…Both – needing to grasp that brevity is a virtue

Monbiot: A strong and surprisingly impartial chair considering his strong views on all things climate-change

Wednesday 16th July, 7.00 p.m. A five-person panel debate on “climategate” including some of its most active critics. The panel were far from perfect, but by-and-large spoke intelligently and with impressive grasp of the detail of the issues under discussion. Not full marks – I’ll go into detail later, but some very impressive performances. (Full marks go to Monbiot’s masterly chairmanship of a turbulent audience).

The questions from the floor, however, were decidedly mixed. While good points were made, there was excessive grandstanding from many, ardent sceptics and consensus fanatics as much as each other. There was tedious rehashing of debates that have been well thrashed out elsewhere with points and counterpoint played out all over the internet and in the books for anyone interested in doing their research. When speakers made points that came down strongly on one side or another, typically a third to half of the room clapped as, I strongly suspect, confirmed climate changed sceptics were joined by a few who were actually impressed by the point cheered on the one hand, and confirmed climate change true believers joined by the same or other floating cheers clapped the other. One man whose question (well, mini-rant) about solar influences on climate was threatened with ejection. One could not have wanted a better metaphor for the furore that surrounded “climategate” itself.

A very pleasing contrast was the amiability of the panel to each other. As we waited for everything to begin we saw George Monbiot, who is frequently unsympathetic (to say the least) to climate sceptics chatting animatedly to Steve McIntyre, the now infamous critic of the hockey stick. After the debate most of those taking part, certainly including McIntyre and the two guardian journalists involved, Monbiot and Fred Pearce, were seen going to a pub together. Ye fanatics take note.

Many congratulations to the guy at http://omniclimate.wordpress.com/ for getting his comments out before mine and providing, I believe, the first online coverage of the debate. Hats off. He does a good summary of everyone’s position too.

Detailed coverage of individual positions to follow later tonight. We are told a podcast and a video will be available online – will give details when available.

Kudos goes to the panel for a (mostly) civilised debate. It was more a question of their setting out their views than examining them in the light of opposing views, but one can't have everything

A failure of brevity throughout (miniature rant – please feel free to skip)

Striking in this debate was the unwillingness, or perhaps sheer inability of the panel AND the audience to restrict their speech to the time limits that Monbiot so rigorously (thank heavens) imposed. It would not be fair to accuse the whole panel of going on, and curiously it was the two critics, Steve McIntyre and Doug Keenan who seemed least able to recognise that such a short debate demands a certain brevity of speaking style.

As for the audience members, it baffles me why people who hold their hand up for a whole debate and then struggle to phrase a question in simple, direct terms, as if they hadn’t thought about it already and were surprised to be called on. (I apologise for being a grumpy old man before my time, but really.) Perhaps worse still there were a couple of questioners (I shall not shame them by mentioning the questions, for the podcast and video recording comes out soon) who managed the singularly annoying feat of talking in a tone of voice that asks why, why does no-one on the panel, and perhaps the world, recognise the value of the simple and yet essential point that I, your speaker, am raising in the impassioned tones of one who is the only person able to see clearly through the confused haze that has blighted you on the expert panel and your associates. I wouldn’t say for a moment that lay experts don’t have valuable contributions to make to these debates, but there is tone of voice denoting a certain arrogance of feeling the only clear-sighted one in a room of fools that is barely sufferable.

The Speakers

One would be forgiven for noting the lack of content analysis in my post so far. This is largely due to very little of any interest being said. The two critics complained that the two enquiries were whitewashed, and the other three, Trevor Davies, Bob Watson and Fred Pearce, a well-respected science journalist with a book out on climategate (The Climate Files) argued that the enquiries were more or less right and there was a need for greater transparency and more open debate, but no-one’s really sure what that means yet.

I am presenting these with plenty of detail for those who many be interested.

Trevor Davies

Trevor Davies: East Anglia’s Pro-Vice Chancellor with strong links to the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) under criticism from “climategate”

He has been criticised heavily by omniclimate: “He mouthed platitudes by the shedload” argues omniclimate “but was unfamiliar with the details of any of the subjects likely to be raised.”

I saw this rather differently: it seemed more to me that Davies had accepted the lessons of “climategate”, specifically on the need to engage with the public more effectively and to “explain the uncertainty spectrum better”. Unfortunately he clearly had no idea how to do this yet, which struck me as fair enough. It is true that on more than one occasion he showed less detailed knowledge than critics McIntyre and Keenan, but there was no reason to have expected him to have huge levels of detailed knowledge on specifics on who interviewed who in the “climategate” enquiries (McIntyre discussion) or the detail of Jones’ papers (Keenan’s bugbear).

He also criticised “the media” and “the press” for failing to read the Oxburgh review, and pointed out that none of his many interviews were broadcast. Evidence if ever there was that scientists should stop complaining about the media and start learning to manage it. I doubt very much his many interviews were recorded with the intention of non-release, most likely he simply failed to be interesting enough to merit air time.

Steve McIntyre

Steve McIntyre: retired mining engineer who took issue with the hockey stick graph and whose requests for data stirred up many of the “climategate” problems

McIntyre is a soft-spoken, unimposing speaker, who read straight off his rather stiff speech for his opening position, was vague and prone to waffling when asked direct questions (one suspects through poor public speaking skills rather than evasion) and tended to talk about rather arcane details, which he had an impressive grasp of, rather than the big picture. He didn’t especially lay out a position except to show scepticism of the two “climategate” enquiries discussed, Lord Oxburgh and Sir Muir Russell, and provided details to back that up that I suspect only the journalists in the room took in.

Perhaps surprisingly, he told the room he did not know how far the recent recorded warming is anthropogenic, strongly implying this wasn’t really his area of interest, and later said firmly that it is absolutely right for governments to act on uncertain information and to take advice from a specialist community. (The first point in response to a stroppy question from someone who managed to keep referring to his own “simple question”, when the question itself was so convoluted in how it was expressed that his first response was simply a confused “what?”)

I was able to grab him briefly on the way out to ask him why he’d been number crunching for nearly 10 years. His answer was mostly that it interested him, and now his children had grown up he was able to pursue things that interested him.

Bob Watson

Bob Watson: chief scientific advisor at Defra, visiting professor at the University of East Anglia and former head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change

Watson Spoke glowingly on the “high integrity” panels by both Lord Oxburgh and Sir Muir Russell, and argued strongly that opposing views in the IPCC (like sceptic atmospheric scientist Richard Lindzen) were always presented when he was in charge of it. Slammed the printed press in particular for condemning “climategate” without trial, and argued that 90-95% of science overall argues for primarily human-caused global warming.

In the course of the debate he spoke calmly about the nature of uncertainty in the climate science process and the nature of policy. Came across as intelligent, moderate and reasoned, but said very little that was new or of much interest. As omniclimate puts it: “Very much the Scientific Establishment figure.”

Doug Keenan

Doug Keenan: a former financial analyst now examining statistics from various scientific sources, seeking to improve accountability

In some ways the most interesting panellist, and certainly the most controversial. He has had a series of peer reviewed articles published, listed on his website and was perhaps the best public speaker of the group. There were, however, clear signs of stirring up trouble from Keenan’s description of both enquiries as “clearly whitewashes”, his dramatic assertion that none of climate science stands up to scrutiny and his continued accusations of fraud towards Phil Jones, the climatologist at the heart of “climategate” more than any other which he said tonight he would be prepared to defend in court if challenged. It is interesting, to say the least, that he and McIntyre share a background in the use of statistics for business, McIntyre as a mining engineer and Keenan in the city. Keenan argued tonight and McIntyre has argued elsewhere that many leading climate scientists do not show the kind of rigour in their analyses that is demanded in the business world. A.W. Montford’s version of McIntyre’s story argues that McIntyre first became suspicious of the hockey stick from his experience with salesmen using hockey sticks as sales tools in business. With the detail of statistic analysis lost on many of us following these debates, this similarity lends credibility to both of them.

Fred Pearce

Fred Pearce: a long-standing and prolific environment journalist and author of The Climate Files: The Battle for the Truth about Global Warming

Perhaps the most impressive member of the panel in sheer grasp of the key overall issues.

Argued:

  • There were some key areas the reviews didn’t go, mostly to do with the science
  • The reviews were done with relatively little grasp of the context
  • The scientists involved adopted a “siege mentality” against requests for information due perhaps to years of “fighting off politically- and commercially- minded critics”. The search for truth has been replaced by battle-lines being drawn, and by both sides
  • This was misplaced towards the “new generation” of climate sceptics who are more like “data libertarians”
  • There was no “grand conspiracy”, only some “grubby” behaviour
  • The IPCC has a “subliminal effect” of reducing legitimate debate

(It will be clear from this section that Pearce was both clear and highly quotable in his explanations)

Conclusion

Overall an interesting an entertaining night out, but very little new ground covered. It gives me hope to see the disagreeing panelists get on so well and manage civilised debate, and despair to see some of the audience.

There is a page on the Guardian website on this event, a page which will hopefully provide a link to the podcast and video when they come. Thanks again to omniclimate for pointing to this

I have chosen speed over proof-reading to get this out. As I write this it is the early hours of the morning and I am going to bed, but feel free to point out mistakes to me and I will correct them asap. Thanks, and apologies for any really glaring ones.

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