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Lorne Gunter: They’re Finally Admitting The Science Isn’t Settled

Why does Climategate matter? Who cares whether the climate data on a computer at some obscure English university has been deliberately corrupted?

In one form or another, I have had to answer these questions from dozens of readers in the three months since thousands of e-mails and computer files were leaked from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia.

There are plenty of ways in which these disclosures have been crucial, but the principal change has been the uncertainty creeping into the remarks of former True Believers. Some of those who for years have insisted the science is “settled,” are now admitting we don’t know all we need to before making trillion-dollar policy decisions.

Consider the remarks Phil Jones, the former head of CRU, made last week to the BBC. Prof. Jones, who has stepped down from his directorship of the CRU pending official investigations into the leaks, told the Beeb there has been no “statistically significant” global warming since 1995 — that’s the past 15 years!

It’s true, as some climate alarmist sites have pointed out, that what Prof. Jones said in full was that the warming since 1995 is almost significant, but not quite. The “trend (+0.12 C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level.”

Admittedly, that is not the same as a complete about-face by Prof. Jones, but neither is it meaningless. When was the last time you recall an alarmist such as Phil Jones admitting there was any doubt at all about warming in the last decade and a half?

Haven’t we had it drummed into us ceaselessly that the past decade has been the warmest ever recorded? Prof. Jones’s admission to the BBC then is very significant.

If, instead of bleating for the past 15 years that the sky was about to burst into flame, major climate scientists had been saying the Earth was warming, but not to a statistically significant level, would you have been as worried as you were? Would there have been a Kyoto accord? A Copenhagen summit? Carbon trading schemes? Green taxes? Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth? David Suzuki’s call to throw politicians into jail if they fail to try to stop climate change?

In his BBC interview, Prof. Jones also conceded that the Middle Ages may well have been warmer than now, another key concession given that the CRU has for years denied the existence of the Medieval Warm Period. If the MWP can be made to disappear, then the warming that has occurred since 1900 would be abnormal and therefore something to fear. But if there was an even greater warming 1,000 years ago — before SUVs, coal-fired power plants and industrial carbon emissions — then the current warming might well be part of a nature cycle and therefore unremarkable.

Prof. Jones even admitted the science of climate change is far from settled. “There is still much that needs to be undertaken to reduce uncertainties.”

Nothing scientific had changed since the Climategate leaks. No new data or discoveries have been added that would make the former CRU director change his tone so dramatically. So his new willingness to concede doubt must be solely the result of the embarrassing leaks last November.

That’s one of the ways in which Climategate matters: It has made the alarmists far more willing to admit the science isn’t settled.

It also matters because CRU is not just some no-name English university with one of thousands of environmental studies programs in the world. The CRU is one of three main sources of UN climate data.

Think of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a three-legged stool supported by the CRU, NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Kick out one leg and the stool topples, taking everyone standing on it with it.

Reliance on one of these Big Three climate records has been repeated in hundreds — thousands — of academic studies, on everything from the calving of icebergs in Antarctica to the behaviour of Alberta bark beetles, the prevalence of sub-Saharan droughts to disappearing snow on hip Euro ski slopes.

So Climategate also matters because if one of the most critical sources of climate data is suspect, then the conclusions in all the scores of studies based on that data are suspect, too.

The implications are huge and wide-ranging.

National Post, 17 February 2010