Climate scientists attached to the rickety Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change structure raise two key interchangeable arguments in their defense. The first is to deny that anything of significance has been found in the various IPCC scandals. Climategate? Nothing there but a few emails that display intemperate behaviour and typical charmless chat among scientists doing their jobs. “Scientists are not public relations experts,” say the apologists. Glaciergate and the melting Himalayan ice? Insignificant — barely a footnote in the official IPCC reports, and a minor mistake in any case; there’s nothing here to cast doubt on the thousands of pages of good work by thousands of scientists. “Regrettably, there were a very small number of errors,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday after announcing the appointment of a review panel to investigate those tiny little errors, produce a report and move on, preferably by August before the next round of panic-ridden climate talks.
The second official line of defense is to attempt to deny the very existence of any mistakes, errors or butchered science. Denial, in fact, is often the first strategy deployed when any criticism surfaces. Then, if the story of scientific error is proven true, the mistakes are then dismissed and trivialized as of no consequence.
If this strategy of denial, diminishment, trivialization and dismissal succeeds it will only be because most people will not pay close enough attention to the issues. The Climategate emails, thousands of exchanges among scientists working on temperature records and forecasts, are dense and unintelligible to all but the most intrepid and diligent. You may even have to be half crazy to try to work through the emails and piece together the story lines and threads.
One of the Climategate story lines involves attempts by the biggest names in climate science, Phil Jones of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, and Michael Mann, of Pennsylvanian State University, to suppress revelations of scientific fraud in production of key temperature data. Using libel threats, even though they knew the fraud charge might be true, they tried to intimidate journal editors and attempted to conceal the fraud. That story is told elsewhere on this page by Benny Peiser, one of the editors who in 2007 engaged Mr. Jones in the fraud debate. Readers can decided for themselves on the significance of this Climategate episode and whether it is just a trivial anecdote.
Another deny-and-trivialize science issue is Amazongate. In January, Daily Telegraph writer James Delingpole described how a key alarmist section of the IPPC’s 2007 science report was another bit of dubious research from the World Wildlife Fund. It claimed that “Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation.” The expert citation for this was a bit of non-peer-reviewed research by WWF activists.
The Sunday Times of London called the IPCC Amazon statement to be a “bogus rainforest claim.” Soon, however, the denial machine swung into action. The Times will be in hot water over this, they said. While the original IPCC report was based on WWF research, there was other science that supported the idea that the Amazon could be decimated by climate change.
The author of that other science, Daniel Nepstad, of the Woods Hole Research Center, said that while the WWF version of his paper got things wrong, the IPCC was correct — up to 40% of the Brazilian forest is extremely sensitive to small reduction in the amount of rainfall. Mr. Nepstad based his conclusion on assessments of the Amazon rainforest’s behaviour during the 1998 El Nino period. Other research in 2004 and 2007 also seemed to support the idea that the Amazon would be decimated by global warming.
But this week new research supports the original Amazongate version of the science. The Amazon may not be at risk from climate change. Researchers at Boston University, headed by Ranga B. Myneni, professor of geography and environment, found that satellite readings used by other scientists were based on contaminated data. In a paper published by Geophysical Research Letters, Prof. Myneni and associates say they found no evidence that the Amazon suffers extreme tree mortality, excessive forest greening or other trauma under extreme climate conditions.
The Myneni paper examined the impact on the Amazon of a major 2005 drought. Some scientists have argued that the 2005 drought caused significant rainforest disturbances. But Prof. Myneni says that science is based on satellite data that cannot be reproduced because much of it is “atmosphere corrupted.” Once the corrupted data is removed, a new assessment is possible, The Boston research shows that much of the speculation around the Amazon either greening up or browning under extreme conditions to be false. During the 2005 drought, Prof. Myneni reports, the Amazon behaved no differently than it did during 2003 and 2004, when there was no drought.
Prof. Myneni supports the basic IPCC climate science theory. But he said in an interview yesterday that the IPCC was being “alarmist” when it took the WWF research and produced a report that projected that 40% of the Amazon could be devastated and reformed by even a slight reduction in rainfall. As it turns out, he says, the experience of 2005 shows that there is no evidence for the WWF claim and the evidence used in later research is faulty.
None of this resolves the Amazongate issue. What it does show, however, is what all the of the IPCC science problems show: The science isn’t settled.