Monthly Archives: November 2009

163 – ClimateGate part 1: Background

The recent release of thousands of hacked emails and documents from a leading climate research centre (the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia) has been making headlines and has been a hot topic in the blogosphere. This article provides background to the controversy.

Before looking at the leaked material itself in the next PD, I think it is worthwhile going through some of the background to the story, which has its roots back in 2003.

This story is about a fairly small group of influential scientists who’ve drifted into a culture of behaviour that would be anathema to most scientists. It is not about whether or not climate change is real or serious, although it does raise doubts about the work of these particular scientists.

For readers of the Climate Audit blog, run by Canadian statistician Steve McIntyre, the revelations contained in the leaked material are not surprising. It was already apparent that there exists a small group of senior climate scientists (usually called the Hockey Team, or the Team for short, for reasons that will become obvious) who routinely behave in questionable ways to prevent outside scrutiny of their work. These scientists are mainly in the area of paleoclimatology – studies of historical climate patterns using proxy data like tree ring widths. Some of them have played leading roles in the IPCC, including as lead authors of chapters in different IPCC reports – a position that empowers them to determine which science gets into the reports.

The beginning of the story was an attempt by Steve McIntyre to replicate the famous “hockey stick” study of Michael Mann and colleagues. Mann is not at the university where the emails were hacked, but he has close connections to the CRU and is one of the most frequent senders or recipients of the leaked emails.

The original Mann et al. studies, based on statistical analysis of historical tree-ring-width data, purported to show that global average temperatures have been fairly constant for 1000 years or more, until the 20th century when they kicked up sharply, so that the graph overall has the shape of an ice-hockey stick.

The hockey-stick diagram seemed to offer dramatic evidence that mankind was affecting climate, and it was used for a while by the IPCC as its most prominent graphic.

Given its prominence, Steve McIntyre’s interest was perked. Did all the data series have hockey-stick shapes? How was the model estimated? How robust and statistically significant was it? He asked Mann for the raw data, and was actually given a data set. He found numerous problems with the data set and he found that the statistical model was not robust. Mann rejected the criticisms, saying that McIntyre wasn’t even using the right data set, implying that this was McIntyre’s fault, even though it was the data provided by Mann.

The published journal articles did not provide enough details to allow McIntyre to fully replicate Mann’s results (exactly which data series were used, exactly which statistical technique was used) and Mann simply refused to provide the information. But McIntyre has tremendous perseverance, and slowly over time he was able to fill many of the knowledge gaps. One key event was when he found a copy of the programming code for Mann’s statistical analysis sitting on a publicly accessible internet site. Analysing this, he found that Mann’s statistical technique was non-standard, and indeed was rather dodgy. Because of the way it worked, it selectively mined the data set for hockey-stick-shaped data series and hugely inflated the weightings they were given.

McIntyre found that the hockey stick shape of the final graph depended on a small number of series whose weightings had been inflated in this way. Most of the data series did not actually have a hockey stick shape. Notably, data representing the ring widths of bristlecone pines in one area of the US were crucial – Mann would not have got a hockey stick shaped final result without them. There were serious doubts about whether the pattern of ring widths for these particular trees reflected temperatures. The people who collected the data didn’t think so. Now it’s thought that it is a result of trees having had their bark removed at some point, after which their growth was altered.

McIntyre also showed that the R2 for the hockey stick graph was zero – as a statistical model, it provided no explanation for the data whatsoever.

Mann refused to accept all these points, and persisted in claiming that his analysis was valid. Eventually there were two official public inquiries in the U.S. – one consisting of scientists and one of statisticians. The scientist one concluded that the “strip bark” bristlecone pine data should not be used, and the statistical one concluded that McIntyre’s criticisms of the statistical analysis were correct in all respects.

Mann and his colleagues ignored these findings and continued to use the same dodgy data and the same dodgy statistical technique in subsequent publications. Their influence and stature within the world of climate science seemed to be unaffected by all this. Many climate scientists seemed to assume that McIntyre must be wrong because he’s not a real climate scientist and because Mann and his collaborators are so famous. The Team set up a blog site (http://realclimate.com/) which poured scorn on McIntyre and heavily censored any dissent among the blog respondents. There developed a mutual distrust and personal dislike between the two factions.

Over time, McIntrye has broadened his focus to other studies and other data, including that of the CRU (the body whose computer system was hacked). He has looked at a variety of other important statistical studies on climate, and he regularly picks up problems. Mostly he gets abused or ignored by the scientists. Occasionally the scientists do pick up his findings and adapt their analysis, but they almost never acknowledge his contribution.

The Team has continued to obstruct the attempts of McIntyre (and others) to get data and information about methods at every turn. They don’t seem to recognise that there is anything wrong with this behaviour. For example, back in 2005 Phil Jones from the CRU told Warwick Hughes (an Australian, I think) who was requesting data, “I will still not pass on the data. We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?” How about, because you are supposed to be a scientist? How about, because you are are publicly funded? How about, because there’s a lot riding on your results?

When Team scientists refused to meet requests to provide data, McIntyre and others resorted to making requests under Freedom of Information legislation. In the case of the CRU, this proceeded as follows.

  1. Initially they refused to provide the raw data to Steve McIntyre because he “isn’t an academic”. Since he has published peer-reviewed articles in climate journals, they presumably mean that he isn’t employed by a university. This criterion would have disqualified Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin from being considered legitimate scientists at the times when they wrote their major works.
  2. Then, when a university-employed academic requested the same data, they said that the information is already available elsewhere and that they couldn’t provide it because of confidentiality agreements (not noticing the the contradiction). They said that releasing the data would have an “adverse effect on international relations”, although they didn’t mention that they had previously provided it to another pro-warming academic (apparently without the feared adverse effect).
  3. When requested to provide the confidentiality agreements, they said: there are too many to provide; it is too much work. In response, several individuals asked for copies of confidentiality agreements that applied to specific small amounts of temperature data.
  4. They responded to these requests with: we can only provide two of the many confidentiality agreements, we can’t find the others and we don’t know who they were with, and by the way we have just discovered that we no longer hold the original raw data.

All this to prevent an obviously skilled statistician from getting hold of data that was publicly funded, and which is being used to influence massive policy decisions.

The detailed account of another person’s attempt to use the Freedom of Information Act to get data out of the CRU is documented here. It’s fascinating to see the CRU’s ingenuity, and their brazenness. It seems that Freedom of Information officers at the University were courted and effectively enrolled by the Team.

Given this context, you can see why somebody might want to hack into Team computers. I don’t think it was a random attack.

One of the tragedies in all this is that the Team could learn from Steve McIntyre. It’s obvious that he has statistical knowledge that would be valuable to the Team, if they would take his advice constructively. Even though they consider him to be not a proper scientist, he seems to have a better grasp on some of the core principles of science. As far as I can see, he has won every single substantive battle in this ongoing war (in the sense of being correct, not in the sense of convincing his opponents), but the Team continues to claim the opposite, at least in public. What about in private? One of the leaked emails has a former Director of the CRU saying:

“I have just read the M&M [McIntyre and McKitrick] stuff critcizing MBH [Mann et al.]. A lot of it seems valid to me. At the very least MBH is a very sloppy piece of work — an opinion I have held for some time.” (See the original email here.)

McIntyre’s emphasis on due diligence, arising from his experience in the mining industry, is one of the interesting angles on the story. The scientists consider peer review to be sufficient due diligence, but it’s become plain that for analyses that affect decisions with massive financial or social implications, it is not sufficient. Someone independent should be made responsible for actually replicating the key studies.

McIntyre’s blog is frequented by people who are, in the main, in the “sceptical” camp, but interestingly McIntyre himself has repeatedly said that if he were making policy decisions, he would use the IPCC as the best available evidence. He just wants to make sure that the information is up to scratch.

Hopefully, his contributions will be appropriately recognised in paleoclimatology one day. I guess it might not happen until after the Team has retired or otherwise lost its influence.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further reading

McKitrick, R. 2005. What is the hockey stick debate about? Paper presented to APEC Study Group, Australia, 4 April 2005, http://www.uoguelph.ca/~rmckitri/research/McKitrick-hockeystick.pdf

162 – CSIRO and the Clive Spash controversy

Recently CSIRO was in the news for allegedly suppressing the publication of a research paper that was critical of government policy on climate change.

In his paper, the author, Clive Spash, basically argues that an emissions trading scheme for greenhouse gases is not a good idea. CSIRO management asked Clive to withdraw the paper after it had already been peer reviewed and accepted by a journal.

The controversy made quite a splash in the media, particularly in the Australian newspaper (e.g. see here, here) and was reported around the world, with CSIRO copping a lot of flack.

Reading the available material, it seems to me that the story is a bit more nuanced than came across in the media.

The heart of the issue is CSIRO’s Policy on Public Comment by CSIRO Staff. The policy basically says it encourages public statements by CSIRO researchers, subject to some constraints. The critical constraint in this case is “Policy Statement 3. CSIRO staff should not advocate, defend or publicly canvass the merits of government or opposition policies (including policies of previous Commonwealth governments, or State or local or foreign governments).”

In explaining this policy, the document says:

As representatives of CSIRO, staff should avoid making direct comment for or against government or opposition policy. In this respect, CSIRO policy may differ from some Australian universities; CSIRO differs in that it is a Commonwealth Government agency. This gives CSIRO the advantage that it can participate directly in the internal policy development processes of government.

As Commonwealth officials CSIRO employees are bound by the Government Guidelines for Official Witnesses before Parliamentary Committees and Related Matters – November 1989. These guidelines state that Commonwealth officials:

Should not advocate, defend or canvass the merits of government policies (including policies of previous Commonwealth governments, or State or foreign governments).

 Now, there is something that I didn’t hear in the media. The constraint is not specific to CSIRO – it applies to all Commonwealth employees. CSIRO staff may be researchers, but they are still Commonwealth employees.

While I understand that CSIRO is unavoidably bound by these guidelines, I think it is fair enough for Clive Spash to point out that there is a problem here. It is one thing to say that an administrator in a Commonwealth Department should not be publicly advocating for or against a government policy, but it’s quite another to say that a researcher whose special area of research is evaluation of policy should not be allowed to put out a balanced and peer-reviewed assessment of government policy options, including the current policy. The further restriction in brackets (no comments on policies of previous governments or foreign governments) just seems quite ridiculous if applied to a serious policy researcher. If applied literally, it would mean, for example, that CSIRO researchers could not criticise the decision to import cane toads into Australia. Learning from such mistakes is probably something to be encouraged!

The Chief Executive of CSIRO, Megan Clark, sent an email to her staff reaffirming that “we cannot be a trusted advisor [to] government, industry, the community and people of Australia and at the same time publicly advocate or criticise a particular policy position of government or opposition.” I’m not sure that’s true, really, but even if it is, the policy as written goes much further than advocacy and criticism — it says Clive cannot “canvass the merits of government policies”.

Someone sent me a copy of Clive’s paper (it appears to be a version presented at a conference, which may differ somewhat from the version sent to the journal). I found a lot in the paper that I could agreed with. The headline point, that an emissions trading scheme is not likely to deliver worthwhile environmental, economic or social benefits, is a point I’ve made myself, although for rather different reasons (see PD160). A number of his points, I think, are fair enough.

On the other hand, I have to say, I also found a lot in the paper that I didn’t like. I can see why CSIRO management might feel that it wasn’t as balanced or dispassionate as it could be (remembering that I’ve probably only seen the conference version, not the journal version).

I understand that CSIRO and Clive have now agreed that the paper can be published, with minor changes. I guess this shows that the policy involves judgement and grey areas, because the paper will surely still “canvass the merits of government policies” even if it holds back on specific references to the details of current policy proposals. (Or maybe CSIRO just felt cornered.) [Note, 25 Nov 2009: I’m advised today by Clive that “the paper will not appear via CSIRO”, contrary to press reports. My statement above that agreement had been reached was based on a press report in which Megan Clark is quoted as saying “We have agreed to resolve this matter quickly and all parties will now work to make the amendments with the intention to have the paper ready for publication.” Looking at it again, that doesn’t actually say that they have reached agreement on publication.]

Notably, the government itself doesn’t seem worried about the paper, at least not publicly.

Senator Carr said the government was “not seeking to prevent people from having their say. We take the view that research is contestable, there is no finite answers. This is about people putting forward ideas for public debate.”

Looking at the media coverage, I was struck by the freedom with which Clive offered commentary about his employer. I was also struck that he has a page on his web site headed “Censorship!“. It includes a link to a motion in the senate that relates to the affair, in which he has highlighted the words “censorship” and “uncensored” in large, bold, red text. It seems to me that CSIRO management must have found this testing, and indeed must have been exercising restraint in their public comments. [Note, 2 Dec 2009: I see that the web site has now been toned down somewhat. The “Censorship!” heading has been changed to “Debating Carbon Emissions Trading” and the censorship words are no longer highlighted in red.]

Ironically, if it ever was an attempt by CSIRO to suppress the paper, it has rather backfired. It is now surely the most talked about Australian paper of the year.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

[Note, 25 Nov 2009: I previously falsely attributed a quote from a newspaper article to Clive Spash that was in fact said by Clive Hamilton. My apologies to both Clives for this mistake. Clive Spash contacted me today to point out this mis-quote and to correct my reliance on press coverage which had indicated that an agreement to publish the paper had been reached.]

[Note, 3 Dec 2009: Clive Spash has resigned from CSIRO and called for a government inquiry into the organisation and its interpretation of the Policy on Public Comment. See here.]

161 – Climate policy: an alternative approach

In Pannell Discussion 160, I argued that the current global approach to policy for climate change mitigation is doomed to fail. What’s the alternative?

 The huge majority of serious discussion about climate policy assumes that policy has to tackle emissions head on by making them more expensive, by imposing either a cap on emissions (as in an emissions trading scheme) or a carbon tax. Technology development is sometimes recognised as a relevant component of climate policy, but usually its inclusion seems to be a bit of an afterthought.

An exception to this is the Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate, which includes Australia, Canada, China, India, Japan, Korea, and the United States. This partnership is focused very much on development of cost-effective technologies for mitigating climate change. It was established during the reigns of George W. Bush and John Howard, and so, as a climate policy, it is rather tainted by these associations. I’ve no idea how effective it is as an institution, but I’ll be arguing below that its focus on technology development is exactly the sort of thing that should be the centre-piece of climate policy, not a side-line.

I’m not alone in this view. Nordaus and Shellenberger (2009) have been running a spirited campaign to promote their “new framework”, which emphasises that public funding for technology development should be the core plank of policy.

“Rather than focusing on emissions reduction targets and timetables, the new framework makes rapid reductions in the real, unsubsidized cost of clean energy technologies the explicit objective of climate and energy policy. … Rather than seeing private interests and markets as the primary driver of innovation, this framework recognizes public investment as the key.” (Nordaus and Shellenberger, 2009, p. 14).

They recognise that it is politically infeasible to increase the cost of current technologies by enough and in enough countries to avert whatever climate change is coming, so they suggest that we focus on developing new carbon-neutral technologies that are cheaper than the current carbon-intensive ones. It’s a simple, logical and sensible argument. Bjorn Lomborg has been running an argument rather like this since The Skeptical Environmentalist (2003).

We hear lots of arguments that developed countries should lead the way with emissions reductions, and proposals that developed countries should pay money to developing countries to help them with their abatement, but Nordhaus and Shellenberger have a completely different (and, in my view, much more realistic) concept of the role of developed countries.

“Rather than insisting that developed economies ‘go first’ by achieving symbolic but largely irrelevant emissions reductions, the new framework sees developed economies as critical laboratories that will finance and invent the low-cost technologies that will make deep global emissions reductions possible.” (Nordaus and Shellenberger, 2009, p. 14).

One of the nice things about this approach is that, unlike cap and trade or a carbon tax, it makes sense no matter what your views are about the climate change issue.

  1. If you believe that climate change is an urgent problem that will probably have huge impacts, public investment in technology change is the best chance to avert it. Unlike a cap/tax, you don’t need global cooperation to do it. Unlike a cap/tax, it has some chance of leading to dramatic reductions in emissions in all countries. Unlike a cap/tax, it is cheap enough to garner broad political support, even in countries that face high abatement costs or where there is a high level of skepticism about the seriousness or tractability of the issue.
  2. If you think that climate change is probably not a very serious problem, but there is a small chance of highly adverse outcomes, public investment in technology development makes sense as an insurance policy. Unlike a cap/tax, it would be cheap enough to be worth buying as a form of insurance.
  3. If you think that climate change has been way over-hyped and is not an important problem, support for public investment in technology change would make sense as a way of reducing the cost of climate policy. (This assumes that commitment to some sort of climate policy is unavoidable, so, for a person in this category, it makes sense to choose the least costly option that can win political support.) Unlike a cap/tax, investment in technology change could have major benefits even if it turns out that climate change is actually a huge beat up. To a substantial extent, those benefits would probably flow to the countries that made the investment in technology change, whereas under a cap/tax system the countries that invest the most lose the most.

It is true that the approach does rely on governments being able to deliver such a scheme — including being able to pick winners — and that it is not guaranteed to deliver the required technologies. However, government investment in major programs of technology development does have a hugely successful track record — think of the Manhattan Project, the Enigma code-breaking project, agricultural research. I judge that the probability of success is high. On the other hand, the probability of success for an approach that relies mainly on a cap/tax is close to zero, in my judgment (see PD160). A cap/tax approach cannot succeed unless it leads to radical improvements in technologies, so in reality, public investment in technology change is just a much less expensive and more direct way of trying to achieve the same thing.

Economists have tended to argue that putting a price on carbon emissions is essential to achieve sufficient abatement of emissions (e.g. Pezzey et al., 2008). Even in theory, this is not necessarily correct. If investment in technology development results in new carbon-neutral energy options that are clearly financially superior to existing carbon-intensive energy options when adopted at large scale, then no carbon price would be necessary to promote adoption. Adoption would be voluntary and comprehensive even without a carbon price. People moved rapidly to adopt cheap modern DVD players without there needing to be a cap or tax on the use of old video tape players.

A carbon price might be a good thing to have in developed countries, but not mainly because of its impact on behaviour, which will be modest. Nordhaus and Shellenberger argue that a carbon price would provide a convenient mechanisms to generate funds to invest in technology development.

“Rather than attempting to establish and maintain high carbon prices globally in order to provide sufficient incentives to private interests to invest in energy technology innovation, this new framework focuses on establishing modest and politically sustainable carbon prices in developed economies to both fund public technology innovation and provide the needed market pull once those technologies are cost-competitive.” (Nordaus and Shellenberger, 2009, p. 14).

In reality, the level of carbon price that is realistic to expect in key countries is so low that it won’t make much difference to adoption of new practices with lower emissions. It might serve to speed up adoption a bit, but not transform its final level. Thus, if climate change does turn out to be a serious problem, and if technology development does not succeed in generating dramatically improved technologies, then efforts to prevent climate-change impacts will fail, irrespective of the imposition of a carbon price.

I am convinced that this alternative approach is superior to the road we are currently on, and I’ve commented to this effect in a number of Pannell Discussions over the past five years.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Nordhaus, T. and Shellenberger, M. (2009). The Emerging Climate Consensus, Global Warming Policy in a Post-Environmental World, here.

Pezzey, J.C.V. Jotzo, F. and Quiggin, J. (2008). Fiddling while carbon burns: why climate policy needs pervasive emission pricing as well as technology promotion, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics 52, 97–110