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Kim Cobb’s view

Filed under: — eric @ 18 December 2009

Guest Commentary: An Open Essay on “ClimateGate”
Kim Cobb, Georgia Tech

Since the widespread distribution of stolen e-mails originating from the University of East Anglia, I have become increasingly distressed by the way that the internet and media machinery has digested their content. As a climate scientist, I have always been sensitive to the direction the wind is blowing on climate change, and it has become increasingly clear to me that more scientists need to add their voices to the debate. I learned early in my career that it is far better to address the issues raised by global warming skeptics head on rather than ignore their attacks and let public sentiment evolve in an information battleground that has been ceded to their arguments.

I am a collaborator, co-author, and friend of both Phil Jones and Michael Mann, the authors of the most frequently quoted e-mails from the “CRU hack”. My name even appears in one of these emails to Phil Jones, regarding my involvement as an unpaid collaborator on his proposal. I don’t believe my relationship to these scientists disqualifies my opinion on this matter – rather, I believe that as a paleoclimate scientist who knows the intricate details of the matters they discuss, my opinion may be of value to the general public.

There is no doubt that the CRU e-mails are an embarrassment to climate science in general, and to paleoclimate in particular. I have read the “greatest hits”, and cringe along with everyone else at their content. But in my professional opinion, these e-mails reveal nothing more than brief, emotion-fueled remarks made in the face of unrelenting and often disingenuous attacks. Far more importantly, the conduct (questionable or not) of a handful of climate scientists in no way undermines the scientific support for anthropogenic global warming. The conclusions reached in the IPCC report do not critically depend on the work of these few scientists.

One of the more unnerving impressions from the behind-the-scenes glance at climate research may be that subjectivity exists in climate science. My response is “Well, duh.” Scientists are not technicians, we are not following a cookbook or a yellow-brick-road. Rather, we make a myriad of decisions every day about our results, based on our interpretations, which in turn are based on (in this case) years of experience. Some aspects of climate science are more open to subjective interpretation than others (the standardization of some late 20th century tree ring paleoclimate records being near the top of this list). If a subjective choice changes the conclusion of a study, then the confidence in the conclusion is reduced and the associated uncertainties must be quantified. But the scientific process is self-correcting; if an inappropriate choice was made, then this will eventually be identified by other researchers, our scientific understanding will improve, and our confidence in the conclusions will increase.

The concern about peer review evident in these emails arises from the disproportionate impact of a few peer reviewed articles that called into question some of the scientific evidence for anthropogenic global warming. The public impact of these single articles quickly rose to rival those of the dozens of climate science articles published in Nature, Science, and other reputable journals. In my eyes, the problem is not with the journal, editor, or authors of the papers in question, because dissenting voices will always exist, but with the public relations machinery that gives them undo influence over public sentiment and the political process. At the time, there were several careful point-by-point refutations of the anti-global warming articles written, but such contributions failed to quell the fire that was sparked by politically motivated skeptics and fueled by media outlets eager for controversy. It was a misplaced and perhaps even misguided effort for the CRU scientists to suggest changes to the peer-review system in that case, but I can definitely understand their frustration.

The last point that merits mention is the issue of who should have access to raw and processed climate data and associated metadata. We all agree that all types of climate data should be made publicly available. Ideally, data consumers would further progress by seeking to understand the fundamental truths of climate change and probing the limitations of climate datasets, contributing to a global dialogue in the peer-reviewed literature. Nevertheless, the fact of the matter is that a small portion of the raw data that went into some of the CRU SST datasets is proprietary, and was shared by parties who stipulated that it not be publicly distributed. Even if this were not the case, archiving such a large dataset in such a way as to make it useful to those not well-versed in IDL or GRADS is not a trivial task. There is a financial cost associated with making data and metadata and code publicly accessible, and this cost needs to be borne by someone other than the scientists themselves or their institutions, which operate on tight budgets.

I feel that as climate scientists we must put ourselves at the very center of the discussions surrounding the causes and consequences of anthropogenic global warming. In doing so, some may come dangerously close to policy advocacy, but to recuse ourselves from the raging international debate would be a great loss for humanity.


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