The Maldives cabinet holds an underwater meeting in a bid to draw attention to the dangers of global warming for the island nation.
Plagued by reports of sloppy work, falsifications and exaggerations, climate research is facing a crisis of confidence. How reliable are the predictions about global warming and its consequences? And would it really be the end of the world if temperatures rose by more than the much-quoted limit of two degrees Celsius?
Life has become “awful” for Phil Jones. Just a few months ago, he was a man with an enviable reputation: the head of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, an expert in his field and the father of an alarming global temperature curve that apparently showed how the Earth was heating up as a result of anthropogenic global warming.
Those days are now gone.
Nowadays, Jones, who is at the center of the “Climategate” affair involving hacked CRU emails, needs medication to fall sleep. He feels a constant tightness in his chest. He takes beta-blockers to help him get through the day. He is gaunt and his skin is pallid. He is 57, but he looks much older. He was at the center of a research scandal that hit him as unexpectedly as a rear-end collision on the highway.
His days are now shaped by investigative commissions at the university and in the British Parliament. He sits on his chair at the hearings, looking miserable, sometimes even trembling. The Internet is full of derisive remarks about him, as well as insults and death threats. “We know where you live,” his detractors taunt.
Jones is finished: emotionally, physically and professionally. He has contemplated suicide several times recently, and he says that one of the only things that have kept him from doing it is the desire to watch his five-year-old granddaughter grow up.
‘100 Percent Confident’
One of the conclusions of his famous statistical analysis of the world’s climate is that the average temperature on Earth rose by 0.166 degrees Celsius per decade between 1975 and 1998. This, according to Jones, was the clear result of his research and that of many other scientists.
“I am 100 percent confident that the climate has warmed,” Jones says imploringly. “I did not manipulate or fabricate any data.”
His problem is that the public doesn’t trust him anymore. Since unknown hackers secretly copied 1,073 private emails between members of his research team and published them on the Internet, his credibility has been destroyed — and so has that of an entire profession that had based much of its work on his research until now.
Those who have always viewed global warming as a global conspiracy now feel a sense of satisfaction. The so-called climate skeptics feel vindicated, because Jones, in his written correspondence with colleagues, all of them leading members of the climate research community, does not come across as an objective scientist, but rather as an activist or missionary who views “his” data as his personal shrine and is intent on protecting it from the critical eyes of his detractors.
An Entire Branch of Science in Crisis
The Climategate affair is grist for the mills of skeptics, who have gained growing support for their cause, particularly in English-speaking countries. What began with hacked emails in the United Kingdom has mushroomed into a crisis affecting an entire scientific discipline. At its center is an elite and highly influential scientific group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Working on behalf of the United Nations, the scientists organized under IPCC’s umbrella — including Phil Jones — regularly prepare prognoses on the Earth’s looming greenhouse climate. Without the IPCC reports, governments would not be embroiled in such passionate debate about phasing out the age of oil and coal.
In late 2007, the IPCC was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with former US Vice President Al Gore. IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, as the personification of the world’s conscience, accepted the award on behalf of his organization. “Climate change poses novel risks,” Pachauri told his audience, saying that the decision to award the prize to the IPCC was “a clarion call for the protection of the earth as it faces the widespread impacts of climate change.” He also warned of the risk of not taking action: “Every year of delay implies a commitment to greater climate change in the future.”
Since then, the IPCC has experienced a dramatic fall from grace. Less than three years after this triumph, more and more mistakes, evidence of sloppy work and exaggerations in the current IPCC report are appearing. They include Jones’ disputed temperature curve, the prediction that all Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 — which was the result of a simple transposition of numbers — and the supposed increase in natural disasters, for which no source was given.
In mid-March, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon slammed on the brakes and appointed a watchdog for the IPCC. The InterAcademy Council, a coalition of 15 national academies of science, will review the work of the IPCC by this fall.
There is already a consensus today that deep-seated reforms are needed at the IPCC. The selection of its authors and reviewers was not sufficiently nonpartisan, there was not enough communication among the working groups, and there were no mechanisms on how to handle errors.
Offering the Skeptics an ‘Unprotected Flank’
Also at issue is the position of IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, who is praised as a “leading global thinker” in his official biography. A railroad engineer by trade, Pachauri wrote an erotic novel and recommended that people reduce their meat consumption while traveling around the world to save the climate. He has cut a miserable figure during the current crisis. The climate guru summarily dismissed justified objections to the IPCC report as “voodoo science.”
Germany’s Leibniz Association, an umbrella group which includes several climate research institutions as its members, is the first professional organization to call for Pachauri’s resignation. Leibniz President Ernst Rietschel believes that climate research is now “in a difficult situation” because the skeptics have been “offered an unprotected flank.” Rietschel told SPIEGEL: “Rajendra Pachauri should take the responsibility for this and should resign.”
On balance, the entire profession has been seriously harmed by the scandal. “We are currently suffering a massive erosion of trust,” concludes German climatologist Hans von Storch. “Climate research has been corrupted by politicization, just as nuclear physics was in the pre-Chernobyl days, when we were led to believe that nuclear power plants were completely safe.”
Politically Charged Science
No other branch of science is as politically charged. A religious war is raging between alarmists and skeptics, and it threatens to consume levelheaded climatologists. But it is a critical conflict, because it revolves around something as massive as the total restructuring of industrial society, a venture that will cost trillions of euros. Powerful economic interests and unshakeable fundamental beliefs come into play.
The credibility crisis in climatology comes at an extremely unfavorable time. Since the failed December 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, environment policy has been in a state of shock. US President Barack Obama, for example, has put his initiative for new climate legislation on hold. And last week French President Nicolas Sarkozy reversed his plans to introduce a climate tax, saying: “We will not impose any constraints on our industry yet.”
On the other hand, Mohamed Nasheed, the president of the Maldives, an island nation threatened with extinction as a result of rising sea levels, accuses the Americans of engaging in intrigue to make climatology seem ridiculous. During a recent speech in Berlin, Nasheed characterized efforts to discredit climate research as “a diabolical plan.”
Unwilling to Pay
Meanwhile, there are growing concerns in Berlin that German citizens could become less willing to pay for costly efforts to protect the climate. A poll conducted on behalf of SPIEGEL already signals a dramatic shift in public opinion and suggests that Germans are losing their fear of climate change. The strong majority of 58 percent who said they feared global warming about three years ago has declined to a minority of 42 percent.
German Environment Minister Norbert Röttgen, a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), is urging the IPCC to deal with its own errors more proactively. “The IPCC should openly admit its mistakes and correct them,” he told SPIEGEL. “It is imperative that trust in the work of the IPCC be restored as quickly as possible.”
There are also growing concerns at Germany’s Ministry of Education and Research, which is spending €250 million ($338 million) to support climate science this year. Research Minister Annette Schavan has already summoned German IPCC scientists to attend a “meeting to clarify the situation and improve quality assurance.” Officials at the ministry are horrified over how unprofessionally the IPCC is organized. “The IPCC’s results must be above suspicion, because their impact can cost trillions and have serious political consequences,” says Wilfried Kraus, a senior ministry official.
Scientists Who Want to be Politicians
Reinhard Hüttl, head of the German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam near Berlin and the president of the German Academy of Science and Engineering, believes that basic values are now under threat. “Scientists should never be as wedded to their theories that they are no longer capable of refuting them in the light of new findings,” he says. Scientific research, Hüttl adds, is all about results, not beliefs. Unfortunately, he says, there are more and more scientists who want to be politicians.
“If the revelations about the affair in England turn out to be true, it will be a catastrophe for climatology as a whole,” says Hüttl. “We can only monitor ourselves, and if we fail in that endeavor, who can be expected to believe us anymore?”
The British climate research center the Met Office has decided that the only way to regain lost trust is to make all climate data available online immediately, in a system that is accessible to anyone, offers maximum transparency and includes critical assessments on how reliable each piece of information is. The Met Office estimates that this major international project will take at least three years.
Despite the controversy, most climatologists agree that in the end the general view of climate change will not have changed significantly. Almost all share the basic conviction that we are headed for warmer times.
Scientists fear that without an open, honest process, they will no longer find a sympathetic ear. This process could mean that much of what has long been considered established knowledge will come under review once again, specifically, five elementary questions on the future of the climate:
- By how many degrees has the Earth’s temperature already increased, and how much further will temperatures rise?
- How high will sea levels rise in a greenhouse climate?
- Can we expect to see storms of unprecedented strength in the future?
- Which parts of the world will experience more droughts, and where will there be more flooding?
- Will the situation on the planet truly spin out of control if the average global temperature increases by more than two degrees Celsius?
Anyone who speaks with leading climatologists today will discover how many questions remain open. The media, politicians and even scientists often talk about changes to the weather with a certainty that does not in fact exist.
A Climate Rebel Takes on the Establishment
One man notes with particular satisfaction how Phil Jones and his colleagues are being forced to confess to one mistake after another. Steve McIntyre lives in a small brick house near downtown Toronto. It is a Sunday afternoon and he is sitting at his well-worn desk, illuminated only by a small energy-saving bulb on the ceiling.
This man, with his thinning gray hair, is an unlikely adversary for climatologists, and yet he is largely responsible for the current tumult in their field. “This is the computer I used to begin doing the recalculations,” he says, holding a six-year-old Acer laptop with a 40-gigabyte hard drive. “My wife finally gave me a new one for Christmas.”
The laptop marks a sharp contrast to the supercomputers at the disposal of Phil Jones and the other prophets of global warming, whose computers fill entire floors. Instead of gigabytes, they deal in petabytes. How is possible that this Canadian was able to bring such a self-confident group of scientists to their knees?
It all began when his three children went off to college and moved out of his house, which is filled with Asian antiques. “Things weren’t going so well in the markets at the time,” says McIntyre, “so I took six months to examine how climatologists arrive at their curves.”
Hitting Pay Dirt
McIntyre normally works in the investment field, specializing in major mining projects. He has always been good at math. “I won mathematics prizes in school,” says McIntyre. But after finishing his studies, which included a spell at the UK’s elite Oxford University, he left the academic world for a career in high finance.
His late return would shake the academic world to its core. One day, McIntyre came across a curve that seemed all too familiar to him. It was the famous hockey stick curve (see graphic), with which US climatologist Michael Mann sought to prove that, during the last millennium, temperatures have never increased as sharply as they are rising today.
But McIntyre was suspicious. “In financial circles, we talk about a hockey stick curve when some investor presents you with a nice, steep curve in the hope of palming something off on you.”
The stubborn Canadian pestered one scientist after another to provide him with raw data — until he hit pay dirt and discovered that the hockey stick curve was, in his opinion at least, a sham.
Too Few Trees
The climate historians working with Michael Mann used tree rings as the primary source of their data. The problem with this approach is that large numbers of trees from suitable regions are required if conclusions about past temperatures based on tree growth are to be drawn. “Unfortunately, if we go back more than 500 years, we don’t have many reliable trees for our analyses,” explains Jan Esper of the University of Mainz in western Germany.
For example, there are many indications that in medieval times, between 900 and 1,300 A.D., when the Vikings raised livestock in Greenland and grape vines were cultivated in Scotland, it was in fact warmer than it is today. This is precisely what Mann denied, with a certainty that irritated even his allies.
McIntyre put the Mann curve to the arithmetic test. He accuses Mann of having filtered out the hockey stick graph more or less arbitrarily from the fluctuation noise of his tree-ring data. To prove his contention, McIntyre programmed his computer using Mann’s methodology and entered completely random data into the program. The results, says McIntyre, “was a hockey stick curve.”
Then the Canadian rebel turned his attention to the far more important temperature curves of the recent past, those of Phil Jones and of his comrade-in-arms at NASA, James Hansen. All things considered, the blunders he discovered at first were not particularly significant, but they were all the more embarrassing. For instance, scientists had long claimed that 1998 was the warmest year in the United States since temperatures were first recorded — until McIntyre discovered that it was even warmer in 1934.
McIntyre’s findings did not make him very popular. In the hacked Climategate emails, he is referred to as a “bozo,” a “moron” and a “playground bully.” But with their self-aggrandizement, the climatologists made him into a legend on the Internet. A million people a month visit his blog, climateaudit.org. They include climate skeptics and the usual conspiracy theorists, but also, more recently, many academics who are able to do the math themselves.
McIntyre asserts that he does believe in climate change. “I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water,” he says, “but when I find mistakes, I want them to be corrected.”
He repeatedly bombarded Jones with emails in which he drew his attention to freedom of information laws. This tenacity would prove to be disastrous for Jones.
McIntyre doggedly asked for access to the raw data. Jones was just as dogged in denying his requests, constantly coming up with new, specious reasons for his rejections. Unfortunately for Jones, however, McIntyre’s supporters eventually included people who know how to secretly hack into computers and steal data.
Their target was well selected. Jones was like a spider in its web. Almost every internal debate among the climate popes passed through his computer, leaving behind a digital trail.
The Smoking Gun of Climatology
Most of all, however, Jones controlled the “smoking gun” of climatology: the Earth’s temperature curve. The temperature records dating back to the beginning of industrialization are intended to prove that the average global temperature has already increased by almost one degree Celsius since 1850.
There are various pieces of indirect evidence that support the theory of global warming. Glaciers are receding, sea levels are rising and sea ice in the Arctic regions is disappearing. But these signs are nothing compared with the readings taken at weather stations.
The problem is that the quality of the raw data derived from weather services around the world differs considerably. At a number of weather stations, temperatures rose because houses and factories had been built around them. Elsewhere, stations were moved and, as a result, suddenly produced different readings. In all of these cases, Jones had to use statistical methods to correct the errors in the temperature readings, using an approach called “homogenization.”
Did Jones proceed correctly while homogenizing the data? Most climatologists still believe Jones’ contention that he did not intentionally manipulate the data. However, that belief will have to remain rooted in good faith. Under the pressure of McIntyre’s attacks, Jones had to admit something incredible: He had deleted his notes on how he performed the homogenization. This means that it is not possible to reconstruct how the raw data turned into his temperature curve.
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