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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/04/2009

Expert: E-mails show perils of 'activist' science

Interview series: Controversial climate e-mails

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The controversy over the unauthorized release of years worth of private e-mail correspondence between a handful of top climate researchers, stolen or leaked from computers at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU), has now attracted the attention of top government officials in the United States and abroad. On Wednesday, two of the Obama administration's key climate science advisers were grilled about the matter before a congressional committee, and yesterday the climate negotiator for the oil-rich Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made it clear to the BBC that he will raise the issue at the impending Copenhagen climate talks.

Critics of climate science have trumpeted the e-mails as evidence that climate data is not nearly as solid as some researchers and officials had portrayed, with some touting the messages as evidence of a conspiracy on the part of scientists to convince the public and policymakers that climate change is an urgent issue. Investigations have begun in Britain and the U.S. into how the emails were released, and whether any rules or research practices were violated in the conduct of specific climate science research studies. In addition, Phil Jones, the director of CRU, has temporarily stepped aside pending the results of his university's inquiry into the e-mails.

As part of my continuing series of interviews with climate experts, today I bring you an email conversation I had this week with University of Colorado environmental studies professor Roger Pielke Jr. Unlike the subjects of my previous interviews in this series, Pielke sees this controversy as a very significant one, if not for climate science itself then at least for the public perception of that science.


Pielke, not to be confused with his father, climate scientist Roger Pielke Sr., specializes in the intersection between science and policy, particularly concerning global climate change. He has conducted research studies on natural disaster trends, and is the author of "The Honest Broker: Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics."

Andrew Freedman: What is your general view of the seriousness of the e-mail controversy? Does this have major scientific significance, or does it have a greater impact on the public perception of climate science?

Roger Pielke Jr.: At this point there is no doubt that the email controversy is quite serious. Its scientific significance remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter is that credibility of climate science has taken a big hit (warranted or not) and this will have consequences for the practice of climate science.

AF: You have been sharply critical of the behavior of the researchers whose e-mails were hacked and published online, writing on your blog that "the emails show a consistent pattern of behavior among the activist scientists to redefine peer review in accordance with their own views of climate science. In doing so, they sought to turn the entire notion of peer review on its head." Do you think they succeeded in redefining peer review, thereby corrupting and distorting the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) process, or is it unrealistic to think that such a small number of scientists could have such a large influence, as many people are claiming?

RP:I have been critical of the behavior of activist climate scientists for many years. Their efforts to wage a battle with their political opponents (who they call "skeptics" in the emails) on the turf of science has contributed to the excessive politicization of climate science. The appropriate place to wage political battles is out in the open, and in full consideration of the many factors beyond science that shape our political agendas.
While it is clear that the "skeptics" were/are often hiding their political agendas behind science, that doesn't make it right for the activist scientists to do the same. In fact, there is much more at stake for the scientific community from the activist scientists than the "skeptics" because the activist scientists have claimed to be representing the scientific establishment and are in fact part of leading scientific institutions like the IPCC, and thus a loss of credibility is disproportionately more consequential.
"ʻIf it seems like the issue of politicized science falls in the favor of the skeptics, that is correct. They can politicize science with less consequences than can the activist scientists. That is just a fact. No one said that politics is fair."
If it seems like the issue of politicized science falls in the favor of the skeptics, that is correct. They can politicize science with less consequences than can the activist scientists. That is just a fact. No one said that politics is fair.
Despite the stated intentions in the emails, the reality is that no one controls peer review in all of academia or even in a field like climate science, and it is futile to try to do so, though apparently this did not stop some of these activist scientists from at least talking about trying to manage the peer review process in ways favorable to their work and unfavorable to their perceived opponents. No matter how well the succeeded in this effort, seeing their efforts described in the emails looks really bad to most observers.
The IPCC is different however, in that it is controlled by a much smaller group of people. I've had my own experiences with the IPCC that lead me to believe that a few individuals can indeed successfully serve as gatekeepers to keep certain peer-reviewed science out of the report. In areas where I have expertise -- disasters and climate change specifically -- the IPCC has failed miserably. [Note: Pielke laid out this argument in more detail in a June blog post.]

AF: An alternative view of the e-mails would be that they reflect the results of the assault that climate scientists have been under for years from climate skeptics and vested interests who seek to convince the public that climate change is not a major problem and risk management policies are unnecessary. Would you agree the e-mails show researchers on the defensive? Does that in any way mitigate their actions?

RP: Your question clearly presents these scientists as activists. How did we get into a situation where some believe that it is the responsibility of climate scientists to engage in a battle with "climate skeptics and vested interests who seek to convince the public that climate change is not a major problem and risk management policies are unnecessary"?
It is not the job of these scientists to try to influence vested interests or shape public opinion on climate policies through science or using scientific institutions. Or more precisely, if these scientists wish to engage in overt advocacy, they should do what NASA's Jim Hansen has done, quite admirably, and be open and up front with their agenda and politics. They cannot have it both ways - they cannot claim to be focused on truth and advancing knowledge while at the same time engaging in a political battle over climate policy. The public may not understand the technical details of climate science, but they know politics when they see it.
The IPCC has a formal directive to be "policy neutral" but this is routinely flouted. I understand that some of these scientists are under the illusion that they are simply pursuing truth. But the reality is that they have been engaged in a political battle that reflects badly upon them and their institutions. When political battles take place through science, it is science itself that usually loses out.

AF: What actions would you recommend for climate scientists, including the IPCC, to take regain the public confidence that may have been lost in this scandal, and improve the peer-review process? Is an 'open' peer-review system, using online communications, a viable option? Or is the current system not as broken as it might seem?

RP: More openness, more transparency, more diversity, and more attention to the social construction of expertise is needed. The IPCC was more or less "outsourced" by decision makers to the academic community. That was a mistake.
We don't run military or economic policies based on the work of independent academics working in campus-based research centers. Instead we create institutions that pay close attention to their legitimacy and credibility in the public eye as a matter of good practice. Why? Because such institutions move markets and shape wars -- serious stuff. If climate policy is to be equally serious stuff we have to take knowledge production equally as seriously. We have not to date.
From this perspective, the current situation is not the fault of the climate scientists, but those who allowed such conditions and incentives to develop that have fostered the unhealthy politicization of climate science.
Fixing it will take some work and some institution building, and will require a new generation of leaders to step up to the challenge. The climate science community can help by supporting the depoliticization of its leading institutions, but this could very well and understandably face some resistance from those who benefit from the status quo.

AF: You have stated repeatedly that you believe climate change is a serious public policy concern and that risk management measures are needed to mitigate and adapt to it. Does this controversy change your conclusions?

RP: Not in the slightest.

AF: What would you say to members of the public who had confidence in the underlying science of climate change but are now questioning it to a greater extent, and also what would you say to the many skeptics who are using this controversy to bolster their claims that the data has been manipulated, and the problem is not so bad after all?

RP: Over time, the public has been strongly in support of action on emissions reductions in the US and elsewhere. This support has been broad but not deep, as people consistently rank climate well down on the list of top priorities, behind issues like the economy, health, war, crime, etc. This is highly unlikely to change. At the same time, the public's views of a human influence on climate has also been high, with a few ups and downs over the years. I would bet that the public's views of climate scientists will take the biggest hit among these issues.
But it is important to remember that action to decarbonize the economy and better adapt to climate aren't simply a direct consequence of what climate scientists have said about a human influence on the climate system. An important part of depoliticizing climate science will be to recognize that there are many good reasons for decarbonizing the economy and better adapting to climate. In fact, I can make a compelling case for doing both, with climate science playing a complementary role in the justification and one where certainties are not required.
When skeptics argue that uncertainty means that no action is necessary, they are also laying a trap, one that many environmental advocates and activist scientists have fallen into. We do not need to settle very many scientific questions to justify policies that lead to reduced emissions or better adaptation. The best response to skeptics is to say, yes there are uncertainties, but there are other very good reasons for action. The questions we should be debating are thus not about science, but what action?

Stay tuned for the next interview in this series, which will likely be published early next week. Click here to read previous interviews in this series.

The views expressed here are the author's and interview subject's alone and do not represent any position of the Washington Post, its news staff or the Capital Weather Gang.

By  |  11:00 AM ET, 12/04/2009

Categories:  Freedman, Freedman, Freedman, Freedman

 
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