Lawrence Solomon: The non-inquiry of climategate

To allay public concern over Climategate – the unauthorized release of some 3000 documents from the computers of the Climatic Research Unit at East Anglia University – the university established two independent inquiries to attend to the widespread view that science had been corrupted through the distortion and destruction of data, through cover-ups, and through the perversion of the peer review process.

The first of these inquiries has neatly dismissed all concerns of impropriety through the oversight of its chair, Lord Oxburgh of Liverpool, a man of impeccable credentials in the climate change field. Lord Oxburgh is chair of the multinational Falck Renewables, a European leader with major windfarms in the UK, France, Spain and Italy, and he’s chair of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, a lobby group which argues that carbon capture could become a $1-trillion industry by 2050.

Lord Oxburgh’s judicial temperament also served him well in his role as chair of the university inquiry. “We are sleepwalking” into a global warming threat so dire, Lord Oxburgh explained in 2007, that the world may need to do more to discourage carbon dioxide emitters than to simply put a price on carbon. “It may be that we shall need, in parallel with that, regulations which impose very severe penalties on people who emit more than specified amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” he explained.

To determine what happened at East Anglia University, Lord Oxburgh assembled an eminent panel of six others with equally impressive climate change qualifications. This panel then read a representative sample of 11 papers that members of the Climatic Research Unit had produced over the last 20 years or so. The 11 papers were selected by the UK’s Royal Society, another impressive organization which has worked intimately with the Climatic Research Unit and which states that “It is certain that increased greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and from land use change lead to a warming of climate.”

The 11 publications occupied a good proportion of the panelist’s time and were invaluable in the panel’s work, the panel explained: “The publications provided a platform from which to gain a deeper understanding of the Unit’s research and enabled the Panel to probe particular questions in more detail.”

Not content to end their inquiry with this reading, some of the panellists visited the university – two of them twice – for further readings and for discussions with the scientists at the Unit. The discussions assured the panel members who visited the university that the scientists were honourable men, albeit poor record keepers, and that nothing was amiss.

As for discussions with scientists who charged the Climatic Research Unit with numerous instances of malfeasance for manipulating and destroying raw temperature data, the panellists felt that was uncalled for. Neither did the panellists deem it necessary to investigate the documents representative of the Climategate scandal.

As the panellists explained, they “have not exhaustively reviewed the external criticism” because “it seems that some of these criticisms show a rather selective and uncharitable approach to information made available by CRU. They seem also to reflect a lack of awareness of the ongoing and dynamic nature of chronologies, and of the difficult circumstances under which university research is sometimes conducted. Funding and labour pressures and the need to publish have meant that pressing ahead with new work has been at the expense of what was regarded as non-essential record keeping.

“From our perspective it seems that the CRU sins were of omission rather than commission,” the panelists concluded, adding that “we deplore the tone of much of the criticism that has been directed at CRU.”

All in all, the panellists published hardly anything at all — a mere five-pages of observations that explore not a single charge made by CRU’s accusers, and thus, in truth, does nothing to absolve CRU or to allay public concerns.

Lawrence Solomon, Financial Post, April 15, 2010

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