Quailing Before the Messy Business of Science

The perception that a veneer of certainty must reign over all levels of climate change has led proponents to come a cropper.
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The perception that a veneer of certainty must reign over all levels of climate change has led proponents to come a cropper.

Recent events are showing that, in the contact sport of climate change science, reasonable people on both sides may have cause to fear that the loser will be the scientific method.

As scientists, policymakers, diplomats and environmentalists begin to converge on Copenhagen for climate talks, the integrity of leading climate change researchers has come under attack; a release of some 1,000 hacked e-mails from the University of East Anglia in Britain has created a stir, with some suggesting the e-mails demonstrate hoarding of and manipulation of data by climate researchers.

The e-mails were written by the "A-team" — members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — and raise questions if the work of other respected scientists may have been disregarded or hampered by a climate change orthodoxy (or "climate oligarchy") that does not value, indeed may discourage, informed debate and dissent. The hope of presenting a unified front may have trumped the messy process of determining scientific consensus.

Adding to the distress is that scientists were supposed to be the good guys fighting to get the facts pushed through the political sieve, not sieving the data themselves like politicians.

These fears recall the resignation of Christopher Landsea from the IPCC after its panel chair reported in a 2005 news conference that global warming was a factor in the severe 2004 hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean. Landsea, then a meteorology researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and author of the first two IPCC assessments on hurricanes, countered that there was no peer-reviewed science to substantiate that claim.

More recently, papers published by respected scientists from the same university, differed on a key element of climate change science, but the study conducted by IPCC members suggesting acceleration of a trend that would impact global warming received the most attention.

Is this just elbowing among scientists who are playing at the top of their games or a march-step method in approaching science that should concern the public and policymakers?

Who's On First?
Let's look at the two studies recently released. The study by the IPCC members received big play in London's Guardian newspaper, with the headline heralding a prediction that global temperatures would rise by 6 degrees C by the end of the century — a suggestion of the paper but not its key finding. This paper, by scientists researching under the umbrella of the Global Carbon Project, was published in Nature Geoscience. It focused on trends in carbon sinks and found the fraction of anthropogenic (human caused) CO2 in the atmosphere likely increased from 40 to 45 percent between 1950 and 2008.

About the same time, another paper was published in Geophysical Research Letters, a small but respected scientific journal, and it turned many heads. The findings: The fraction of anthropogenic carbon released from emissions has remained constant in the atmosphere since 1850.

One of climate science's main focuses is the capacity of land and sea to absorb CO2; if "carbon sinks" lose the ability to sequester carbon, more CO2 will remain in the atmosphere, likely escalating warming. The pertinent question is, are the sinks beginning to lose their ability to absorb CO2, and if so, at what rate?

Wolfgang Knorr, the author of the second study, couldn't find a trend from 1850 to 2007; Corrine LaQuéré, lead author of the first study, said an increase from 40 to 45 percent between 1959 and 2008 was "likely."

Both papers are on the cutting edge of climate science, and both lead authors research at the University of Bristol. The university was quick to acknowledge both studies in a press release, note small differences in approaches and include quotes from the authors, who reiterated that global warming is quite real, more research is needed, and reducing emissions of CO2 should be considered a top priority.

A few days later, the blogosphere erupted with news of the hack of some 1,000 e-mails and 3,000 documents from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, posted on The Air Vent, a skeptic blog.

Skeptics and climate change "deniers" were quick to jump on the e-mail messages, some of which suggested manipulation of data to support a warming trend. A few e-mails seemed to indicate an attempt to keep scientific papers by skeptics from publication and still more that dismissed requests for information under the Freedom of Information Act.

Environmental reporters for The New York Times and The Washington Post covered the story, inevitably dubbed "climategate," giving IPCC scientists a chance to explain the e-mail exchanges. One scientist mentioned he used a statistical "trick" to hide a decline in a warming trend, and another bemoaned the record-cold temperatures in Colorado in October, writing, "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't."

Michael Mann, a professor at Pennsylvania State University (famed for his tree-ring-based "hockey stick" graph of global warming) and one of the authors of the hacked e-mails, explained that scientists often use the work "trick" to refer to a way of solving a problem, i.e. "that'll do the trick." Keith Trenberth, a lead author of the 2001 and 2007 IPCC assessments, acknowledged he wrote the "travesty" e-mail cited above but said that it was taken out of context - that he was referring to the need for better recording of global warming anomalies.

As the blogs of skeptics and deniers were lighting up over the e-mails — "catnip to these guys," as comedian Jon Stewart put it — Trenberth depicted the leak as a political move to influence discussions on climate change at the Copenhagen talks. It was likely an accurate statement but one that doesn't change the e-mails' content, just as the e-mails themselves "do nothing to undermine the very strong scientific consensus ... that tells us the earth is warming, that warming is largely a result of human activity," as NOAA director Jane Lubchenco told Congress.

The e-mails are having an effect. Early this week the director of the Climate Research Unit, Phil Jones, stepped down pending an investigation by Sir Muir Russell into both allegations that he overstated the case for human-caused climate change and into the data itself; Penn State reported that it would conduct an inquiry into the e-mails sent by Mann.

Andrew Revkin, author of the Dot Earth blog for The New York Times, has posted on the incident frequently, including a letter written by Judith Curry, a Georgia Tech climate scientist who accepts the reality of climate change but who is known for engaging climate change skeptics in scientific discussion. The letter was addressed to young scientists disheartened by recent events.

She wrote: "What has been noticeably absent so far in the ClimateGate discussion is a public reaffirmation by climate researchers of our basic research values: the rigors of the scientific method (including reproducibility), research integrity and ethics, open minds, and critical thinking. Under no circumstances should we ever sacrifice any of these values; the CRU emails, however, appear to violate them."

In an earlier post to ClimateAudit.org, Curry wrote that the hacked e-mails raised two concerns for her: the lack of and need for transparency — how data is treated and manipulated and the assumptions used — as well as the growing tribal nature of some groups of scientists. She noted that she was welcomed into the "tribe" when she published a paper that suggested global warming could be causing more severe hurricanes, but shunned after she congratulated a skeptic, Steve McIntyre, when his blog, ClimateAudit.org, was named "best science blog" of 2007 through a Web poll.

Amid the increasing calls for CO2 reductions by many climate change scientists and persistent attacks of their science by "deniers," what may have been lost to the general public in recent years is that many scientists have dissented from what they see to be inaccurate or premature conclusions of some IPCC scientists and a closing of gates on scientific inquiry.

One noted skeptic is Princeton University physics professor William Happer, whose climate war credentials include being fired — over climate issues — from the Clinton administration Department of Energy (he reports being proud of being fired by Al Gore) and sitting on the board of the climate-skeptical George C. Marshall Institute.

Happer, a particle physicist and member of the National Academy of Sciences, is among a group of physicists petitioning the American Physical Society to conduct an assessment of its statement on climate change. More than 200 members of the society have signed a petition calling for "an independent, objective study and assessment of the science relative to the question of anthropogenic global warming ... that reflects the current state of scientific knowledge and its uncertainties."

Happer told Miller-McCune the Earth has been in a warming pattern for 200 years, and it is likely increased CO2 has contributed to the warming, but he contends that CO2 is "a bit player" in climate change, and scientists should consider paleontology records of levels of CO2 in the planet's atmosphere.

"I think it's some natural phenomenon that we don't understand very well," Happer said and then suggested what might be the cause in response to a question about reliability of computer models in predicting climate change.

"Computer modeling is difficult for a system as complicated as the Earth's climate," he said. "Everything is happening on the Earth — the sun is shining, the clouds are drifting by, the ocean currents are changing — everything you can imagine. So you have to simplify the model because you really can't model all that. It's just too complicated. ... Where they've probably completely blown it is in the treatment of clouds. I think the cloud physics probably provides a limitation as to how much warming you can get on the Earth."

Happer said he testified last spring before the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and was asked if he thought global warming was a hoax. He said, "No. I think it's a mistake. Scientists make mistakes all the time."

After the release of the hacked e-mails, he is even more skeptical about the science conducted by the IPCC panel. He's read the e-mails. "It's just devastating what's there," he said. "Systematic doctoring of the data, destroying embarrassing data, destroying any dissent - it's a devastating read."

He said it's natural for people and even scientists to go along with science that has the sanction of the United Nations and is covered as a certainty by the media. "The press has invested a lot in supporting all the global-warming frenzy, so it's going to be very hard for them to back out of this in a graceful way. They've got many reporters, and all they've ever done is report on the impending apocalypse."

Climate scientists on the whole, Landsea among them, don't share Happer's specific views about global warming, but they have experienced politicization in the process of scientific inquiry.

In his resignation from the IPCC, Landsea wrote that the IPCC had become politicized to the point where it was using science in a political agenda.

At that time, Landsea did not find a strong causal link between global warming and increased or intensified hurricanes in the Atlantic.

Landsea became the center of a hurricane of his own after Katrina struck and climate scientists and administration officials wrangled over the likelihood of Katrina being caused by global warming. In 2006, Salon.com reported that the Bush administration sought to have Landsea speak to the media about hurricanes and global warming while stifling another NOAA researcher, Tom Knutson, whose research did suggest a link.

In an interview with Miller-McCune, Landsea, now the science officer for NOAA's National Hurricane Center, declined to comment on the hacked e-mails other than to say: "The best scientists are those that are very critical of their own work and colleagues' work. And if you lose some of objectivity — and there may be some that have — you get a little bit tainted, and that's unfortunate because what we need desperately are people who are trying to uncover the truth."

When asked about the brouhaha after Katrina, he noted, "The current NOAA policy is anyone can discuss scientific matters with the media with no interference," then added, "I am concerned about how I was allowed to speak and my colleague Tom Knutson, who has a bit of a different viewpoint, was not. That was not appropriate. I did feel like I was a bit of a pawn in 2005, 2006."

Landsea's views on global warming and hurricanes have not changed. Although he believes the Earth is warming and is concerned about its affects, particularly sea level rise, he attributes increased hurricane activity in the Atlantic to natural cycles that he said paleo-oceanographic research has shown have been going on for years. He said the latest computer models are suggesting that tropical storms and hurricanes won't increase significantly — and perhaps decrease slightly — because of increased wind shear.

He noted that the IPCC "didn't do a good job in the last two editions. They made the link between hurricanes and global warming, but they didn't put up the numbers. It's 1 to 2 percent stronger today, maybe 3 percent 100 years from now. That's pretty tiny."

Two Studies, Two Datasets
Let's return to the two studies mentioned at the beginning of this article. Miller-McCune interviewed Wolfgang Knorr via e-mail exchange and Steve Running, an author of the LaQuéré study, by phone.

Steve Running, director of the Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group at the University of Montana and an IPCC author, conducts computer modeling of Earth's forests and vegetation from satellite data. When asked how he viewed Knorr's paper, he said, "This isn't a revolutionary finding or it would be on the cover of Science." Noting that he knew Knorr and respected him, Running said the paper was a solid bit of ongoing analysis but not a paradigm shift.

"What Wolfgang did that was of greatest interest was to push this back to 1850. Most of the papers that go after this topic stick with something more like the last 20, maybe 50 years. That's what's particularly interesting here — trying to do the most credible job possible all the way back to 1850."

Running rued the fact that land data that would help in determining estimates of the land carbon sink has been very difficult to measure. "We don't have a way of quantifying land-use change accurately on a year-to-year basis," he said. "Then when you go with Wolfgang — to the pre-satellite era — then you're really out to lunch. You're having to make estimates."

The early data used are drawn from historical data sets, he said, and various assumptions have to be made. "We're splitting hairs of precision trying to understand where the system's going," he said.

"This is an argument or discussion that comes up. At the science conferences we all go off to beer in the evenings, and we good-naturedly battle away. ‘How did you get your land-use change for Africa from 1850 to 1950,' I'll say. And he'll tell me, and you drink another beer and then you say, ‘Wasn't the Sahara expanding back then?' ‘Well, nobody knows if it was expanding from climatological reasons or due to deforestation by the humans.' It's that kind of back and forth we try to hash through."

Knorr would agree with Running that the time span was probably the main significance of his study, but he sticks by his findings of a constant airborne fraction of CO2 and believes they are more accurate than the trend found in the LaQuéré study. He said that, contrary to what is often heard through media reports, "few scientists in the field really believe we are seeing an upward trend in the airborne fraction.

"I even spoke to one of the authors of the other study, and he said the same," Knorr said. "It is only the Global Carbon Project who promote the idea, but important leading scientists in the field, like Ralph Keeling, Martin Heimann, Niki Gruber, Martin and Andrew Manning, are not in the ‘club.' What you are seeing is factions fighting for space in the limelight."

"The idea that the trend might go up is based on computer models," he said.

And so, this debate goes on, fueled by genuine scientific inquiry, hopefully not directed or influenced by in-group politics.

Asked for a response to the e-mail hacking, Running replied by e-mail from Copenhagen: "I know most of the people involved. While some of the personal backbiting quotes are a little embarrassing, there was no new data uncovered, no data analysis that has been proven wrong. The denier crowd is desperately trying to make a mountain out of a molehill. No one over here considers this a scientifically significant issue."

When asked what he thought of Knorr's paper, Happer responded that he had a problem with a sentence in the abstract that referred to CO2 emissions staying in the atmosphere, "which has prevented additional climate change."

"There is precious little evidence that climate change has much to do with CO2 levels in the atmosphere," Happer said. "There have been many warmings and coolings in the past 10,000 years where the CO2 levels stayed nearly the same. It reminds me of Soviet science books from the Stalin era, which often had an effusive acknowledgement to Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin in the preface, which was then followed by quite good science that had nothing to do with these men and sometimes contradicted their pontifications."

As to the content of the paper, Happer said he "would agree with Knorr's claim that the observationally derived trend is consistent with zero rate of change of the atmospheric fraction" and could not think of a physical reason for the trend to change.

"This paper, and those that come to contrary conclusions have pretty good instrumental data on atmospheric CO2 levels from about 1960," he said, "thanks to the pioneering work of Keeling. The pre-1960 data, which comes from ice core samples, has many more problems. Putting together fundamentally different types of data is fraught with problems."

That last sentence might be one they all could agree on.

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