If you do not know what climategate refers to you probably got here via some odd typo in a google search. If you do but have not yet read Real Climate’s post on it, you should do so. It is too late to rename the whole affair, but I thing “Swifthack” would have been more apropos.
Climategate is big news and not just in the climate blogosphere, all the major newspapers have opined. Here in cyberland, I have seen a doubling of traffic without really writing a thing about it or having a high traffic site link to me, I am assuming general interest in the story is the reason. Most of what I would have to say on it has been expressed well elsewhere so, not having much time, I will not do a general take on it. In a nutshell, I assume that what the denialists have dug up is the absolute worst of thousands of messages over ten years and so there is just no “there” there. Some words are surely regrettable but c’mon, this was thought to be private conversation. A real conspiracy would have something somewhere along the lines of “I know we are wrong but…”, wouldn’t it?
The only climategate response I feel like replying to is one from George Monbiot.
George Monbiot is no enemy of climate change science and no friend of the sceptics but he has reacted very strongly and very negatively to some of the content in these illegally obtained and released emails.
When it comes to his handling of Freedom of Information requests, Professor Jones might struggle even to use a technical defence. If you take the wording literally, in one case he appears to be suggesting that emails subject to a request be deleted, which means that he seems to be advocating potentially criminal activity. Even if no other message had been hacked, this would be sufficient to ensure his resignation as head of the unit.
He also writes:
I have seldom felt so alone. Confronted with crisis, most of the environmentalists I know have gone into denial. The emails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, they say, are a storm in a tea cup, no big deal, exaggerated out of all recognition. It is true that climate change deniers have made wild claims which the material can’t possibly support (the end of global warming, the death of climate science). But it is also true that the emails are very damaging.
I think he is wrong on the substance of this issue. There is no evidence of any serious wrongdoing that I have seen. The email he refers to above may merit investigation, I don’t know what Jones wants deleted and if it has any relevance to any past or present FOI request. If an investigation reveals a crime then yes, there should be consequences. But Phil Jones resigning now will not resolve anything and will only add further credibility to the insunuations of a fundamentally corrupt scientific research area. Does any serious person think the whole affair would stop there if Jones did resign? Hardly, it would only fuel subsequent attacks.
As for the anti-denialists being in denial about whether or not this is a big deal, it really depends on your perspective. In terms of the scientific case for anthropogenic global warming, it is definately not anything approaching a big deal. These particular researchers work in the field of paleoclimate specializing in dendrochronolgy, it is a very small supporting piece of the preset climate change puzzle. There is no evidence that they were wrong in the science and even less that they were wrong and knew it. In terms of the PR war and the clear intention of this act to undermine the Copenhagen talks, it is a bit early to tell how big a deal this is and that is the only cause for genuine concern. I suspect (hope?) that most people, being well outside of the climate wars, will give it a brief look and generally reconfirm preexisting opinions. Regardless, I think the worst PR move would be buying into the contrarian claim that it is significant and throwing Jones under the bus.
I find one other particular quote of Monbiot’s worth commenting on:
The handling of this crisis suggests that nothing has been learnt by climate scientists in this country from 20 years of assaults on their discipline. They appear to have no idea what they’re up against or how to confront it. Their opponents might be scumbags, but their media strategy is exemplary.
Monbiot is probably quite right, these guys do have little to no idea what to do. But it is an entirely unreasonable expectation that they should. People do not generally choose to be PhD researchers because they are good at, or interested in, dealing with mass media and public perceptions. Their tools are reason and data, not insinuation and echo machines.
Ultimately this fact is the achilles heel of the reality based community of climate science. Confronted with “lawyer science”, the truth becomes little more than a shackle. How do you best battle an opponent who has no such constraints?