The Age, December 5, 2009
"CLIMATEGATE" has gone viral on the web, forcing the director of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia to step aside pending an investigation. Hacked emails point to leading climate scientists withholding data, subverting the peer-review process, and distorting information. These are stunning accusations of serious misconduct, but are they true?
They are not. Even if we presume that the stolen material is authentic, the notion that climate data is being nefariously withheld is fantastical. Most of the world's climate data, including programming code for climate models, is freely available on the web. Anyone can download it and apply their instantly acquired expertise for the betterment of humanity.
Unfortunately, a small subset of the data is forcibly withheld by governments. For example, the British Met Office pursues legal action if data released for research is passed on to third parties. This policy emerged from an ideology that commercialises any public good, even weather information, and turns it into a ''product''.
What about attempts to interfere with the peer-review process? Some stolen emails reveal anger directed at other researchers, accompanied by the wish that certain papers had not been published. To understand why this is not an attempt to suppress dissent, one must understand the scientific peer-review process.
Having published nearly 100 journal articles, my disk is full of sizzling emails about editors, reviewers, journals, and granting bodies that are about as relevant to science as my gripes during last Friday's pub meet.
In the case of "Climategate", no censorship could have been exercised because the two papers in question made it into the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, arguably the contemporary world's most important document. However, both papers have identifiable flaws (including elementary numerical and statistical errors in one instance), thus retrospectively identifying any endeavour to prevent their publication as quality control rather than censorship.
Finally, what about the infamous use of a "trick" to "hide a decline" in the data? What about the pernicious "fudge factor" in the programming code? Surely those are the smoking guns that close the case against the scientists?
No. If scientists fabricated their data, why is the Arctic melting even faster than they predicted? If scientists fudged their models, why do temperature increases during the past decade conform to predictions?
NASA has just reported the hottest June to October period ever. Download the data and see for yourself. If climate scientists played less than straight, why was Adelaide's 2008 heatwave - by itself a once-in-3000-years event - followed by spring temperatures this year that equalled all previous summer records?
Make no mistake, this is climate change.
If climate scientists invented a trend, why are 400 out of 442 glaciers monitored worldwide retreating at a rapid rate? Why are sea levels rising? If climate scientists cooked the books, why have wind speeds in the southern oceans increased by 20 per cent since 1980? If climate scientists cheated, why is the human toll from civil wars in Africa a function of temperature? Darfur is a climate war, and a recent study showed that every extra degree Celsius in a given year increases the likelihood of civil conflict in Africa by 50 per cent. Best scientific estimates predict an additional human toll of 390,000 in Africa by 2030 because of climate change.
No, the climate scientists did nothing wrong. They just produced amazingly good science on a shoestring budget for the betterment of humanity. Everything we experience today was predicted 10 years ago and could have been ameliorated by heeding scientific advice.
And just because it is an interesting detective story, what about that "decline" that was being "hidden"? Paleoclimatology is a fascinating discipline that provides us with a temperature record dating back millennia by using "proxy" measures, such as the width of tree rings, corals, or ice cores. Proxies are calibrated by correlating them with modern temperature records. More than 1200 such proxy measures exist and, oddly, one of them showed a decline after 1960 while actual temperatures increased. This finding is well-known and cannot be hidden. But it makes no sense to graph the decline because we know what the temperatures were after 1960. So, the "trick" is simply to plot temperature using the best available measure for any given time period; proxies where necessary and measured temperature otherwise. This hides nothing.
Oh, and by the way, within the past few months the missing piece of the puzzle has been found; we now have a reason why those recalcitrant tree rings stopped indicating the temperature from 1960 onward - an effect due to special conditions at that particular altitude. Now the more than 1200 proxy measures confirm that our rapidly changing climate has not been encountered in the past 1000 years.
Beautiful science like this is a human achievement that ranks equal to Beethoven's 9th symphony. Why would anyone forgo that for the hysterical caterwauling surrounding some cherry-picked stolen emails?
Stephan Lewandowsky is Australian professorial fellow in the school of psychology at the University of Western Australia.