“Climategate” or how to transform a mouse into an elephant

In the past months the climate change skeptics have been hurraying. Thanks to criminals that broke into the email of the web server of the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, a large amount of semiprofessional communications between leading climate scientist. Once, the data went public the hyenas tried to do their job. Thereafter, reviewers found mistakes in the IPCC report. They were applauding to the end of the “climate change hoax”. From the alleged emails they claimed to have found evidence that climate data has been tricked and that climate change is a conspiracy of fraudulent scientists.

So what did the climate-skeptics found out, what were the problems in the CRU emails that trigger a scandal? Scientifically speaking the emails did disclose any serious wrongdoing of the scientists involved. For the public a striking fact is, probably, sociology of science has changed the days of Darwin, Russel or Rutherford. Darwin, Russel and Rutherford spend long hours and wrote exactly formulated letters in splendid Oxford English. Present climate scientists seem to communicate like a bunch of aging teenagers. Their emails are formulated in a jargon, and are full of juicy positions, bad and sloppy language. It shed also some shadows on the character of some of these scientists. Perhaps, it shows that they are only human and that they have there friends and enemies. Now, these emails were newer mend for a larger public. But, aren’t scientists human and why should they not have the right to communicate in the kind of language they want. Email -correspondence is not mend, while people like Darwin carefully archived and selected their correspondence for history. Perhaps the scandal wouldn’t have come if Phil Jones and friends would all have been Eton educated country gentlemen, that write their emails in clear, political correct and flawless Oxford English.

What are the scientific conclusions of climategate. Climategate discovered questions of how data was stored and asked legitimate question of how source-data for scientific articles should be made available to the general public. It raised also questions how this original data should be archived. Climategate raised questions, if it is legitimate for scientists to act with their feet and if they have the right to boycott journals that publish research that they do not like. Climategate, however, did not uncover any wrongdoings in the way scientific data was treated and reported.

Climate skeptics see themselves as the hero’s that will turn the ship of science away from a conspiracy of corrupt science establishment. These changes, where skeptics have changed our perceptions of the world. Notable cases are Darwin’s theory of evolution or Galileo’s theory of the solar system. Darwin and Galileo de-constructed existing well established scientific theories. They went through great amounts of personal stress, they were orally (and in the case of Galilei also physically) attacked. Climate skeptics claim to be the martyrs of science and having difficulties to get their opinion heard. They perhaps forget that there are fundamental differences between them and the previous cases.

To understand why I do not see a potential of scientific revolution from the climate skeptics we have to understand what is climate change about. Climate change is about the radiative balance of the earth. Carbon dioxide increases the radiative energy that is absorbed in the atmosphere and therefore increases the temperature of the earth. The physics behind this phenomena is simple pre-university physics. A non-physicist, like me, could probably construct a simple climate change model for a column of dry atmosphere in a week or so. The concept of climate change is old and dates back over a hundred years. Now, to model climate change or its absence realistically we have to look at other processes. The atmosphere is not only CO 2 and dry air,, but there are other gases inside. These gases, especially water vapour, are a nuisance for climate modelers, water vapour is a potent greenhouse gas, but it also forms clouds and which may warm or cool climate.

This brings me to the point that climate skeptics will not revolutionize science. If we would live in bone-dry atmosphere, without snow and land use changes, CO 2 induced changes of air temperatures would be easy to predict and the scientific theory about the basis of climate change is rock solid. Climate skeptics know this. There are two avenues of attacking climate change. Firstly, they try to show that climate warming has not occurred during the past centuries. Paleoclimatic reconstructions are difficult and uncertain. Scientists have to make uncanny choices about data, its pretreatment and its calibration with real climate data. Therefore, paleoclimatic studies are good food for climate skeptics. In any paleoclimatic study you can find something “bad” and arguable. However, climate skeptics do not really present alternatives. They deconstruct without constructing an alternative. Similar tactics are applied to the instrumental climatic record. But one again, climate skeptics deconstruct without constructing.

Since the basic idea of CO 2 warming the atmosphere is physically sound, climate skeptics claim that there are feedback mechanisms that will keep the climate constant. It is true that feedback mechanisms in the climate system are complex and poorly understood. However, it has been shown that climate of the world is dynamic and has been varying. A long time ago, trees were growing in the tundras of northernmost Canada and 100 000 years ago, I would have to dig myself out of a glacier to see the daylight. This means that the odds are against a stable CO 2 independent climate. Climate skeptics would, therefore, have to show that the mechanisms they induce are important enough. They were not able to fulfill that claim. Negative feedback mechanisms are not strong enough to cancel climate change. I would conclude that climate skeptics are not prone to provide to revolutionize climate science since they do not provide a new avenue of scientific thinking. They attack, mostly well known, shortcomings of present data and theories. Unlike, Darwin or Galilei, they do, however, not put any constructive new theory forward.

While climategate discovered minor shortcomings of the involved scientists, it inflated these …. Somehow, the climate skeptics and the forces behind them were able to use the media to inflate a mouse to the size of an elephant. While this is worrying, I know from dozens of children’s anniversaries that balloons will loose air over time.


The material in this press release comes from the originating research organization. Content may be edited for style and length. Have a question? Let us know.

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