[21 April: a version of this has been posted at On Line Opinion.]
The committee charged with examining the quality of the climate science conducted at the University of East Anglia has found “absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever”, according to its Chairperson, Lord Oxburgh.
Accusations of fraud or scientific misconduct have been widespread since emails were illegally hacked from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit last year. Oxburgh continued “whatever was said in the emails, the basic science seems to have been done fairly and properly”. The committee considered that if there had been misconducted they would very likely have found it.
Oxburgh’s committee is the second of three set up to investigate the allegations, and the one most concerned with the actual science. The first to report, a House of Commons committee, also exonerated the scientists, although it was critical of the University of East Anglia for not having clear policies about release of information. The third committee, more focussed on freedom of information issues, is due to report soon.
The Oxburgh committee noted that the affair raised important unresolved questions about how freedom of information laws should be applied in an academic context. They considered that some sustained requests for data and computer codes could have amounted to a campaign of harassment. They noted that academic research requires a strong focus on publication, and documenting complicated procedures involving experience and judgement, however desirable in retrospect, was a lesser priority. They also noted that it can be impractical to supply computer programs to outsiders because they often require very time-consuming documentation to be comprehensible. Behind these findings of the committee is the fact that academic research is often done on a shoe string compared with the budgets of government and private laboratories.
In view of the often vitriolic criticism directed at the CRU, it is particularly notable that the committee says
“We believe that CRU did a public service of great value by carrying out much time-consuming meticulous work on temperature records at a time when it was unfashionable … CRU has been among the leaders in international efforts to determining the overall uncertainty in the derived temperature records and where work is best focussed to improve them. [Emphasis added.]
The committee also states
“ … we found a small group of dedicated if slightly disorganised researchers who were ill-prepared for being the focus of public attention.”
Not only has the committee rejected claims the scientists doctored their data and conclusions, it makes clear that the scientists pioneered methods of gathering and amalgamating data from diverse sources to get the best possible estimates of past temperatures, and have been very clear all along about the uncertainties of their estimates.
The panel did note that the climate scientists did not always use the most up-to-date statistical methods, and that their work could have benefitted from involvement of a professional statistician. However they doubted the conclusions would have been different, although their earlier methods might have exaggerated some effects in the so-called “hockey stick” graph (the subject of heated debate) which depicts temperatures over the past thousand years based on tree-ring data. The committee found that the scientists were very open to improvements in their methods, that they agreed some past methods were superseded, and their goal seemed to be to establish past temperature variations in as dispassionate a manner as possible.
The picture emerging from this and previous reports is of a small group of academic researchers who pioneered the gathering of vast amounts of data of diverse kinds, and the careful evaluation of the data for artifacts and unrelated effects, and who always emphasised the uncertainties in their estimates of past temperature. With limited time and resources, they accomplished a great deal, although their methods could in retrospect have been more thorough in some respects. They did not anticipate the intense public scrutiny to which their work has been subjected and did not have the procedures or resources for releasing data systematically (and they did not always have the right to release data obtained from other countries). The release of computer code is often impractical. The charges of deliberate misrepresentation of data and conclusions are not valid.
The global warming denial movement has become politically powerful over the past few years, but its claims are increasingly being shown to be empty. The process of re-establishing sensible and rational debate about global warming is beginning. It will be slow, and the resulting delay in coming to grips with global warming is likely to be very damaging, but it will happen. Continuing warming of the Earth is likely to become clearer over the next year or two, finally moving us beyond the nonsense that the world has been cooling since 1998. NOAA has just reported last month was, globally, the warmest March on record. However natural events like volcanic eruptions can temporarily obscure long-term trends, so we must wait and see what this grand experiment with our life support system brings next.
Much of the impetus for the denial that humans cause global warming comes from industry groups selfishly pursuing their own short-term interests. They are supported by a large corps of poorly-informed instant experts who gullibly accept the deliberate distortions of the industry groups. Much of this resistance to the conclusions of climate science seems to come from those who cannot countenance any change to the form of growth-obsessed consumer capitalism currently dominant in the world, despite ample evidence that the climate problem could be solved without drastic changes to our quality of life. The last resort of denialism is conspiracy theories, and we can confidently anticipate claims that the Oxburgh committee, comprising scientists as it does, is part of the alleged conspiracy and not to be believed.