Rescuing Climate Science from Politics

Guest contribution – Professor Rosemary Lyster, Sydney Law School, University of Sydney & Director, Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law

‘Rescuing climate science from politics’

Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, will reprosecute the case for a carbon price following the elections. But first, she intends to build a community consensus for action. How hard is this likely to be? Earlier in the year, following ‘climategate’ and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s unsubstantiated finding that the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035, many claimed the case for a carbon price had evaporated. What’s changed? Although I’m not a scientist, I can tell you about some of the reviews of these controversies. After all, community consensus on climate change will depend in large measure on the extent to which climate science is rehabilitated in the public’s mind.

Let’s start with ‘climategate’ where the leaked emails of Phil Jones at the Climate Research Unit, University of East Anglia allegedly showed: collusion among climate scientists to hide views contrary to their own; abuse of the peer review process; and a failure to respond to data access requests under the Freedom of Information Act. ‘Climategate’ has been subjected to three investigations – by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, by a Science Assessment Panel and an Independent Climate Change E-Mails Review. The Science Assessment Panel was established by Jones’ university in consultation with the Royal Society, the UK’s National Academy of Science. It comprised seven eminent scientists from prestigious universities around the world. I’ve read all of these reports. My synthesis of their findings must of necessity be brief.

The House Committee concluded that ‘there is independent verification, through the use of other methodologies and other sources of data, of the results and conclusions’ of CRU. Other data sources include the US National Climate Data Center (NDC) and the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), based at NASA. With CRU, these three organisations have collected direct temperature measurements on land and sea at weather stations around the world. NDC and GISS each use at least 7,200 stations. As to a conspiracy to hide contrary views, the Committee found that Phil Jones’ peer reviewed climate change publications clearly refute the allegation. No evidence of subverting the peer review process was found. The Committee found that CRU and the University showed an unacceptable culture of resisting disclosure of information to climate skeptics, even though 95% of the raw data is publicly available. It found that alleged breaches of the FOI Act need to be resolved but expressed sympathy for Jones who knew – or perceived – that the requests were intended to undermine his work. It concluded that climate scientists should make all of their data available online at an early stage.

The Science Assessment Panel saw ‘no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work’ of CRU. The Panel found the researchers to be ‘objective and dispassionate in their view of the data and their results, and there was no hint of tailoring results to a particular agenda.’ It did query, however, whether their research could benefit from closer collaboration with professional statisticians.

The Independent Climate Change E-Mails Review, released on 6 July, found that the rigour and honesty of CRU scientists are not in doubt and there is no evidence of biased temperature data selection and bias, or of subverting the peer review process. The implication that CRU’s work should not be trusted or relied upon cannot be supported. The Review found that tree ring data compiled by CRU to demonstrate temperature change and presented in the 2007 IPCC Report was not misleading, although failure in 1999 to disclose the reconstruction and splicing of such data had been misleading. Allegations that CRU had misused the IPCC process could not be upheld. CRU’s failure to respond to FOI requests was ‘unhelpful’ and the University management was criticised for failing to assess the risk of the data access controversy to its reputation.

So what is the way forward? The pressure placed on climate scientists is not new and, moreover, it’s inevitable. The authors in Wendy Wagner and Rena Steinzor (eds) Rescuing Science from Politics: Regulation and the Distortion of Scientific Research show how whenever science interfaces government regulation – tobacco, asbestos, pharmaceutical drugs, pollution – scientists’ work is deconstructed and dissected. Research time is taken up responding to requests for access to data while the essential underpinnings of a study’s methodology and findings are queried. Scientists are reported to their universities for ‘scientific misconduct’ while others are engaged to counter the science being relied upon by regulators. Such conduct has led to ‘civil conspiracy’ litigation against tobacco companies which were sued for conspiring to deceive the public about the dangers of smoking. Similar litigation was recently brought against ExxonMobil for misleading the public about climate science. As Wagner notes ‘these trends and their complex interactions have multiplied the opportunities for destructive collisions between the worlds of law and science.’ While scientific inquiry is premised on disinterestedness and collaboration, the policy- and law-making process has the potential to render affected stakeholders either winners or losers.

What is new, however, is the power of the blogosphere, as the E-Mail Review acknowledges. Here ‘unmoderated’ comment stands alongside peer reviewed climate science. Consequently, as James Hansen, the world’s leading climate scientist at NASA, observed recently ‘the gap between what is known by scientists and what is understood by the public has widened.’

If Julia Gillard wants to build consensus on climate change then climate scientists and regulators must tell the public honestly what is known about climate science and where the uncertainties still are. The $30 million in the Budget for public climate science education, and other strategies, should go some way to facilitating a mature debate here about the government’s proper response to climate change.

As to the IPCC, the InterAcademy Council, an organisation of the world’s science academies, will review its procedures and deliver a peer-reviewed report to the UN by 30 August.

Finally, a question for the media. Just why is it, as Dr Lesley Cannold, a researcher and medical ethicist, reported recently, that Lord Monckton, a climate change denier, appeared in the media 455 times during his Australian visit while the visit by James Hansen, referred to earlier, warranted only 61 mentions?

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