Tag Archive: climategate


A recent exchange in The Washington Post reminds us all that in sometimes in PR, as in life, the best defence is a good offence.

Michael Mann: Controversial and adversarial paleoclimatologist

About a month ago, the controversial U.S. climate scientist Michael Mann wrote in The Washington Post attacking the politicians who are making threatening noises towards him and his colleagues. Mann argues that senior U.S. politicians are playing politics with what should be objective science. Senator Joe Barton has written a response completely ignoring this argument and framing the discussion instead in terms freedom of speech and freedom to challenge scientists.

Rarely is it more clear that public debates are won and lost not with different answers to the same question, but by arguing over the nature of the question. Mann has pushing the debate towards greater scrutiny of the right-wing attack dogs that threaten climate science. By pointing to this undue politicisation, the debate is dragged away from bickering over scientific detail and from the community of climate scientists constantly fending off attacks that steadily chip away at their credibility.

Joe Barton: Republican Congressman from Texas in the news recently for attacking the White House's "shakedown" of BP

Climate scientists, like many scientists, are often too happy to bury themselves in their work and ignore the arguments going on around them. The climategate fiasco of last December was largely a result of inaction by the scientists under fire failing to open up and get their message out quickly enough, a classic case of surrendering control of the conversation.

Hoggan the Spotlight: Expert Perspective

James Hoggan, the CEO of the PR firm Hoggan & Associates and the man behind an award winning climate change blog (pictured below) puts it, good PR involves three stages

  • Do the right thing
  • Be seen to be doing the right thing
  • Don’t get #1 and #2 mixed up

With the climate science community we are so often left to wonder what happened to number 2. (See here for Hoggan’s blog’s take on the Washington post exchange.)

On a similar note, after existing for more than twenty years the high profile Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have announced in their most recent press release, which is about as quotable as most tax returns, that they are going to put together a communication strategy.

It’s about time.

James Hoggan: Expert in both good communications and the "Darth Vader" PR of some on the right-wing of US politics

IPCC Plays Defence

After a year that has encompassed “climategate” and the IPCC’s own “Amazongate”, this seems long overdue. The IPCC has long kept its head down and played a purely defensive game in its PR, and while good defense is important, it keeps the conversation on “can the IPCC be trusted?” and “is climate science credible?”. Some proportion of those reading that debate are bound to come down on the side of “no”. If the attacks are fended off well, that may be 20% rather than 80%, but it is still lost ground.

It is widely known in insider circles that the 4th IPCC Assessment Report (2007), the most recent, was written at the conservative end of climate science to avoid giving a platform for its critics. In a 3,000 page report, however, there were bound to be weaknesses found sooner or later. On top of this recent ad hominem attacks (attacks on people to undermine arguments – “playing the man and not the ball”), on its chairman Rajendra Pachauri show that even the defence is not enough. (It is worth reading the column in which George Monbiot lays waste to the claims made against Pachauri.)

While I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the IPCC, say, take out a set of attack adverts against their detractors in true US political style, it’s good to see someone showing a bit of fight-back.

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…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.

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.

A piece on the Panorama programme on climategate recently appeared on climate progress, a major climate blog, heavily criticising the programme for giving too much air time to sceptics. Having watched and reviewed it myself, I disagree strongly with much of what this post says and why is written below.

Agreement

First, however, let me lay out what I agree with, unfortunately not an awful lot. This is partly because honestly the last thing I want to do is get into a blogging dogfight, especially with blogs and readers from the climate consensus! If you’re reading this, I’m your team, guys.

The second is that I dislike the adversarial style of much of the climate change discussion that goes on in the news media, in the books and online, much of which has to do with cheap point-scoring, defending predetermined positions and ad hominem attacks (attacking people rather than arguments). The climate progress blog’s arguments are reported in italics.

“Representing the climate science camp, Panorama use a grey haired climate scientist (Dr Bob Watson) and a London climate policy academic (Bob Ward) who manage reasonably good communications but are weaker than Lomborg, a well trained and well presented media spokesperson.”

I don’t have much to add to this, except that I don’t think it’s Panorama’s fault that Watson and Ward weren’t as media savvy as Lomborg. Our lot need to get better at this. That said, I certainly don’t consider it Panorama’s job to adjudicate on how presentable their climate consensus interviewees are (or, indeed, to only interview hunch-backed, scarred and incomprehensible sceptics!)

The “balance as bias” thesis that underpins this article

This is the argument, drawing on the work on Maxwell Boykoff, that news media principles and other factors have produced a balanced portrayal of the sceptic vs. consensus debates when the science is overwhelming dominated by the “consensus” side (hence the name, “consensus”). Absolutely. I have some reservations in this context (see below) but I accept the general principle. There should, of course, be some role for minority voices in any discussion, but the proportion is often wrong in the case of climate change reporting

Disagreement

The piece complains that the BBC description of the show begins with the line “To some, it’s a massive conspiracy to con the public. To others, it’s the greatest threat to the future of our world.” Is unfair because “There is 0.00% chance hat global warming is a massive conspiracy to con the public…Nicely balanced “sides,” BBC.”

What the line says is that some people think it is. That’s not a comment on what the truth is, it’s a comment on public perceptions. This is a bit of excessive rhetorical flair, perhaps, but it’s worth noting that no one interviewed in the programme said anything of the sort.

The programme features the “thoroughly debunked Bjorn Lomborg”, and “the long wrong John Christy” and “the utterly discredited purveyor of hate speech” Lord Monckton.

1. Bjørn Lomborg has not been “thoroughly debunked” because a book of criticisms of him has been published, any more Michael Mann, also featured in the documentary can be considered “thoroughly debunked” because of Montford’s “The Hockey Stick Illusion”. Criticisms are part of an ongoing debate. (Lomborg is, as many of the comments on that post point out, can only barely be classed a sceptic – he has repeatedly stated his thinks climate change is a major problem facing the world. He mostly thinks the rhetoric is out of control and that we should favour adaptation over mitigation. In the words of one of the comments “He is hated and despised by a lot of denialists who see him as insufficiently radical for their fanatical anti-environmentalism”)

2. I have to admit I don’t have a fully formed opinion about John Christy, though was pleased to see interview footage of him so I can understand his opinions in more detail. He featured prominently in “The Great Global Warming Swindle”, but that film was so riddled with complaints of misrepresenting its interviewees views that I am suspicious of what I saw of his there. Also the man was well-respected enough to be a lead author of the IPCC 3rd Assessment Report, I think it’s fair to treat him as a serious scientist. (The linked blog post criticising Christy Should you believe anything John Christy says? I also have a fair few reservations about)

3. Lord Monckton… ok, actually, I agree here. Monckton is not a serious figure. All that was shown however, was a brief clip of him arguing with some protesters. Ideally we wouldn’t see him at all, but

“John Christy, atmospheric scientist and mild sceptic (one of the only real scientist in the world out of thousands of qualified scientists who has some skeptical views), is given equal air time than climate scientists Bob Watson and Michael Mann (who is critiqued whilst Christy is not). This is balance as bias.”

I am mostly very sympathetic to the “balance as bias” argument (as stated earlier), but this is a piece about the credibility of climate science. It is right to give sufficient air-time to the critics in this context. Furthermore the piece was excellent at allowing the interviewees to explain their positions in detail, and the fact that Christy explains that he believes in anthropogenic global warming to some extent and, to his credit, explicitly says he knows he’s in the minority of scientists. This level of explanation does us more good than harm by clarifying what is agreed on.

Mann is critiqued because he has been under huge scrutiny recently. To ignore this is to ignore accurate context.

“The introduction suggests reporter Tom Heap speaks to both sides of what is a science argument yet Bjorn Lomborg (not a climate scientist), and other non-scientists appear.”

Science is not the only aspect of the climate change debates, that’s why the IPCC has “Impacts and Adaption” and “Mitigation” reports. Both sides of the science argument are represented (John Christy on the one hand and X and Y on the other), but the programme had other interests besides the science. Lomborg’s appearance is alongside Bob Ward, both of them primarily policy rather than science expects.

“Panorama gives voice to an average UK family man whose non-scientific opinion suggests global warming ‘is natural’. Research shows that large parts of the population identify with this kind of person as they do not understand climate science and look to peers for guidance.”

This part of the programme was… well, a bit dull, but the idea that a BBC programme shouldn’t interview the public on a social issue is ridiculous. I would not expect that BBC to be slammed to interviewing someone in the street for their opinions of the coalition government, for example. Yes, climate change is more complicated, but one of the main points of the programme was to honestly report the uncertainty in the general population. He was also there next to his wife, who was equally lacking in expert knowledge and believed the opposite.

“Panorama publicize Lomborg’s upcoming sceptic film ‘Cool It’ without critique but focus on negative aspects of Al Gore’s film.”

This was part of Lomborg’s biography, and a reasonable thing to do in the context of explaining who he is. It’s difficult to critique a film that hasn’t come out yet. Conversely controversies over “An Inconvenient Truth” have been part of public discourse since it came out.

“Panorama focus on UK government climate change minister saying ‘it is up to behavior [sic] change’ when clearly national and international policy must lead mitigation not individuals”

While I completely agree that national and international policy must lead mitigation, it isn’t a fact. In an ideal world there would be a counter-argument to this, but it’s a half hour programme and clearly there are limits to which these debates can all be engaged with in detail.

Conclusion

Was there a needless anti-consensus bias in Panorama? I don’t think so. As a concerned member of the public, I want to know what the disagreements are on major policy issues, even when the disagreements come from minority perspectives. The scope and urgency of climate change is a reason for rigorous debate, not for the shutting down of opposition. I also do not what sound production decisions by a documentary, where figures and controversies are given in reasonable context, good or bad, to be compromised by needlessly exacting standards on bias.

In lots of contexts with climate change reporting there is an issue where balance is bias. In a discussion of the validity of science after climategate, however, balance is pretty key.

Panorama: Gives us an interesting discussion of climate change disagreements

This week’s BBC Panorama, (or its online summary) on climategate and disgreements on climate change was well worth a look for those following these debates.

The main appeal for me was the interviews with big names in climate change debates, who so often appear in books that push an agenda on each of them. Where divides on this issue often seem vicious and blood-spitting, this documentary took care to show everywhere people agree (on basic science, on increasing CO2 concentrations) in a powerful act of clarification. These are obvious to anyone reading the literature, but perhaps not to the general public with other priorities.

We had Michael Mann, the author of the Hockey Stick, and his view on his critics, John Christy, the leading sceptic who played a lead role in polemic film The Great Global Warming Swindle but who gives a much fuller account of his position here. Christy says, for example, that he believes man is responsible for about a quarter of current warming but that he recognsies he’s in a minority, a more nuanced opinion than the soundbyte-heavy style of The Great Global Warming Swindle. He also stresses uncertainty rather than disagreement. He’s, well, sceptical, rather than in rabid disagreement.

Bjørn Lomborg also appears prominently, though is bizarrely treated as a “sceptic” despite agreeing with the consensus position on the science. In some ways what is remarkable in this programme is how little the interviewees disagree on, important as their disagreements are, and how willing to explain their uncertainties they are.

As a half-hour programme it is clearly limited in its scope, and is full of interviews with members of the public and slightly bizarre episodes like measuring the the measuring of CO2 from things and people around a house. These distracted from the thrust of the discussion and explained very little. It would have nice to see dicussion of how much different speakers think temperatures have risen already compared to earlier periods, a source of disagreement between many, and some explanation of what the cost of mitigation means for the country. Oh well. Good effort Panorama.