February 2010

A Harsh Climate


I might as well come right out and say it: I don’t care whether global warming is caused by manmade greenhouse gas emissions. And neither should you.

Before you start reaching for your laptops, iPhones and BlackBerrys to fire off scathing e-mails, give me a moment to explain why I made this statement and what it really means. I bet that, when I’m through, you will agree with me.

This column is being written because of the confluence of two events. One is a meeting in Copenhagen of representatives of most of the world’s nations, aimed at formulating a new global strategy for dealing with the climate crisis. The talks have ground to a halt as I write this because the group of developing countries, known as the G-77, has accused the United States and other industrialized states of forsaking the Kyoto Protocol, the current climate agreement that imposes greenhouse gas emissions on nearly every developed nation.

Global Warming

Figure 1. Unequivocal evidence for a warming planet. Global surface temperature trend from three global datasets: NOAA (NCDC Dataset), NASA (GISS dataset) and combined Hadley Center and Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia (UK) (HadCRUT3 dataset). The data clearly indicate a dramatic and accelerating warming trend over the past 150 years. Reproduced from the World Meteorological Organization.

The second event is “Climategate,” the release of illegally hacked e-mails between climatologists. As an example of giving aid and comfort to the enemy, Climategate hardly could be improved upon. In late November, a computer file including more than 1,000 e-mails sent either from or to members of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit was stolen and released on the Internet. The e-mails contain language that opponents of emission curbs have seized upon as alleged examples of data manipulation and outright fraud on the part of climate researchers. For example, one e-mail apparently sent by the head of the CRU, Phil Jones, refers to using “Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years… to hide the decline.” The CRU is one of the leading research units on climate change, and its data had a major role in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in 2007, that provided unequivocal evidence for global warming (see Figure 1).

Of course, scientists use the word “trick” all the time as a shorthand term for a method or algorithm, but professional skeptics rarely bother themselves with the way scientists work. It seems likely that the files were stolen to undermine the Copenhagen talks, but my assessment is that there are so many other contentious issues in that meeting that this is a relatively minor matter for most of its participants. Nevertheless, Jones has stepped down as head of the CRU pending an internal investigation. In my view, he instead should have been made to write on the blackboard 1,000 times: “I will never put anything into an e-mail or text message that could be embarrassing to me or to my organization if it were read by someone else, and, if I don’t believe this, I should ask Tiger Woods.”

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