With Copenhagen summit set for the next week, there could hardly have been a worse moment, at least PR-wise, for breaking out what the international media already refers to as Climategate. It turns out that world’s foremost authority in climate research–Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia–along with their colleagues around the world had been cooking the raw data on climate change in order to make it better conform with their hypothesis of man-made global warming. And not only that – apparently they had also been actively suppressing the dissenting voices to the point of CRU’s leader Phil Jones having promised to keep two articles voicing different opinions out of the UN report “even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is”.
This is important on at least three different levels. First, there’s a general point about how the academy, and academic publishing in particular, works. Although it is probably true – at least I certainly hope so – that the kind of things described in the article above are unfortunate and rare exceptions rather than a norm, it still does point towards a general problem. While the academic peer review process is meant to ensure the impartiality and independence of the assessment it too has its limits. As Paul Feyerabend has wryly observed – Galileo’s grant proposal to use the strange premise that terrestrial optics applied also to the celestial sphere, to assert that the tides were the sloshing of water on a mobile earth, and to suppose that the fuzzy views of Jupiter’s alleged moons would prove, by a wild analogy, that the planets, too, went around the sun as did the moons around Jupiter would not have survived the first round of peer review in a National Science Foundation of 1632. Even though we nowadays have literally tens of thousands of academic journals, covering every subject imaginable, there is still an inevitable orthodoxy coded into the very peer review process itself. Those who are charged with the task of reviewing and assessing whether any particular piece of knowledge is worthy of publication are necessarily practitioners in the field themselves, with all the academic allegiances that this entails along with their own views and interests to keep in mind. So getting the opinion out that’s at odds with going line of thought has always been controversial under this system.
The particular tragic of the current scandal, however, is not so much in exposing the flaws of the academic peer review process (which is hardly much news to anyone who has been involved or interested in academy) rather than seriously discrediting the environmental movement. Because even though it appears that the man-made global warming scare that got Al Gore his Nobel prize turned out being “Inconvenient untruth”, the climate is changing and we’d better try to understand the reasons behind it and possible consequences that follow. And if Climategate leads to taking an eye off that particular ball then I’m afraid that this is ultimately bad news for everybody.
And this leads us to a third point, and namely – what is the broader aim and purpose of climate research? I have long been incredulous to the rhetorics of most of the fundamentalist environmentalism, including the brand that Al Gore has been preaching – which basically sees the nature as something pristine and inherently balanced. And from this it follows that mankind is a force that threatens this delicate natural equilibrium that has supposedly been around for ages and eons and would remain so, lest we destroy it. The problem with this view is twofold: first it is simply wrong on empirical grounds. The world has been through enormous environmental calamities long before we acquired powers to contribute to them, indeed before humankind even was around on this planet. There was a global freezing now known as Ice Age, and a subsequent global warming. There’s now a Sahara desert, covering the landmass of the size of Europe, where once there was a very lush vegetation. Or think of coal, oil and natural gas – they are fossil fuels, remnants of once living organisms, think of the scale of environmental destruction that had to take place for them to fossilize. And as there were no humans around at that time, we’d have to conclude that all those events – like half the globe freezing over or Sahara turning into desert – were natural. Now, if we agree, as we surely must, that the natural world does change and all those changes are not necessarily what we would find beneficial or benign from our human point of view. And this is the core of the second and in fact deeper problem – it may well be that the current climate change is not man-made, or at least not to the extent that it has been believed to be recently, but it may still be a threat to the environment – to our environment, the state of nature that we, as humans, need to thrive at this planet. But properly responding to this problem is impossible if we hold dear to the principle that “nature is not to be messed with”. One of the upshots of Climategate is in fact precisely that fighting against global warming (be it real or imagined, man-made or natural) is an enormous project of global engineering – what we should do is not to protect the nature as something abstract and transcendent, but protect a very specific kind of nature, a specific balance that we can’t take for granted even if we “do nothing to threaten it”. This is what I see the biggest danger of Climategate – if it turns out that climate change is not, after all, a man-made rather than natural phenomena, it doesn’t change the fact that it may still well be the largest and most serious challenge that the mankind is facing.