Issues

Global Warming

My apology to climate scientists

children and clean energyTwo years ago around this time, I was preparing to attend the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, where 192 countries and most heads of state gathered to address climate change. The day’s top headlines heralded the release of 1,079 of your private emails, an action intended to attack climate science and the scientific process, giving a segment of the public a rallying cry against international action. Embarrassing snippets of your emails were repeated endlessly in blogs, news outlets, and social media—an incident dubbed “Climategate” by a lazy press.

I remember spending a few hours reading the coverage and emails. I thought about writing a defense of the science and the scientists but I hesitated, realizing I couldn’t really know everything that might be contained in the private emails. If I jumped to judgment without seeing the context or the independent reviews, I would have been guilty of my own bias. I assured myself that the stolen emails did not require my attention: whatever ill manners, bad behavior, or hostility was revealed in the emails, nothing arose that changed the fundamentals of the science. And nothing made me less concerned about the state of the world’s changing climate or the urgency of international action on Copenhagen.

Two years later to the day, the still-unknown thief of your private communications has struck again, releasing 5,300 more of your emails on the eve of the conference of the 192 countries meeting in Durban, South Africa. Perhaps nine separate investigations over the past two years or the patent absurdity of your attackers means that this new barrage of attacks will take less of a toll on you.

But this time, I will not be silent.

So today, Phil Jones, Michael Mann, Ben Santer, Kevin Trenberth (and your professional colleagues everywhere), I am writing to apologize. When you were denounced, I said nothing. When your reputations were trashed by people with malice and motive, I did not speak up. Once the jury came in (nine different times), I should have thanked and praised you for continuing your research, defending the scientific process, and standing up to defy abuse that would have withered lesser men and women. Thank you for struggling to make sense of the evidence and thank you for your commitment to the work, regardless of the powerful and vested interests who would attempt to silence you.

What we see in your emails of 2009 and the thousands of new emails is science at work. We see you are very smart and very human people (some with less polished social skills), writing about and debating the most difficult and cutting-edge aspects of climate science problems. As peers, you argue whether papers are good enough to appear in the best journals. Disagreements and skepticism among you is common, necessary, and messy. You get together at conferences to argue, and you coalesce and refine your views in light of new and better evidence. Clearer positions and new understanding emerge. Better graphs replace older ones; better models describe the future with more confidence. Then the process is repeated on the next contested and interesting aspect of the science. It’s not elegant or even always polite, but the primacy of the process and the ruthlessness of evidence trumps personalities every time.

What’s remarkable in of all the ink, the inquiries, and the half-dozen independent investigations over two years of the so-called “Climategate,” is that not one single tenet of the science of 2009 was undermined or reversed. Where we are today as countries debate the destiny of the human species in Durban is more or less the same place we were in Copenhagen, except more urgent because two additional years have been lost to the foot-draggers. The plain physics of the matter remains unchanged.

When you deliver your view of the physics to the world, we ask you to do it in a most unnatural way. We ask that you agree on a summary for policy makers within the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, word for word, and have it approved verbatim by each of the 192 nations of the world who are parties to the United Nations conference. It seems preposterous, but you agree. The messages you deliver from time to time, the last of which was in 2007, are the least common denominator views and extremely cautious and conservative by design.

What you have told us since 1990 is this: the world has already unequivocally warmed due to human emissions and future warming poses serious consequences. These consequences can be mitigated by reducing emissions deeply, primarily from reducing the use of fossil fuels. Since future warming is inevitable, humankind must adapt to some consequences that cannot be avoided. In large measure, what is most uncertain is whether we have a very serious problem that is still manageable or whether the problem is more severe—or even catastrophic. In other words, the greatest uncertainty is the mix of mitigation, adaptation, and human suffering in the future. In any case, our only current prudent action is to reduce our risk by reducing emissions.

Fatih Birol, the chief economist of the International Energy Agency,  spoke as the delegates convened in Durban, South Africa, using unscientific and intemperate words you would never write: “The world is perfectly on track for a six-degree Celsius increase in temperature. Everybody, even schoolchildren, knows this is a catastrophe for all of us.”

When stubborn or ill-informed observers refuse to accept the plain physics of the matter that you have widely agreed upon, they cannot be considered serious people. When these unserious people make a career of contesting settled science in the popular press or in pursuit of ideological goals, they are rightly regarded as denying science.

I am sorry I didn’t speak out on your behalf earlier.

Rick Piltz at Climate Science Watch assembled a great list of others’ blog postings on this topic. I encourage everyone to read them.

The UK Guardian, which can usually be counted on as more likely to get the story straight than most of the U.S. media, had this piece: Climate scientists defend work in wake of new leak of hacked emails. Latest leak appears to be an attempt to undermine public support for international climate change action ahead of Durban talks.

Good piece by Jason Samenow at the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang blog: Climategate 2.0: Do new emails undermine global warming science?

Good piece by the intrepid reporter Kate Sheppard at Mother Jones: Climategate 2.0: Will the Media Do Its Job This Time? Rather than smearing scientists, reporters might want to try some actual reporting.

Revkin in the New York Times: Another Treaty Negotiation, Another Batch of Climate Science E-Mail

Union of Concerned Scientists statement: Hackers Release Batch of Stolen Emails from Scientists – Science Group Calls on British Authorities to Increase Efforts to Identify Hackers

At the excellent Skeptical Science: Climategate 2.0: Denialists Serve Up Two-Year-Old Turkey

From our friends at DeSmogBlog in Canada: East Anglia SwiftHack Email Nontroversy Returns: What You Need To Know

Peter Sinclair at Climate Crock of the Week: Bad News for Deniers: Grown-ups Weigh in on Email Leftovers

John Abraham, ahead of the curve, at Daily Climate: We are smarter this time around

The indispensable Joe Romm at Climate Progress: Fool Me Once, Shame on You, Fool Me Twice, Shame on the Media: More Stolen Emails Can’t Stop Catastrophic Global Warming, Only We Can

Shawn Lawrence. Otto, author of Fool me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America: Climategate 2.0? Pay no attention to the energy industry behind the curtain

Don Shelby at MinnPost: How will the media handle Climategate Version 2.0?

Two good posts by Jocelyn Fong at the watchdog group Media Matters for America:

Memo To Media: Research First, Then Report On Climate Emails

Media Already Botching Reports On Hacked Climate Emails

Richard Littlemore at DeSmogBlog: Climategate Hackers Slither Again in the Night

Two years ago around this time, the day’s top headlines heralded the release of 1,079 of scientists' private emails. Embarrassing snippets were repeated endlessly in blogs, news outlets, and social media—an incident dubbed “Climategate” by a lazy press. This time, I will not be silent.

Add a comment 5 comments

  1. Michael O'Hara

    11.30.2011

    Bravo! Excellent apologetic essay and very good compilation of the other informed persons’ comments on this despicable practice.

    Keep it up.

  2. Kip Hansen

    11.30.2011

    Dear Mr. Noble,

    Either you have not actually seriously read the released emails or you have no concern whatever for the integrity of the scientific process.

    Or, possibly, you come from an alternate universe in which interfering with the processes of inter-governmental scientific bodies, suborning editors of scientific journals, conspiring to destroy the reputations of other scientists simply because they dare to publish their peer-reviewed findings which happen to be at odds with your desired findings, blackmailing journalists to ensure they publish only the version of the science preferred by you and your pals, destroy data and evidence in flagrant violations of Freedom of Information laws, ….the list goes on so long that it hurts even to write about it.

    Your apology is collusion, sir, with actions that have possibly permanently damaged the credibility of an entire scientific field.

    Kip Hansen

  3. Jack Savage

    12.01.2011

    Oh Dear!

    I anticipate another apology in a few years time…but one which will be the complete antithesis of the one you have just written.

    Go and have another look at the latest batch of emails.

  4. Kate

    12.02.2011

    Kip Hansen couldn’t have said it better.

  5. climatehawk1

    12.03.2011

    Thanks for an excellent piece, Michael. I often don’t stop to weigh in when the deniers are hitting the comments–I’ll try to do that more often in the future. Kip, Jack, Kate, keep reading. There is a ton of serious scientific evidence cited at some of the websites Michael mentions, in particular skepticscience.com. Also, don’t forget the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) study, led by a scientist who frankly went a little overboard criticizing the scientists whose e-mails were hacked earlier. The study’s finding? The work conducted by those criticized, in fact, produced very accurate results.