Why Climategate doesn’t matter (I)

For the past several weeks, conservative commentators have been buzzing about “Climategate” — hacked e-mails from the Climatic Research Unit in Britain that show some scientists may have been cooking the books in an attempt to bolster the case for global warming.

“Assuming the e-mails are genuine, they are nothing short of scandalous,” writes Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, a prominent global-warming skeptic. And, inevitably, Climategate enthusiasts are demanding to know why the big, bad mainstream media are ignoring the e-mails.

I am not going to deal with the e-mails. As I recall a prosecutor once telling a jury, I don’t have to prove that Mr. Doe is the sort of person who’s capable of murdering his wife if I can prove that he, in fact, murdered his wife.

In the same vein, I don’t have to defend scientists who may have been mucking with the data to boost the case for global warming if I can show that the earth is actually warming. So today I present the first of 10 stories, some of which you’ve probably seen before, that are grounded not in data or computer simulations, but in the reality of global warming.

If you have any nominations, please pass them along. I’ll probably stop when I get to 10.

And if you really want to know more about Climategate, I recommend the excellent Climateprogress.org blog, written by Dr. Joe Romm. And so we begin:

On Sept. 10 of this year, the New York Times reported on a quest by two German ships to become the first to traverse the Arctic Ocean — a journey that would not have been possible were it not for the thinning of the Arctic ice cap.

“It is global warming that enables us to think about using that route,” Verena Beckhusen, a spokeswoman for the German shipping company, told the Times.

As the story makes clear, mariners have dreamed of using that passage for hundreds of years, as it would save a considerable amount of time, and, thus money. But it was only recently that the ice became thin enough to make it a reality.

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26 thoughts on “Why Climategate doesn’t matter (I)

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      Let’s try to stay focused, Tory. The accusation is that some scientists made it appear that global warming is worse than it actually is. You’re talking about an entirely different subject.

  1. Quantum Mechanic

    You’re playing the strawman game, Dan. Many/most of the “deniers” (as the CRU cabal would put it) don’t dispute the earth is warming. What they dispute are (a) if it’s human-caused and (b) even if it is, if it’s “catastrophic”.

    Current proposed policy from our ruling global elites is to spend trillions of dollars and drastically slow economic growth.

    Since it’s the CRU types and their models which “predict” the allegedly catastrophic changes that we’re supposed to beggar ourselves for, sweeping “Climategate” under a rug like you’re trying to do is bogus.

    Proving (assuming the cherry-picked stories you’re about to regale us with actually have any meaningful probative value) that the earth is warming DOES NOT prove that we’re in the grips of some cataclysmic change that requires us to spend trillions and give governments and politicians even more control over our economies and lives.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      Quantum Mechanic: I’ve carved out my assignment. You should take your argument to Joe Romm. Let us know how it goes.

  2. admitted skeptic

    Dan,
    The scientists in question have not just been saying that the climate is warming. They are saying that CO2 is the culprit and have used temp data that they now say they have thrown out to justify the correlation. Would it be a story if emails came out that scientist funded by Exxon or some conservative think tank had been trying to manipulate pier review journals to suppress articles that argued for the correlation and had thrown out government funded research that proved CO2‘s contribution to global warming?

  3. Michael Pahre

    Dan, while I admire the principle behind this first of your series of posts — to put forward a series of references and arguments that show climate change and the human role in it — I think you are, in the process, short-changing the bulk of the story of “Climategate” (or “Swifthack”). And even with your tack, this first post isn’t the right kind of evidence you should be presenting.

    On the first point: Many of the arguments being put forth related to these emails (and program code) appear to be out-of-context and misrepresentations of the content in the emails themselves. There are technical terms that are being misused as lay terms, misunderstandings of the literature, and even substitution of harsh language for relatively innocuous words. Media Matters has gone through some, but not all, of the mistaken claims:

    http://mediamatters.org/research/200912010002

    I hate to consider what a layperson like op-ed columnists Will or Jacoby — with virtually no knowledge of the body of scientific literature, research techniques in the field, or detailed knowledge of the peculiarities of the various data sets — would think if he looked through my emails, documents, and comments embedded in program code. He would find the words “trick” and “hack”, various methods for weeding out poor data, many different methods of cross-calibrating or re-normalizing or stitching together various data sets, etc. These are standard research tools which get documented in the peer-reviewed literature when work gets published, but are unlikely to be appreciated or even grasped by a layperson op-ed columnist — or radio talk-show host.

    And even if I screw up big-time, there would still be lots of other peer-reviewed research papers (nearly) gleeful to point out all my mistakes in data collection and analysis. My work would be summarily kicked into the ditch in favor of many superior studies.

    Which gets me to the second point: while I’m no expert on climate change (although I am a colleague to Baliunas and Soon), my understanding is that its science rests on a number of indicators of global temperature increases. The Northwest Passage ice melt is conceivably a localized climate issue (although I don’t argue that is the correct conclusion), while climate change science typically focuses on global temperature effects.

    The NYT was right to say “the retreat of Arctic ice that scientists have linked to global warming,” not that the retreat of Arctic ice is a primary indicator of global climate change.

    For your future posts, I suggest you focus on the primary indicators of global climate change — i.e., indicators of global temperature increase — not secondary effects like the opening of the Northwest Passage.

  4. Newshound

    The problem is that pollutants resulting from 19th and 20th centuries’ industrial development is contributing the the permanent or near permanent damage to the planet, its atmosphere and health of its occupants.

    What has happened and is continuing to happen is not reversible, or for that fraction which is reversible, will take numerous centuries to correct.

    The effect we are living under is like someone jumping off a skyscraper who remains in perfect health as he passes by the 11th floor in the free fall. There is a real problem coming up shortly, and the same with global warming within 100 years most likely.

    After that, life for humans and many other occupants may become darn miserable for a few centuries even with technology to delay or extend the torture.

    Considering human nature as we have seen it, especially with the increase of abuse and selfishness in politics, industry, economics and other significant areas of our civilization, human life will most likely cease on the planet within 1,000 years, and it is feasible within 500 years. Now, I know that is a hard one to prove right or wrong, but going green at this point may do little more than expand life and defer the torture of an uninhabitable planet for a few more generations.

    Whether we are making life better for others 50 or 100 or a 1,000 years from now, our contribution to human decency and civilization requires us to, like good scouts, leave our campsite better than we found it. Not likely to happen, but we ought to try. There are too many who think it is okay to leave it a little worse, even if in doubt.

  5. Brad Deltan

    Dan, to paraphrase Barney Frank, you’re arguing with the kitchen table here.

    You don’t have to prove anything. It’s been proven ad nauseam. The only people left who claim it isn’t are people who have a vested interest in claiming it’s not, and thus should best be ignored because they’re idiots.

    When the sky is gray, do you argue with the toddler who insists it must be blue? Even when he throws a temper tantrum?

    Of course, at this point I am firmly in favor of doing everything possible to make global warming worse. Because the fact that we’re arguing over this rather proves that humans aren’t going to make it as a species anyways…might as well speed up the inevitable demise.

  6. Newshound

    Brad – I think our perspectives are a little bleak long term, but I’m suggesting sacrificing in the event that there is at least some chance our likely predictions are wrong.

    I think it is still a little early for the suicide route. Better to hold off and take another look in a couple of hundred years.

  7. lkcape

    Is Dan arguing that the flawed academic/scientific methods used are to be dismissed out of hand?

    Sure seems so to me.

  8. Dave Brooks

    I think he’s arguing that “climategate” has not been shown – by people who understand the science, not just activists or lobbyists – to have undermined the scientific conclusions so much that we should stop attempting to undo our atmospheric damage.

    I would agree with that assessment, confident that scientific truth will come out. This means that if we *have* been misled, those in the field (not laymen like me) will find out and let us know.

  9. Dougetit

    Let’s see.. 150 Plus years of temperature records discredited, and now have to rely on UAH Sat data-set? Oh NO! Must jump off of bridge before that’ll happen! Relax.. UAH data-set http://vortex.nsstc.uah.edu/data/msu/t2lt/uahncdc.lt
    is a good thing. It says temperatures have risen 13 hundreths (.13) of a degree in over three decades. It also says that temperatures have trended cooler (Since Jan 1998) for over a decade now! Thank me for saving your life!

  10. Dougetit

    Besides.. Things could be worse. For instance, Al Gore could piss off 3000 danes who paid $1,200 a ticket by cancelling his Global Warming speach at Copenhagen. But wait.. ooops.. that did happen. Seems that AGW is a hoax. BUSTED!

  11. lkcape

    Here is a more “nuanced” view from The Spectator.

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/essays/all/5592953/part_2/global-warming-the-truth.thtml

    Note that the likes of our esteemed host are called out for that they are in the second and next-to-last paragraphs.

    Also note: The AP is reporting that the University for whom the climate scientists work has decided that the e-mail revelations merit a thorough review for the seeming breach of professional and academic ethics.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      Ikcape: Just to remind everyone, I am not writing about the e-mails, so don’t accuse me of having taken a position on them. I am writing solely about external reality, which shows the e-mail scandal, if indeed there was a scandal, to be irrelevant.

  12. lkcape

    Read the article Dan. It’s the external reality that is in question, or more properly, its extent and the assessment of both its cause and its long-term effects.

    I am reminded of the 1960’s projection that Lake Erie would be dead for a thousand years.

    (Funny, I don’t feel as if a thousand years has passed since then.)

    Lake Erie may not be the cleanest body of water in the world, but it sure has more life in it than a “dead” one.

    As for the questions that you cavalierly dismissed in your original thoughts, the ARE fairly legitimate and ARE worthy of serious answers.

    BTW: How would YOU have graded a student’s paper if YOU had discovered that the student had fabricated or manipulated data?

    Hmmm… thought so.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      Ikcape: You just don’t get it, do you? Someone else is grading these students’ papers. They are not in my class. I will let others do what they need to do with these particular scientists and instead focus on what interests me.

  13. lkcape

    Sorry, Dan, it is you that seems not to get it.

    Tainted data leads to tainted conclusions.

    And since much of the “wisdom” that you base your views on derives from the very set of data that has now been exposed as being suspect, what then does it say about your attempts to abuse those who suggest that a closer, more appropriately scientific look is in order?

    Is that beyond your comprehension?

    Or does your adherence to the
    orthodoxy of global warming cloud your view of proper scientific — or for that matter, social — research?

    Now the question was, Dan, how would YOU approach a student in YOUR class who fabricated his thesis?

    Answer it or not as you wish; the reader gets to decide whether or not you are ingenuous.

    It is also interesting to note that Penn State University is looking into the possible misrepresentation of climate data and published conclusions.

  14. O-FISH-L

    Dan wrote: “As I recall a prosecutor once telling a jury, I don’t have to prove that Mr. Doe is the sort of person who’s capable of murdering his wife if I can prove that he, in fact, murdered his wife.”

    O.J., anyone?

  15. Amused

    Personally, I believe that Industri-Plex is responsible for all global warming. Forget the wells, the methane was overwhelming.

  16. Amused

    As for Ikape and Lake Erie, it should be duly noted and spread upon the record that something came along to prevent it from dying for a thousand years.

    That something was the Clean Water Restoration Act of 1966 and its progeny.

    Kindly thank the nearest liberal.

  17. LFNeilson

    1. The fact that some scientists may have used fake data does not mean that all scientists have.

    2. The timing of the “discovery” of the emails makes me suspicious of what’s going on. Someone with a vested interest may be trying to discredit the conference.
    There’s more to investigate here, (in that other prof’s class) and I’d be looking to trace the “discovery”. Were they planted?

    3. GW is too big a threat to ignore, leaked emails or no.

    Proceed, Dan.

    1. Dan Kennedy Post author

      @LZNeilson: Folks I respect, including Paul Krugman and Joe Romm, have looked at Climategate in some depth and concluded that it’s much ado about very little. I have not taken the time to look into it in more than a cursory way, which is why I’m staying away from the e-mail themselves. The evidence for global warming is overwhelming and all around us. Glad to see that you get it, as I suspect most readers of this blog do.

  18. lkcape

    I’m not sure how “the timing of the released e-mails” has anything to do with either their accuracy or their implications.

    Political move?

    Quite likely.

    But extraordinarily damaging to the orthodoxy whenever they are made public.

  19. Nancy

    In emails and on listservs and in journals and at conferences and at presentations and seminars, scientists of all disciplines constantly debate data and analytic techniques. We worry about “validity” and “reliability” (are these data an accurate representation of what we say they mean?)about whether the data are adequate to assumptions underlying analytic procedures, about the analytic procedures, and about whether those procedures support the interpretations we make from them.

    Yes, it is “manipulation” of data, but virtually all uses of data, legitimate and illegitimate, involve “manipulation.” It seems at minimum irresponsible to accuse those who participate in these routine discussions of ideological aims.

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