Sir Muir Russel, head of the latest 'climategate' enquiry to report back

On Monday days ago, the IPCC was (mostly) cleared by an enquiry by The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Yesterday ‘climategate’ was (mostly) cleared by the six-month enquiry by civil servant Sir Muir Russell. The arguments over nitty-gritty details and over motives could not be further away from the rhetoric that surrounded the Copenhagen summit, and will undoubtedly surround the Cancun summit at the end of this year.

The evidence of the new ‘climategate’ enquiry was that there was no manipulation of data or abuse of the peer-review process to prevent disagreeing scientific papers from publication. The main complaint was the UEA scientists’ defensive attitude to releasing their data, even when pressed under the Freedom of Information Act. It is clear from the e-mails that they aim mostly to hold off the sceptics by withholding their date to prevent it from being challenged. This is particularly clear in the e-mail published in the Guardian today dealing with Climate Audit, website of climate sceptic Steve MacIntyre. Scientist Phil Jones refers to explaining to ” the F[reedom ]O[f ]I[nformation] person [who] said we had to abide by the requests” why they didn’t want to provide their data , because of “the types of  people we were dealing with”. Without having met or spoken to any of those people I will reserve final judgement, but it sounds suspiciously like the demonisation of the opposition as boogeymen. (By contrast the book dealing with MacIntyre’s perspective of his work, The Hockey Stick Illusion, puts him in a very different light but is less than charitable towards various scientists implicated in ‘climategate’.)

'Hopenhagen' posters like this one by Joachim Ladefoged were on display in the run-up to the conference, adding to the mood of high expectations and high drama

Unfortunately for those of us in favour of major climate change mitigation, this discussion coincided with the Copenhagen summit. While a certain amount of gory detail crept out into some of the papers, there was a buzz of enough high rhetoric to make anyone with even a slight streak of cynicism reach for the bottle (or, in my case, the biscuit bag). We had the Mayor of Copenhagen calling for “Hopenhagen”, we had interviews with protesters talking about “saving the planet” (it’s still going to be there guys – we just might not be able to live on it) and the TckTckTck campaign film short showing us suspiciously environmentally aware children promising to change make a difference (unsurprisingly attracting accusations of brainwashing by YouTube commenters). There were liberal references to children, grandchildren, and children’s children, who are like grandchildren but more profound.

One would be forgiven for a certain cynicism at seeing Coca-Cola's 'Hopenhagen' advertising campaign

Do I disagree with the arguments of these many voices? Absolutely not. But it doesn’t take much to bring that kind of rhetoric down to earth when the difference in style and in substance between the passionate campaigners and the gory details is so pronounced.

The job of those involved in communicating climate change is to plug that mid-level gap between the four ‘climategate’ enquiries and the high-flown rhetoric of campaigners. For a start, let’s hear:

1. Why ‘climategate’ doesn’t matter on the scale of the whole science of climate change. Three or so main points, lots of evidence please

2. What the specific threats to society are from runaway climate change. Economic statistics please, not just more and more dramatic adjectives

3. Why that uncertainty is not a reason for inaction (the phrases you’re looking for may include tipping points, the precautionary principle and risk management)

Dramatic campaigns do an important job, but they are not enough to get your message across. They do well at getting the main message out “We need a treaty to save the world from climate change”. Someone needs to follow on with the sentence that comes after that, and all the rest that follow on.

One of Greenpeace's Copenhagen Posters

(Note: it is often pointed out that the precautionary principle is only used as a reason to act, never a reason not to act to safeguard economic growth. My answers to this are

  1. Tipping points – beyond largely unknown points the costs of climate change will suddenly skyrocket in ways some economic analyses may not recognise
  2. Irreversibility – if the Greenland ice sheet melts, a species dies out or the upper ocean warms enough to increase the likelihood of hurricanes. If a factory is not built, or even a hospital a road to provide key food supplies to a starving community, that can be built the next year. The impacts of climate change happen over a longer timescale

This is not to say that economic growth and other social objectives don’t matter. They do, and of course we must recognise the need to balance of mitigation costs and benefits. But that is why the precautionary principle applies mostly the one way.)

Thanks to the Bernstein & Andriulli blog for information on the ‘Hopenhagen’ adverts.