By Thomas Sieger Derr
February 4, 2010
First came Climategate. Hacked e-mails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at England’s University of East Anglia (UEA) showed that CRU researchers were defending the thesis that humans are causing global warming by suppressing contrary evidence, trying to keep opposing viewpoints from being published in scientific journals, and dishing up private insults to skeptics. The East Anglia CRU is one of three major sources of world temperature data; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) at the UN relies heavily on it. Thus, the scandal is serious. When an Australian scientist sought access to CRU data under the Freedom of Information Act, CRU director Dr. Phil Jones stiff-armed him, telling him that he had twenty-five years of work invested in his data set and wouldn’t share it with anyone who intended to find fault with it. Then, as pressure to disclose the data mounted, the CRU announced that the raw data had been destroyed, leaving only “interpreted” figures. The claimed temperature trends (ever upward) cannot be verified.
Next came another embarrassment, this time to the IPCC itself: the discovery that a 2007 report that the glaciers of the Himalayas could vanish by 2035, published by the IPCC in 2007, was entirely bogus. The report had its origins in an article published by the World Wildlife Federation that was not peer-reviewed but that the IPCC accepted uncritically as scientific research. Dr. Murari Lai, the lead author of the IPCC report’s section on Asia, admitted that the claim was a deliberate exaggeration. But, said Dr. Lai, “We thought that if we can highlight it, it will impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action.” IPCC chair Dr. Rajendra Pachauri (who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore on behalf of the IPCC) at first vigorously defended the glacier claim, calling criticisms of it “voodoo science.” He subsequently had to eat humble pie and withdraw the alarm, as there is no evidence of any such rapid melt.
Then came an IPCC report that ice is disappearing from mountaintops in the Alps, the Andes, and Africa. As it turned out, this report, too, was only masquerading as science. It was based on an article in a popular climbers’ magazine that offered anecdotal evidence from climbers, and on a master’s thesis from a Swiss geography student who interviewed Alpine guides as sources. This anecdotal evidence is not science and certainly cannot go back to the early 1900s to show the trend the IPCC claimed.
But wait! Matters get even worse. The 2007 IPCC report also claimed, as a scientific finding, that 40 percent of the Amazon rain forest was at risk of turning into tropical savanna because of a global warmingcaused decline in rainfall. This claim turns out, again, to have its source in the World Wildlife Federation, in speculation from two nonscientistsan Australian policy analyst and a freelance journalist and environmental activist. This is not the kind of science that the IPCC is supposed to produce. The main danger to the Amazon rain forest comes from loggers and expanding farms, not rising temperatures.
And again: The IPCC claimed that there was an increase in extreme weather conditions as a result of human-induced global warming. But the expert on whose paper this assertion was based said that his work was quoted only in part to make it yield a conclusion the data did not support. “There is insufficient evidence to claim a statistical link between global warming and catastrophic loss,” he said.
And one more: The IPCC used a study of tree-ring data from eastern Russia to demonstrate a history of ever-rising global temperatures. But subsequent inquiry by doubters showed that the data were cherry-picked only from trees that supported the thesis. The majority of the trees in the forest did not. Data indicating periodic cooling trends were suppressed.What are the consequences of this series of exposs?
First, the credibility of the IPCC’s so-called scientific findings has been dealt a blow, possibly fatal. The IPCC is not, in fact, an objective, neutral body that evaluates pure research; it is a dominantly political body controlled by a tight group of true believersan advocacy organization that only pretends to scientific objectivity. Its scandalous behavior has led to widespread calls for Dr. Pachauri’s resignation. Apparently, however, a majority of IPCC scientists still supports him.
Second, there is a new willingness in the mainstream media, and even among some hitherto reluctant scientists, to pay respectful attention to the so-called climate skeptics. John Beddington, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, says that climate scientists should be less hostile to doubters who question man-made global warming, and that public confidence in science depends on more openness to varied opinions. Britain’s BBC, a longtime purveyor of climate alarmism, once thought the skeptics so foolish that they need not be noticed. Now the BBC has come around to covering them. Balance has made a belated appearance, and “The science is settled” is no longer a credible statement. The British media on the whole, especially national newspapers such as the Telegraph and the Times, are way ahead of their American counterparts in reporting on these unsettling disclosuresperhaps because the big one, the incriminating East Anglia e-mails, occurred on their turf.
Third, the political drive to enact climate control (what a foolish expression!) legislation in the United States has been delayed, perhaps for a long time or permanently, although pieces of programs, such as mixing energy sources, will survive for other reasons. It is a safe bet that proposals for carbon mitigation, which will be expensive and will damage our economy, will not make it through Congress not now, and maybe not ever.
Finally, the credibility of science itself has been shown once again, and as if we needed a reminder to be subject to such ordinary human failings as ego defense, the willingness to bend the truth rather than admit error, and the temptation to disparage and insult one’s opponents. Greed may be in the mix, too, as research grants are at stake.
All in all, it’s been a sorry month or so for the global-warming alarmists. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the whole movement is going away, though. A mystique has been built around it, and that is not going to vanish overnight. The movement’s credibility has been damaged, and its political future is dismal, but a large body of scientific opinion still supports it. Meanwhile, if the temperatures do resume rising (right now, they’re flat), I, like most of humanity, intend to enjoy them.
- Thomas Sieger Derr, a member of the First Things editorial and advisory board, is professor emeritus of religion and ethics at Smith College and the author of Environmental Ethics and Christian Humanism