Monday, December 14, 2009
Greenpeace: Emails, global scientific consensus and the winner is...
Greenpeace: Emails, global scientific consensus and the winner...
A few emails vs global scientific consensus: guess who the winner is?
(Thanks to Nick Anderson for the use of his cartoon.)
Like a bad smell, the theft of emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) hangs around the Copenhagen conference and threatens to distract people from what really needs to be discussed. Suddenly, everyone seems to be a scientific expert ready to denounce a global conspiracy but you don't have to dig down far to see just how misinformed some people are willing to be.
Many people have strong suspicions that it's no coincidence these emails surfaced a couple of weeks before the UN climate summit, or that the few emails highlighted out of 13 years' worth of data are part of a co-ordinated attempt to damage everyone's trust in the science which is driving these negotiations.
In his speech during the opening of the conference (pdf), chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Dr Rajendra Pachauri noted that "the recent incident of stealing the emails of scientists at the University of East Anglia shows that some would go to the extent of carrying out illegal acts perhaps in an attempt to discredit the IPCC."
And equally, many people have provided sound explanations for the suggestive words and out-of-context passages the increasingly-desperate climate deniers have pounced upon.
You'll know the three or four emails which have been held up as proof of an ongoing conspiracy amongst scientists. In particular, there's the one explaining how to use a "trick" to "hide the decline" in temperatures - John Cook explains on Skeptical Science how this relates to the divergence between temperature records derived from tree ring data and those from observed temperatures:
The "decline" refers to the "divergence problem". This is where tree ring proxies diverge from modern instrumental temperature records after 1960. The divergence problem is discussed as early as 1998, suggesting a change in the sensitivity of tree growth to temperature in recent decades (Briffa 1998). It is also examined more recently in Wilmking 2008 which explores techniques in eliminating the divergence problem. So when you look at Phil Jones's email in the context of the science discussed, it is not the schemings of a climate conspiracy but technical discussions of data handling techniques available in the peer reviewed literature.
If paleoclimatology isn't your strong point, here's an entertaining video summary of how the emails have been misinterpreted.
Think about how many emails you'd send in 13 years. Then consider that if these examples are the best material to run a smear campaign with, then whoever did this is really desperate. Unlike most other people, Canada's Green party leader Elizabeth May read all the emails. Every single one. "How dare the world’s media fall into the trap set by contrarian propagandists without reading the whole set?" she says as she highlights how some without a scientific background have been only too eager to manipulate data they don't really understand to get the result they want. Which is exactly what Dr Phil Jones and others at the CRU are being accused of.
And there's been plenty of speculation about who did this, but maybe we'll never know. Of course the timing may be coincidental, the emails may have been hacked by somebody with entirely different motivations, we just don’t know. But what we do know is that there have been other reports of break-in and hacking attempts at other climate research centres, making it seem suspiciously like a deliberate attempt to undermine the Copenhagen talks.
The science of climate change is not based on the work of scientists at the CRU, but draws on thousands of peer-reviewed studies from all over the world, including sea-ice cover, sea level rise, glacial retreat, and temperatures of ocean, land and air. The assessments of the IPCC which are driving international action are the result of one of the most rigorous and robust scientific endeavour ever devised. Anyone who has doubts should get hold of a school textbook and revise, because it all rests on some very elementary science.
And the planet is still getting warmer. Earlier this week, the Met Office revealed that this decade has been the warmest on record, and 2009 is on track to be the fifth warmest year. As a result, sea levels are rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and the Arctic sea ice is melting.
Meanwhile, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has reiterated this, saying that "global climate change caused by human activities is now underway, and it is a growing threat to society." And for a neat summary of what is happening out there, I'd recommend reading the Copenhagen Diagnosis report (pdf) produced by the Climate Change Research Centre at University of New South Wales to provide a summary of the research published since the last IPCC one. It's not long and easy to follow, but if you can't face it just go for the summary. It's all there.
And we're expected to reject worldwide scientific consensus based on peer-reviewed research because of a few out-of-context emails which haven't even been through a spell check? Pull the other one.