Inconvenient untruth

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.

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4 thoughts on “Inconvenient untruth

  1. “Climategate” started out when there appeared on the Internet a collection of e-mails of a group of climatologists who work in the University of East Anglia in England. These documents reveal that some climatologists of international preeminence have manipulated the data of their investigations and have strongly tried to discredit climatologists who are not convinced that the increasing quantities of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere are the cause of global warming.

    It is true that a majority of the scientists who study climatic tendencies in our atmosphere have arrived at the conclusion that the world’s climate is changing, and they have convinced a group of politicians, some of whom are politically powerful, of the truth of their conclusions.

    A minority, however, is skeptical. Some believe that recent data that suggest that the average temperature of the atmosphere is going up can be explained by natural variations in solar radiation and that global warming is a temporary phenomenon. Others believe that the historical evidence indicating that the temperature of the atmosphere is going up at a dangerous rate is simply not reliable.

    Such lacks of agreement are common in the sciences. They are reduced and eventually eliminated with the accumulation of new evidence and of more refined theories or even by completely new ones. Such debates can persist for a period of decades. Academics often throw invective at one another in these debates. But typically this does not mean much.

    But the case of climate change is different. If the evidence indicates that global warming is progressive, is caused principally by our industrial processes, and will probably cause disastrous changes in our atmosphere before the end of the twenty-first century, then we do not have the time to verify precisely if this evidence is reliable. Such a process would be a question of many years of new investigations. And if the alarmist climatologists are right, such a delay would be tragic for all humanity.

    The difficulty is that economic and climatologic systems are very complicated. They are not like celestial mechanics, which involves only the interaction of gravity and centrifugal force, and efforts to construct computerized models to describe these complicated systems simply cannot include all the factors that are influential in the evolution of these complicated systems.

    All this does not necessarily indicate that the alarmist climatologists are not right. But it really means that if global warming is occurring, we cannot know exactly what will be the average temperature of our atmosphere in the year 2100 and what will be the average sea level of the world’s ocean in that year.

    It also means that we cannot be confident that efforts by the industrialized countries to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere will have a significant influence on the evolution of the world’s climate.

    Alas, the reduction of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere would be very costly and would greatly change the lives of all the inhabitants of our planet–with the possibility (perhaps even the probability!) that all these efforts will be completely useless.

    Harleigh Kyson Jr.

  2. Pingback: The art of stating the obvious (and still getting it wrong) « ……random…noise……

  3. I understand your beliefs on this whole upset. I reccommend reading a book called Green Hell. Its a little paranoid, but it has the same idea.

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