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David Henderson: Climategate Is Just The Tip Of The Iceberg

A litany of climate climate science flaws can’t be ignored and highlight the need for an open review and evolutionary policies.

TWO recent episodes have given rise to concerns about the quality and reliability of expert advice on climate change.

First was the unauthorised release of a mass of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia: the contents have put in question the conduct of CRU scientists and some of their correspondents.

Second is the discovery that statements made in the fourth and most recent assessment report (AR4) from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were based on sources that should not have been given weight. In relation to what was said about Himalayan glaciers, the IPCC has issued a formal admission of error.

The concerns raised by these episodes are well founded. However, Climategate and Glaciergate are not to be viewed in isolation. They are instances of a more fundamental and deeply entrenched phenomenon.

In relation to climate change, the established official expert advisory process governments have commissioned and relied on has shown itself to be not professionally up to the mark. The situation is one of unwarranted trust.

The main headings of unprofessional conduct within the process, identified and documented before the recent revelations, are:

  • Over-reliance on in-group peer review procedures that do not serve as a guarantee of quality and do not ensure due disclosure
  • Serious and continuing failures of disclosure and archiving in relation to peer-reviewed studies.
  • Resistance to disclosure of basic information that reputable journals insist on as a precondition for acceptance. (In the CRU emails, participants discuss a range of arguments, pretexts and devices that could be used to fend off disclosure, including the deletion of emails containing material that had been sought under FOI requests, requests made only because authors had not followed accepted scholarly procedures).
  • Basic errors in the handling of data, through failure to consult or involve trained statisticians.
  • Failure to take due account of relevant published work documenting these lapses, while disregarding IPCC criteria for inclusion in the review process.
  • Failure to take due note of comments from dissenting critics who took part in the AR4’s preparation.
  • Resisting the disclosure of professional exchanges within the AR4 drafting process, despite the formal instruction of member governments that the IPCC’s proceedings should be “open and transparent”.
  • Failure by the IPCC and its directing circle to acknowledge and remedy these deficiencies.

In the light of Glaciergate, one could add to the list reliance on worthless (non-peer-reviewed) sources. But mere insistence on peer review would leave in place the other basic flaws.

Comprehensive exposure of these flaws has come from a number of independent commentators. Particular mention should be made of Canadian authors Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick: separately and in joint publications, going back to 2003, they have made an outstanding contribution to public debate. Together with a perceptive British critic, David Holland, they are the subject of unfavourable references in the CRU emails. But their work and that of other critics has been disregarded by governments and commentators in academic journals and the media alike.

The glaring defects in the expert advisory process have gone unacknowledged and unremedied by what I call the environmental policy milieu. This high-level failure and the defects themselves have resulted from chronic and pervasive bias. Right from the start, members of the milieu, and of the IPCC’s directing circle, have been characterised by what has been well termed “pre-commitment to the urgency of the climate cause”. Although the IPCC in particular is now under fire, this is too restricted a focus.

It is true that the panel’s work forms the leading element in the official expert advisory process. But the basic problem of unwarranted trust goes further: it extends to the chronically biased treatment of climate change issues by responsible departments and agencies that the panel reports to, and in nationally based organisations that they finance (such as the CRU).

It is not just the environmental policy milieu that is to blame for the mishandling by governments of climate change issues. As a former Treasury official and international civil servant, I have been surprised by the failure of economic departments in OECD member countries to audit the evidence bearing on climate change issues, their uncritical acceptance of the results of a process of inquiry so obviously biased and flawed, and their lack of attention to the criticisms of that process voiced by independent outsiders — criticisms they ought to have been making themselves. A similar lack of resource has characterised the research department of the IMF and the economics department of the OECD. There has been a conspicuous failure of due diligence.

The chief moral to be drawn is simple. In an area of policy where so much is at stake, and so much remains uncertain and unsettled, policies should be evolutionary and adaptive, rather than presumptive as they are now; and their evolution should be linked to a process of inquiry and review that is more thorough, balanced, open and objective.

David Henderson was formerly head of the OECD economics and statistics department. He is a fellow of the Institute of Economic Affairs in London and chairman of the Academic Advisory Council of the Global Warming Policy Foundation.

The Australian, 16 February 2010