The Politicization of Climate Science


by Roger Pielke Jr.

The systematic misrepresentation of the science of climate impacts documented in the previous chapter only scratches the surface of the politicization of climate science. Such politicization manifests itself in the actions of climate scientists, in the presentation of climate science results to policy makers, and in the structuring of scientific research and assessments. Climate science is today a fully politicized enterprise, desperately in need of reform if integrity is to be restored and sustained.

In November 2009 someone stole or leaked more than a thousand e-mails and various other documents from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. Even before the authenticity of the e-mails was verified, the materials were widely disseminated across the Internet. The private communications—dating back to the 1990s—among leading climate scientists were extremely troubling to many commentators. For instance, George Monbiot, an environmental campaigner and columnist for The Guardian newspaper in the UK, wrote upon first seeing them, “It’s no use pretending that this isn’t a major blow.I’m dismayed and deeply shaken by them.”

What was it that was so troubling in the e-mails? For some it was the presence of eyebrow-raising, but ultimately somewhat ambiguous, language, such as discussing a “trick” to “hide the decline” and the “travesty” that “we can’t account for the warming at the moment.” The scientists involved and their defenders were quick to respond that the e-mails just showed scientists hard at work: of course the e-mails were sometimes harsh and blunt, they countered, but what could anyone expect from scientists being hounded by climate skeptics and deniers? Others saw in the e-mails the crumbling of the entire edifice of climate science, designating the event “Climategate.”

As with most everything in the climate debate, reality is more nuanced and complex than such simple interpretations. The significance of the e-mails was aptly summarized by Clive Crook, a columnist for the Financial Times, from a perch far removed from debates over climate science:

Any fair-minded person would regard those [East Anglia e-mail] exchanges as raising questions. On the face of it, these are not the standards one expects of science. Nor is this just any science. The work of these researchers is being used to press the case for economic policies with colossal adjustment costs. Plainly, the highest standards of intellectual honesty and openness are called for. The emails do not attest to such standards. Yet how did the establishment respond? It said that this is how science is done in the real world. Initially, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change defended the scientists and played down the significance of their correspondence.

What standards of intellectual openness and honesty had the authors of the e-mails compromised? For one thing, the scientists—who saw themselves as much as activists as researchers—expressed a desire to game the system of peer review in scientific publishing such that their opponents were denied a chance to publish their work in scientific journals or have their work cited in the reports of the IPCC while the scientists’ allies had a much easier time. Publication in peer-reviewed journals matters for people’s careers, of course, but in the case of climate science, findings should (in principle) be published in peer-reviewed publications to be included in the IPCC assessment of climate science, arguably the most authoritative and influential summary of the state of research.

Peer review in scientific publishing is a process in which experts are asked to judge the appropriateness of a paper for publication in a scientific journal. It is often cursory and focused on the merits of an argument, rather than a detailed replication of the analysis or decomposition of the methods. Peer review does not mean that a result is right or will stand the test of time; rather, it has met some minimal standards of acceptability for publication. The scientific community is replete with vignettes about papers that were rejected for publication in one venue only to be published elsewhere and later turned out to be seminal. Similarly, every so often even Science and Nature, the most prestigious science journals, find themselves in trouble for having published a paper that is badly wrong or even fraudulent. But despite these shortcomings in the process, peer review is widely viewed much as Winston Churchill viewed democracy: the worst possible system except for all the others.

Peer review in science works because over the long-term good ideas and solid arguments win out. This process happens organically through a decentralized process. Peer review takes place through many different and independent scientific journals, with editing and reviewing conducted by many independent scholars from a range of disciplinary and experiential backgrounds, and with their own idiosyncratic biases and views. No one group or perspective owns the peer-review process, and the diversity of the scientific enterprise is part of its core strength. Truth—meaning a convergence to agreement on scientific questions—thus is a product of the peer-review process over time.

Of course, the path to truth can be convoluted and indirect. And scientists don’t always reach agreement, particularly on timescales of relevance to decision makers. Consequently, complex issues relevant to important decisions are often characterized by uncertainties, contested certainties, and fundamental areas of ignorance; combined, those factors can make the distribution of scientific views not readily apparent, even to the informed observer. In such situations a formal assessment can provide a useful perspective on the degree of consensus or disagreement among relevant experts on various claims. Such assessments are nothing more than a snapshot in time, as science is continuously evolving. When done well, an assessment will reflect the full range of views held by relevant experts, including minority views, as well as the connections of scientific understandings to alternative possible courses of action. When done poorly—either because minority views are kept out of the scientific press to begin with or because they’re excluded from the process of writing an assessment—the documents can be misleading or damaging.

The “Climategate” e-mails show a consistent pattern of behavior among the activist scientists to redefine processes of peer review in accordance with their own views of climate science, such that papers that supported their views would appear in the literature and those that did not would be rejected. In doing so, they sought to turn the entire notion of peer review on its head. The e-mails indicate concerted efforts to reshape the peer-review process by managing and coordinating reviews of individual papers, by putting pressure on journal editors and editorial boards, by seeking to stack editorial boards with like-minded colleagues, by arranging boycotts of journals, and through other ethically questionable actions. Why? Because of the short-term politics of climate change.

The scientists exposed by the East Anglia e-mails apparently decided that the peer-review process would work better in service of their political agenda (which was focused on defeating the “skeptics” in public debate) if they used “truth” to determine whose views would be allowed to be published in the literature and reflected in assessments. In this case “truth” simply means the views deemed acceptable among these activist scientists and their close clique of colleagues. NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, who was among those whose e-mails were revealed, defended this very backward view of peer review in terms of the implications for climate politics:

“In any other field [a bad paper] would just be ignored. The problem is the climate field has become extremely politicized, and every time some nonsense paper gets into a proper journal, it gets blown out of all proportion.”

Schmidt explained that the papers that he and his colleagues judged to be low quality were nonetheless being read and discussed by skeptics of the science of climate change. So Schmidt appears to be suggesting that in order to limit the ability of their political opponents to cherry-pick and blow out of proportion studies that the activists scientists did not agree with, they saw a convenient shortcut: simply reshape the peer-review system such that papers that they disagree with never get published, or at least are never mentioned in scientific assessments. If those papers were unpublished or unmentioned, then they would have far less impact in the public debate.

The problem with this strategy, of course, is that many climate scientists (and presumably others inside and outside of the scientific establishment) are unwilling to cede ownership of “truth” to a small clique of scientists. Peer review exists in the first place because there are no shortcuts to the truth, and any such shortcut will inevitably fail. Consider that the efforts revealed in the East Anglia e-mails to manage the peer-reviewed literature went well beyond efforts to prevent so-called skeptical papers from being published, but included a focus on papers that fully accepted a human influence on climate but offered views that differed in some degree from those preferred by the activist scientists.

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Their going to have us back to thinking the Earth is the Center of the Universe just like in the times of Galileo