thousands of emails written by and to climate scientists working at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) - several of whom contributed to the IPCC’s report - had been hacked and distributed on a publicly accessible website.

The media-frenzy that ensued - in print and cyberspace alike - buzzed with allegations of flawed science, even fraud. Many seized the opportunity once more to promote the idea that global warming is a hoax, and that the evidence-based documentation of a rapidly changing climate is easily explained by natural variability. A sudden and overwhelming wave of hostility defamed not only the CRU scientists but the climate-science community as a whole.

The “scandal”, whose actual content diminished the closer the materials at its centre were inspected, found both national politicians and international agencies frozen when a robust response was needed. Amid the febrile atmosphere  after the breakdown of CoP15, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself - the heart of climate-change science’s legitimacy - became the perfect target.

The damage is, even at this stage, hard to quantify. But it may be that the deepest blow of the “scandal” (at least from the point of view of many scientists involved in producing research on the physical-science basis of climate change for the UN) is to have drawn attention away from the science itself (see “After glaciers: a new climate world”, 27 August 2009).

For nothing revealed, including the small mistakes noted in IPCC reports, has altered the science of climate change. Humans’ role in explaining global warming, the global temperature-effect that CO2 has when released into the atmosphere, the ongoing acidification of the oceans, the importance of reducing CO2 emissions, the receding of Himalayan glaciers - the big picture and even the small ones (notwithstanding any citation errors) are as in need of attention as ever. Yet the reputation of the climate-science community has been tainted, and with that the trust of the public has diminished.

The reports

As the weeks of accusation and denunciation receded, three professional groups were appointed to investigate the facts behind “climategate”. All have since reported:

* a British parliamentary committee - the house of commons’s science and technology committee - concludes that the attention devoted to the CRU scientists in the aftermath of the email theft was largely misplaced (the report, The disclosure of climate data from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia [31 March 2010], can be read here)

* an independent science-assessment panel chaired by Ronald (Lord) Oxburgh and consisting of well-known researchers considered the science published by the CRU; it found no reason to question the integrity of the CRU scientists or anything that suggested malpractice (the report, published on 14 April 2010, can be read here)

* a committee chair by Muir Russell published the Independent Climate Change E-mails Review; it says of the CRU scientists that their “rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt”, and that it “(does) not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments” (the report, published on 7 July 2010, can be downloaded here).

The provider

The outcome of these reports is consistent and decisive. But the whole affair, in the context of Copenhagen’s failure, leaves a number of big questions hanging over the UN-led IPCC. In particular, can it restore public faith in climate science; is there a more efficient and reliable alternative available; is the position vacant?

There are two ways to answer these questions. First, in practical terms it is very difficult to imagine another body compiling and providing up-to-date,  comprehensive and readily available climate science to decision-makers. Not least as scientists contribute to the IPCC on an unpaid, voluntary basis; it would be very costly to pay for such a report if the job were “tendered out”. 

Moreover, national agencies are free to produce their own reports, but they rarely host leading groups in all fields - an important limitation when climate science consists of numerous scientific disciplines, thus demanding a sharing of expertise. The need to gather scientists from different communities, and discuss which conclusions can safely be drawn from available scientific literature, both promotes international cooperation (which has always been one of the greatest strengths of the science community) and brings scientific ideas to a forum able to test and publish them.

Second, climate science is advancing at remarkable speed, with new frontiers being opened every month. It is tempting to explain this progress in knowledge by reference to all the excellent scientists working in this field. But the actual reason may be more related to the fact that humans’ disruption of the climate system has created an imbalance that spurs change - causing many natural processes to occur faster than they otherwise would. Thus knowledge still lags behind the natural processes at work.

The rate of change is in certain areas extremely rapid, and the faster that change occurs the harder it is to predict what the future of a particular system will look like - be it Arctic sea-ice (currently with the lowest areal extension ever measured) or the CO2 uptake in the Southern Ocean. This is why IPCC reports are still vital in providing essential perspective on the changes that humans have set in motion. I foresee that this will be the case both for the upcoming AR5 report, and beyond. 

There are questions to be asked about the COP process. In retrospect, the idea of getting 192 countries to agree on a juridically binding agreement in Copenhagen might have obstructed rather than facilitated progress where progress could be made (see Joe Smith, “Copenhagen: a successful failure”, 12 January 2010). But it is others, not the IPCC, that bear the responsibility for the outcome. The task of making climate science a foundation of public policy that can have positive effects in the real world remains.

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