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ClimateGate as Rorschach Test

In the 10 days since we first blogged about “ClimateGate” — the unauthorized release of e-mails and other material from the Climate Research Unit (C.R.U.) at East Anglia University in Norwich, England — it’s become strikingly clear that one’s view of the issue is deeply colored by his or her incoming biases. No surprise there, but still, the demarcation is stark. One of the best indicators: when you stumble onto a blog post about the topic, you can tell which way the wind is blowing simply by looking at the banner ad at the top of the site: if it’s for an M.B.A. in Sustainable Business, you’re going to hear one thing about ClimateGate; if the ad shows Al Gore with a Pinocchio nose, meanwhile — well, you get the idea.
Those who feel that global warming is the most pressing issue of our era, a potential catastrophe that needs to be addressed by governments around the world as soon as possible, generally argue that ClimateGate is a tempest in a teapot — little more than the sort of academic infighting and nasty language you’d find by raiding any academic’s hard drive; that if the aggrieved climate scientists seemed to be stonewalling, it was out of aggravation with the disruptive tactics used by some global-warming skeptics who are probably funded by the oil industry; that the scientists who wrote potentially incriminating e-mails represent just a few of the thousands of scientists who have contributed to the global-warming literature; and that, if anything, climatologists need more support in the future to fight off skeptics’ attacks.
This camp wonders why there hasn’t been more outrage about the fact that the C.R.U. material was illegally obtained.
The other side, meanwhile, cries “Remember the Pentagon Papers!” while also positing that the C.R.U. “hack” may have in fact been the work of an internal whistleblower who was distraught that scientific fraud was being perpetrated.
This second camp feels that the C.R.U. material proves what they’ve been arguing all along: that the threat of global warming lies somewhere between exaggeration and hoax; that it is a conventional wisdom produced by an alarmist cabal of climate scientists whose research has set the agenda of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (I.P.C.C.); that the e-mails prove the scientists have been manipulating climate data, bullying anyone with dissenting views, and encouraging one another to delete incriminating evidence that might be gained under a Freedom of Information Act request; and, most ominously, that a long document called HARRY_READ_Me, which at this point appears to be the four-year work log of one Ian (Harry) Harris, a C.R.U. research staffer, seems to suggest that the C.R.U.’s underlying global-temperature data were an absolute mess.
This camp also feels that the mainstream media has underplayed ClimateGate — although this view is probably now fading. In just the past few days, there has been a ton of coverage. Still, they complain that the major American TV networks are ignoring the story, leaving it to Jon Stewart to break the news. I won’t steal Stewart’s thunder except to say that he now apparently believes that rising sea levels are caused by “God’s tears”:

But if you want a really good example of how deeply polarized the issue is, take a look at these TV exchanges. In the first, George Will says the C.R.U. material shows the scientists “suppressing criticism, gaming the peer-review process, and all the rest,” while Paul Krugman states “There’s nothing in there”:

And in this conversation between Stuart Varney and Ed Begley Jr. — well, hold on to your hat:

Many blogs covering the topic are just as bombastic. The most prominent blogs in the arena, however, tend to be less so. That said, emotions still run high — particularly in the comments sections. If you feel like wading into the conversation, you might wish to sample Dot Earth, Watts Up With That, and RealClimate, which presents “climate science from climate scientists.” The discussions at RealClimate are intense, for at least two reasons: they are more about the science itself than the conversations at other blogs; and several of its contributors are the very scientists whose e-mails were among the C.R.U. leak, including Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State and one of the scientists responsible for the now-famous “hockey stick” graph, which has been widely used as evidence of a dangerous global-warming trend.
Mann has not blogged at RealClimate since the C.R.U. data were released. His most recent post, strangely enough, was headlined “Climate Cover-Up: A (Brief) Review,” but he was referring to global-warming skeptics’ “disinformation campaigns” against legitimate climate science. He has, however, given a few interviews (see here, for instance).
Meanwhile, Penn State’s college paper, the Daily Collegian, reports that Mann is the subject of a university inquiry into whether he “fabricated or manipulated data on global warming.” And Mann seems to be distancing himself from Phil Jones, the director of the C.R.U. and the scientist who is at the very center of the scandal. Jones, it should be noted, has temporarily stepped down from that position while his actions are being investigated.
So how will ClimateGate affect future climate research and, importantly, climate legislation?
I think the best answer is that it’s far too early to say. Despite the rather dramatic early response to ClimateGate, one senses that there are many other shoes to still be dropped. Many parties will be poring over those documents in the weeks and months to come. Already, however, the scandal has entered the political arena. Just yesterday, at a Congressional hearing on “The State of Climate Science,” Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) “called for an investigation of the e-mails,” according to NPR, saying that “at worst, it’s junk science and it’s part of a massive international scientific fraud.”
In Australia, meanwhile, the government’s anticipated plan to set up a cap-and-trade system — seen as a strong down payment toward further such legislation at the U.N.’s upcoming climate-change conference in Copenhagen — was unexpectedly shot down. If you concur with the Telegraph‘s James Delingpole — whose first article on Climategate began “If you own any shares in alternative energy companies I should start dumping them NOW” — this was but the first political defeat the scandal will produce.
As for the central scientific issue here — that the most prominent climate scientists’ computerized models may be neither as robust nor as predictive as many people think — that is something we write about in some detail in SuperFreakonomics. Passages like the following have won us a few detractors in certain quadrants of the climate-research community:

The current generation of climate-prediction models are, as Lowell Wood puts it, “enormously crude.” … “The climate models are crude in space and they’re crude in time,” he continues. “So there’s an enormous amount of natural phenomena they can’t model. They can’t do even giant storms like hurricanes.”
There are several reasons for this, [Nathan] Myhrvold explains. Today’s models use a grid of cells to map the earth, and those grids are too large to allow for the modeling of actual weather. Smaller and more accurate grids would require better modeling software, which would require more computing power. “We’re trying to predict climate change 20 to 30 years from now,” he says, “but it will take us almost the same amount of time for the computer industry to give us fast enough computers to do the job.”
That said, most current climate models tend to produce similar predictions. This might lead one to reasonably conclude that climate scientists have a pretty good handle on the future.
Not so, says Wood.
“Everybody turns their knobs” — that is, adjusts the control parameters and coefficients of their models — “so they aren’t the outlier, because the outlying model is going to have difficulty getting funded.” In other words, the economic reality of research funding, rather than a disinterested and uncoordinated scientific consensus, leads the models to approximately match one another. It isn’t that current climate models should be ignored, Wood says — but, when considering the fate of the planet, one should properly appreciate their limited nature.

So if what we’re all really after here is “a disinterested and uncoordinated scientific consensus,” what is the current route to that goal? It is hard to think that the I.P.C.C. won’t think twice about every research paper it considers in the future. If the entire enterprise has been tainted — a big “if” — who will, or should, be leading the charge toward producing scientific research wherein every cloud formation doesn’t look like just another Rorschach blot?