The Guardian’s “Climategate” debate: a mixed blessing 1

The Guardian's "Climategate" event in London

The Guardian’s recent “Climategate” event – picking over the fallout from UEA’s hacked emails – was always going to be a weird one, and I left with decidedly mixed impressions. For some, this event clearly represented the rehabilitation of climate denial in even the more progressive end of the mainstream media. One friend described it as “like being in 1998”, which was not far off the mark. Two of the panellists – Doug Keenan and Steve McIntyre – fall broadly into the “sceptic” camp, while a good third of the room at least seemed to be composed of elements of the denial lobby. Benny Peiser – a serial paid advocate for mining industry frontgroups – was in attendance, as was the eccentric weather theorist Piers Corbyn – whose constant heckling at one point saw him threatened with ejection from the room (to loud applause).

Tammy Boyce of the King’s Fund (and co-editor of Climate Change and The Media), who was in the audience, was visibly angry at the prominence accorded the “deniers”. “Policy is not made on the basis of evidence”, she reminded the panel in an impassioned point from the floor, going on to vociferously challenge the “sceptics”’ agenda. Her implication, I took it, was that, in attempting to pick holes in climate science, Keenan and McIntyre were effectively engaged in a battle to influence public perception, with all the potential adverse implications for public policy. Certainly at the very least the event often had a tendency to focus astonishingly narrowly on minutiae at the margins of a gravely and overwhelmingly important issue. Another friend found the level of assumed knowledge and intensive focus on detail absurdly frustrating – and, dare I say it, peculiarly male.

The question of how the prominence of events like this will impact on the public perception of climate change, then, hung over the event like a bad odour. Bob Watson, Chief Scientific Adviser to Defra and former chair of the IPCC (before US pressure forced his ouster) had to repeat the now ages-old critique of the media’s “balanced” portrayal of climate science, and the inherently distorting effect of converting a 95:5 distribution of scientific opinion into an even 50:50 split. Even so, I got the impression that Watson still didn’t quite “get it” as far as the role of the media is concerned. Like many climate scientists, he appeared to perceive the problem as one of relatively innocent failures or mistakes. The reality – implicating the persistent influence of vested interests – surely makes the problem all the more intractable, and more troubling. Nevertheless, Watson’s performance was largely flawless, and by far the most consistently assured, honest, reasonable and convincing of anyone on the panel.

Despite reservations though, I found myself not wholly able to agree with the severest critics of the event. Firstly, there are some legitimate doubts about how far the “sceptical” panellists – or at least Steve McIntyre – fall into the agenda-driven “delayers” camp home to most climate change denial – even if his links to vested interests remain very real. Others perceive McIntyre as more of an obsessive (though inept and deluded) amateur; and he himself asserted during the event – albeit cautiously – that he would expect Governments to take action on the issue. Moreover, it seems clear that, in at least one instance revealed by UEA’s emails, the “sceptical” groups exposed a real problem – namely that flaws in a particular piece of research were glossed over by at least one of its authors. Equally troubling has been scientists’ apparent closing of ranks around this issue – suggesting that in some cases, publicly engaged climate scientists have been not only – and commendably – defending good science, but sometimes simply protecting their own profession and its members. Sadly, the slippery performance of UEA’s Pro-Vice Chancellor and former CRU head Sir Trevor Davies only served to reinforce this impression.

It is worth reminding ourselves, then, that in any field of study, assiduous attention to detail from obsessive outsiders – even including those who are largely incompetent, deluded or ideologically driven – can sometimes produce findings of real importance. This is even true in such stark cases as the historical study of the Holocaust, where deniers’ criticisms have apparently played a real role in producing genuine discoveries. If climate scientists are given license to waive such criticism where it is legitimate, clearly this is a problem for the open and transparent scrutiny of research. For that reason, the outside “auditors” on the panel to my mind deserved a hearing in at least some measure.

Even so, legitimate worries persist. If a pair of Holocaust deniers – to stretch the analogy – had helped produce an important historical discovery, we should still harbour major reservations about according them the privilege of an open platform from which to speak. In some quarters, to make matters worse, the embrace of Keenan and McIntyre was demonstrably utterly naive. Veteran environmental journalist for the Guardian and New Scientist Fred Pearce characterised them as “a new generation of sceptics” more properly seen as “data libertarians”, from whom CRU had closed themselves off. But it quickly became clear that Pearce’s account was utterly delusory. Early on in the event, for instance, McIntyre held up Phil Jones’ “trick to hide the decline” as evidence of scientists’ mendacity (comically, a quotation from Jon Stewart of The Daily Show was the only evidence McIntyre offered to substantiate this judgment). Later on, Keenan stated that of the substantial amount of climate science he had looked at, “none of it stands up to scrutiny”, and proceeded to lay into the incompetence and fraudulence of the entire profession. These two, we are being asked to believe, are merely “data libertarians”?

But there was more ill-thought-out commentary to come from Pearce – in particular in his treatment of the IPCC. According to Pearce’s account, the body institutionally forces scientists to form consensual views and eliminate uncertainties. It is fair to say that across the room the jaws of those familiar with the IPCC were hitting the floor at this point. The IPCC report is perhaps the most caveat-riddled text it is possible to imagine, acknowledging degrees of uncertainty all the way through – even including a formalised glossary of terms used to express uncertainties. It also includes among its “Supplementary Materials” a rigorous and careful document called “Guidance Notes for Lead Authors … on Addressing Uncertainties” – which reads rather like the reverse of everything Pearce described. It was left to Bob Watson to point out that the IPCC does discuss uncertainties – constantly. Personally I couldn’t help feeling Pearce deserved to have the point put to him a good deal more forcefully.

Nevertheless, the event also seemed to mark a distinct shift in the discourse in a more positive sense. We began to hear more about policymaking as a matter of managing uncertainty and risk. Every one of those on the panel advocating action on climate change, indeed (which was most of it) did so with reference to “decision-making under uncertainty” – a near-constant condition across diverse areas of public policy, we were reminded. Troubling questions remain – particularly at an event like this – as to how far the denial lobby may be able to exploit and skew the perception of such uncertainty in the public realm. Yet if the nature of the underlying science and its wider public communication are becoming more closely aligned, this can only be a good thing. Whether the general public will get the message in a serious way any time soon, however, remains an urgent question, and one that still confronts us.

One Comment

  1. Harold Forbes

    Tim,

    Thanks for posting such a good summary of an event that I was double booked for.
    I firmly believe that the nature of the debate has to be shifted; ordinary people (i.e. those that do not earn their livings from being connected to the issue)have lots of other things on their minds. Yet this issue strikes right to the very heart of what it is to be human. Not one individual among us can either consume or save enough carbon to make a material difference either way, yet just as a drop of water dripping on a flat stone can errode a hole and a flood can wash it away, the combined effect of our individual activity is proving to be disasterous.
    I do not believe that ordinary people are happy with the idea that by engaging in their everyday activities they are destroying the future life of the planet. But that is exactly what our economic activity is doing. Worse, it is telling us that it is “rational behaviour” to do so as that is the “cheapest” option. If human consciousness is to have any meaning at all, then we must change the way wea ccount for our activity. The money system is the only thing we have that is powerful enough to deliver in the timeframes that we seem to need. We need to reinvent how we account for economic activity so that we are rewarded for living with the planet, not on it.

    Harold Forbes is Author of “How to be a Humankind Superhero: a manifesto for individuals to reclaim a safe climate”. Read chapter summaries at http://www.hksuperh.com or download the complete first chapter at http://bit.ly/freehksh

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