News & Media Opinion Pieces Climategate and shooting the messenger, by Peter Doherty

Climategate and shooting the messenger, by Peter Doherty

Peter Doherty, Nobel Prize winning scientist – is author of “A Light History of Hot Air” and member of the DEA Scientific Advisory Committee.

– We acknowledge that this article appeared in the Australian Financial Review February 11, 2010. The article provides an important perspective from a world expert in science.

Climategate and shooting the messenger, by Peter Doherty

Back in November 2009, just before the Copenhagen Climate Congress, we suddenly saw the release of about 1,000 e-mails pirated from a server used by the Climate Research Unit (CRU) of Britain’s University of East Anglia. The police are still investigating, but what was in a few of these e-mails has been exploited to discredit both the integrity of the climate science community and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Leading CRU investigators and their correspondents were among the thousands of scientists who contributed to the fourth (and latest) IPCC report that summarizes what is happening globally with this enormously complex and difficult situation and speculates about possible outcomes.

Did “climategate”, as the affair has come to be called, reveal a fatal flaw? The currently stood–down CRU Director, Phil Jones, refers to a “trick” in presenting results for a peer reviewed journal article. The “trick” turned out to be a technique for combining two types of data that’s generally considered to be legitimate. They clearly regarded some of the outliers in their field as a waste of time, were reluctant to provide them with data and wanted to keep their conclusions out of the upcoming IPCC report. Then they were contemptuous of the journal “Climate Research”. The data exclusion story was concerning as information generated using public funds should be open access. But it turns out that much of the problem is with the constraints imposed by national governments. The scientists don’t own the data. Then, if the “conspirators” indeed meant to exclude some sets of findings from the IPCC report, that was ineffectual as the information appeared anyway..

These guys were naïve to put such reflections and “heat of the moment” thoughts in writing but, collaborating from different continents, e-mail is their conversation. How would you look if selected excerpts from your private, in-house, strategy or editorial discussions were published? Busy, committed people don’t suffer fools and crooks gladly. Active climate scientists who promote a more skeptical view are taken seriously, but every field has its lightweights. All disciplines have one or other peer-reviewed journal that’s at the bottom of the pile. Most don’t have to contend with well-funded, public disinformation campaigns. Scientists aren’t perfect. What keeps them honest is the constraint that their published data must be verifiable. From what I’ve read to date, those who’ve looked objectively and in depth at the “climategate” e-mails have concluded that there’s no real case to answer.

Just when it looked as though “climategate” had pretty much run its media course, we were faced with the information that the IPCC report is basically flawed as it contains a prediction that the Himalayan Glaciers could disappear completely by 2035. That surprised me, both because I didn’t recall seeing it in the politically important Climate Change 2007 Synthesis Report for Policy Makers that’s closely scrutinized and signed off on by the 193 participating governments. Also, it didn’t fit with anything I’d read in the scientific literature. It turns out that the 2035 mistake is in the somewhat speculative WGII section of the 1600 page IPCC report. This bit is not subject to the constraint that it should only discuss peer-reviewed, published data, and also considers “gray” material from NGOs, environmental organizations and the like. It now seems there are other such “errors” and that there’s a good case for overhauling aspects of the IPCC process. In the end analysis, however, neither “climategate” nor the flaws in some of the more speculative sections discredit the basic IPCC case that we need to take action on anthropogenic climate change now. The “message” may resemble a frayed and blood stained battle flag but it’s still proudly flying. “Shooting the messenger” makes no sense.

Though there are numerous uncertainties in climate science and better data is needed in many areas, the fundamental physics of global warming have been understood for more than a century. If you want a brief summary of the current situation look at the US Government National Oceanographic Administration website Click Rising greenhouse gas levels that result largely from the massive dumping of fossil fuel combustion products into the atmosphere cause the progressive trapping of energy radiated by the earth. While atmospheric CO2 levels of 280 ppm stop our planet becoming an ice block, we’re now heading rapidly towards 450 ppm, a concentration that hasn’t been seen for at least 650,000 and maybe a couple of million years. Doubling greenhouse gas levels could increase global mean temperatures from the current 15C to 18C (±1.5C), with a rise of 4.5C or more being a possibility. Political spin, propaganda and bombastic media hype isn’t going to make this go away. Putting a realistic price on carbon makes sense and so does the idea of soil sequestration. The first necessity is to get legislation in place so that the markets can function to facilitate the necessary process of change and renewal. Action provides opportunity!

Peter Charles Doherty is also professor of biomedical research and chair of the Immunology Department at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Tennessee. He is distinguished for his study of major histocompatibility antigens’ role in immune recognition, particularly in virus-infected cells. He shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine with Rolf Zinkernagel.