Several of you have asked me during the past few weeks to comment on Climategate--the emails stolen from the University of East Anglia dealing with global warming issues. I will do so here, but I want to go beyond that situation to some of my own personal observations derived my own experiences doing climate-related research.
Let me start with my bottom line points:
Were some of the climategate emails inappropriate? Yes
Have some scientists exaggerated the implications of human caused global warming? Yes.
Are many global warming deniers unreasonable and expressing opinions that are not based in facts or rational thought? Yes.
Is the basic science of climate change now in question because of the climategate emails? No.
Has the whole business gotten too political? Surely.
Are scientists human and sometimes doing things out based on human emotion or group think? Yes.
Climategate emails: I read through more than a hundred of them...particularly the ones that have gotten big attention. These scientists were in circle the wagons mode. Clearly, they felt under pressure, if not threatened, by the global warming (GW) skeptics, and discussed ways of denying the critics information requested through Freedom of Information inquiries. They scientists talked about erasing emails, and not publishing in journals they felt were printing materials they disagreed with. Web sites like "Climate Audit" has become dirty words to some. (I personally love "Climate Audit"!). All of this was inappropriate.
In the famous "trick" email the east Anglia emails talk about replacing the proxy tree ring records with instrumental records for the past several decades (because the tree ring records disagreed with what the instrumental records were saying)--instead of just showing those records and noting the difficulty. Not quite open. Is there any major technical cover up evident in the emails?...not that I could see. Denier and skeptic types are claiming that these emails undermine the whole global warming business...and they are completely wrong about that. But there are some general issues we should talk about.
There is an almost tribal separation going on today between the scientific community and their "allies" (generally of a liberal persuasion) and the denier and critic crowd (many of them of a conservative bent). The denier folks have become angry, with conspiracy theories and accusations of far-left agendas. Whenever there is an article on climate change in newspapers, these people leaves large numbers of online comments. And few of them are well informed about the science. And there is a lot of misinformation on the "pro" global warming side as well. Scientists, unaccustomed to being on the firing line, have gotten defensive--and the emails from climategate really document this attitude.
This defensiveness has now gotten unhealthy for both the science and society. Scientists who attempt to publish material indicating that global warming due to manmade causes is not evident or weak, or who doubt the severity of the problem, are not treated well by some. I have had some first-hand experience with this. I am known as somewhat of a skeptic regarding global warming effects in the NW--although I do believe that greenhouse gases are a serious problem in the long-run. A group of us noted that the snowpack in the Cascades was NOT rapidly melting away, in contrast to some publications by some local climate scientists and publicized by Mayor Nickels. The reaction was intense. One of my colleagues, Mark Albright, who was the first to notice the lack of snowpack loss was fired as associate State Climatologist and the media went wild...we called it Snowpackgate...and it got national attention. I was told in the hallways to keep quiet about it...the denier types would take advantage of it!
We then wrote a paper on the subject (the main contributor being Mark Stoelinga) and submitted it to the Journal of Climate. I have published a lot of papers in my life (roughly 100) and I never had problems like we had with this paper. Very biased associate editor and some reviewers. Four review cycles and it was about to be turned down, until we appealed to the editor, who proved fair and reasonable. This paper has now been accepted for publication, but it really revealed to me the bias in the system. Here is the paper if you are interested:
Poor papers with significant technical problems, but reflecting the "official" line, get published easily, while papers indicating the global warming is weaker or delayed, go through hurdle after hurdle.
I have heard case after case of similar treatment...so this is no anomaly.
The media tends to publish all kind of threatening predictions about global warming without really researching them. A good example is that suggestion that heavier precipitation will fall in the NW under GW...or is already happening. There is no evidence for this, but it gets repeated over and over again. On the other hand the denier types point to every cold wave or the fact there has NOT been a lot of warming in the last 5-10 years (which doesn't mean anything). And the glaciers! Some of the melting may well be due to man-forced warming...but the melting started early in the last century before CO2 effects were significant.
Another problem is that uncertainty of our climate predictions are often not clearly expressed in various publications--even semi-official ones put out by climate impacts groups of various types. It is sobering to note that the uncertainty in climate predictions has not declined over the past decades. Our models are much better now than thirty years ago, but key aspects of the modeling systems...like how they simulate clouds... are not as realistic as we would like...and this is very important for climate change work. I think people sense there is more uncertainty in the predictions than the official outlets tell them...and that may be part of the fuel of denier rage. The essential physics of warming is quite solid and well understood, but the details...like how clouds will react...are still under investigation.
So perhaps I have been confusing....but the bottom line is that this issue has been completely politicized and confused with both sides using problematic information at times....did this have to happen? If Gore hadn't taken up the mantle of stopping global warming, would things have been better? Can Climategate lead to a better approach and attitude among all parties?
PS: Talking about "Secrets of Snow" at Third Place Books tonight...Lake Forest Park... 7 PM