Rescuing climate science from politics

15 July 2010

'Rescuing climate science from politics'


Professor Rosemary Lyster, Professor of Climate and Environmental Law

Director, Australian Centre for Climate and Environmental Law

The University of Sydney

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 in November last year 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. The E-Mails Review report was the last to be released on 6 July. I've read all of these reports. My synthesis of their findings must of necessity be brief.

The House Committee, the Panel and the Review found no evidence of scientific malpractice with the House Committee concluding that 'there is independent verification, through the use of other methodologies and other sources of data, of the results and conclusions' of CRU. The reference here is to land and sea temperature data collected by the US National Climate Data Center (NDC) and the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS), based at NASA. NDC and GISS each use at least 7,200 stations. The Committee, Panel and Review found no conspiracy to hide contrary views or of tailoring results to a particular biased agenda. The Review found that controversial tree ring data compiled by CRU to demonstrate temperature change and presented in the 2007 IPCC Report was not misleading, although the Committee and the Review differed about whether a failure in 1999 to disclose the reconstruction and splicing of such data had been misleading. No evidence of subverting the peer review process was found. CRU and the University were criticised for their culture of resisting disclosure of information to climate skeptics, even though 95% of the raw data is publicly available. The Committee expressed some 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 Review rejected the allegation that CRU had misused the IPCC process.

The pressure placed on climate scientists is not new and, moreover, it's inevitable. In 2006, lawyers, scientists and philosophers in Wendy Wagner and Rena Steinzor (eds) Rescuing Science from Politics: Regulation and the Distortion of Scientific Research showed how whenever science interfaces government regulation- tobacco, 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 methodologies and findings are queried by scientists employed by those threatened with regulation. 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.

In addition, climate scientists risk being reported to their universities for 'scientific misconduct'.

Witness what has happened to Michael Mann, one of CRU's key collaborators, and one of the originators of the tree ring temperature data. Following 'Climategate', his university, Penn State, received numerous emails, phonecalls and letters obliging it to investigate him for research misconduct, albeit that in 2006 the US National Academy of Sciences concluded his scientific methods fell well within accepted practice. The University cleared him of all wrongdoing. Yet, in May this year, the Virginia Attorney-General issued a Civil Investigative Demand for documents against the University of Virginia, Mann's former employer, alleging that Mann used five taxpayer funded research grants to undertake his 'fraudulent' climate change research. This month, the A-G also filed a legal challenge against the US EPA's Endangerment Finding under the Clean Air Act that greenhouse gases threaten public health and the welfare of present and future generations. Worse still, in February, US Senator Inhofe, a well-known climate skeptic, threatened criminal prosecutions against 17 climate scientists, many of them lead authors of IPCC reports, for alleged breaches of the FOI Act, President Obama's Transparency and Open Government Policy, the Federal False Statements Act, the False Claims Act (Criminal) and Obstruction of Justice: Interference with Congressional Proceedings.

As Wagner notes 'these trends and their complex interactions have multiplied the opportunities for destructive collisions between the worlds of law and science.'

While the regulatory battle over climate change has been underway for some time, what is new 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 in Sydney 'in the last six months the gap between what is known by scientists and what is understood by the public has widened.'

So what is the way forward? Following 'Climategate', if Gillard wants to build consensus on climate change then climate scientists and regulators should go on a nationwide road show, literally and using all available communications media, to 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 should go some way to facilitating a mature debate here about the government's proper response to climate change.

Despite the obvious temptations, this is not the time for climate scientists to run for cover and avoid engagement with the public. What science and law do share is a demand for openness, transparency and accountability - although perhaps it's now time for scientists, universities and legislators to discuss whether FOI exemptions, which protect certain types of government information, ought to extend to protecting aspects of the scientific endeavour, such as 'raw data'. Are any other legal reforms needed to protect the work of climate scientists or does society believe that the scrutiny which they face, beyond the peer review process, is justifiable? What should be done about the intimidating yet anonymous cyber-bullying which climate scientists face around the world? And what is the media's role in all of this? Dr Lesley Cannold, a researcher and medical ethicist, reported recently in the Sydney Morning Herald, 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.

So much for 'Climategate'. We now await another report necessitated by the climate science fracas. On 30 August, the InterAcademy Council, an organisation of the world's science academies, will deliver a peer-reviewed report to the United Nations on its review of the IPCC's procedures.

Contact: Professor Rosemary Lyster

Phone: +61 2 9351 0292

Email: 31193b351d4e261245344b18120e190d433a3456294b783f21107b3239