The Climate Gate Emails

by rbrood on December 6, 2009 · 1 comment

Copenhagen / Countdown (3) / Climategate

Previousily I said … Of course, the leaked “climategate” emails gather a lot of attention. It’s food for those who want to argue and find scandal and conspiracies. I don’t have anything intelligent to add to that conversation. But whether or not I have anything intelligent to say, I have gotten several calls about the impact that the hacked and published emails will have on the Conference of Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen.

So my take on the impact is that the actual impact on the conference will be far smaller than the exaggerated attention that the emails will attract. (Has it really caused Al Gore to cancel his appearance?) My analysis is based on several facts. First, the people doing the real work in Copenhagen are all knowledgeable in the science and the politics of climate change. Part of what they know is that there has been a community of people who have continually challenged the conclusion that the Earth is warming and that a large portion of the warming is due to greenhouse gases released by burning fossil fuels. Similarly, there are those who feel that there should be no policy to manage the emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Hence, the emails do not really change the constituencies; they give one constituency something to crow about, and another constituency something to defend, and if the world is as usual, most people will, practically, proceed without much attention to either. So it is a distraction, and that aspect reminds me of Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight – a complete master of chaos and disruption.

There are both the facts and the emotions that are expressed in the emails. A lot of the “factual” part that floats to the surface concerns the figure known as the “hockey stick” . My first reaction to that is that the science and the presentation of this figure has been controversial enough that the U.S. National Academy of Sciences did a whole report on the “hockey stick.” This report, which included climate scientists, did not simply rubber stamp the figure, and pointed out issues with the data and the presentation. They were also critical of the way the figure had been used. The news article from Nature is a good summary. Therefore, emails that discuss management and presentation of this figure are not surprising.

What seems more surprising is the emotion of the scientists, perhaps, at times, the intent of the scientists. The desire to advance and defeat certain points is not limited to climate scientists. It is an integral part of the competitive nature of our species; it is something that some of us laud and advocate in markets. Similarly, in markets, some despise the harsh competiveness and its lack of compassion. There is an element of science that is a market of ideas, and the competition of ideas is generally viewed as a strength. Peer-review is not perfect, but it does, for the most part, work to keep fields honest. Another metaphor I am reminded of, the description of the U.S. democracy as imperfect, but the best that we have.

As we all know, climate science became overtly politicized as soon as there was widespread belief and evidence that there was human-caused global warming. The permeation of knowledge of global warming throughout society occurred long before the hockey stick figure. The politicization of climate science has influenced the behavior of climate scientists and scientific programs for at least 20 years. When I worked in the U.S. government there was stunning sensitivity to well-placed Senators, Representatives, and even the beliefs of examiners in the Office of Management and Budget. Scientists and program managers would tip toe around special words, and many of my colleagues behaved as if there was bureaucratic death around ever corner in the contorted corridors of government buildings.

With the politicization of climate science, there was also introduced the role of lobbyists and interest groups. Some of these interest groups set as their goals the personal discrediting of individual scientists. One of the most widely reported of these instances is the case of Ben Santer. Given the politicization and concerted personal attacks, it is not surprising to see hostility expressed and the development of a bunker mentality.

The practice of science in the best of circumstances is messy and ripe with the flaws and inconsistencies of humanity. The scientific investigation of the Earth’s climate has long been out of the domain of the community of scientists. The circumstances have long been difficult.

So the emails reveal the flaws and inconsistencies of humanity. They reveal competitiveness, people trying to find advantage, and to message. In many instances, these are attributes that are admired. The fact that these notions emerge from the purity of “the science,” is perhaps shocking to some. More likely it is not shocking but it can be conveyed as such by a group that is competitive, trying to find advantage, and to message.

So when I sit down with diplomats and people who have been in government for a long time, it always amazes me how immune they are to the distractive disruption that is manufactured. They just see it all as part of the game; it does slow things down. There is nothing in those emails that will allow us to reject the conclusion that the Earth’s surface is warming, sea level will rise, and the weather will change. The real impact of the leaked emails will be small.


At the bottom are a few more links that I have found useful or just plan silly.

Sell your stocks / Global Warming Death Nail

Elizabeth May: An informed look

Thomas Zurbuchen: Messy Science

Rood comment over on the side

And here is

Faceted Search of Blogs at

UoM at COP-15

{ 1 comment }

1 Amrita Kumar December 7, 2009 at 1:10 am

Thanks for that post Prof Rood – The “human-ness” of this entire process is one that is often not talked about.

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