Category Archives: Politics

186 – Submissions to government

There are many opportunities for Australians to attempt to influence government through making submissions to government inquiries and reviews. Relatively few people go to the bother of writing submissions, but I often have a go, especially when it relates to environmental policy. What have I learnt about the process?

As well as being a regular submitter, I have a little bit of experience of being on the other side of the process. I was a member of a four-person Ministerial Taskforce reviewing salinity policy in Western Australia in 2001 (Frost et al., 2001). We took written submissions and held public hearings.

I’ve learnt not to have high expectations that one’s carefully crafted submission will have a noticeable impact on policy.

If what you say is similar to many other submissions, then the fact that you put in a submission will probably not make much difference. Its value is in reinforcing points that others are also making.

On the other hand, if your submission is different to or in opposition to most other submissions, you have more chance of it standing out, but also more chance of it being dismissed as being out of line with popular opinion. It’s not necessarily the case that sound logic and evidence can outweigh the majority view.

Another reason why it might not have much impact is information overload. Whoever has to read the submissions has to get through a huge amount of information very quickly. Any ideas that are a bit challenging risk getting put aside because there isn’t time to give them the thought they would need. There are no rules saying that every submission has to be fairly dealt with and responded to in detail. I suspect that many get only a cursory look.

My feeling is that some inquiries adopt a fairly cynical attitude to submissions, using them selectively to bolster a more-or-less pre-determined position.

Those comments probably seem more negative than is warranted. Many inquiries do make sincere efforts to get to the bottom of things, especially those with a panel that is relatively independent of the thing being inquired into.

The real challenge comes later. Even if your submission does make a substantial difference to the content and recommendations of the inquiry’s report, there is no guarantee that policy makers will respond accordingly. For example, in 2006 the Australian Government’s Senate Committee inquiring into salinity got very enthusiastic about our Salinity Investment Framework III (SIF3). Their report, “Living with salinity – a report on progress” includes a three-page section on SIF3, plus

“Recommendation 22: The Committee recommends that the Australian Government in cooperation with the states and territories keep a watching brief on the development of the Salinity Investment Framework 3 (SIF3), with a view to potentially implementing it (or a modified version of it) across the country. It is recommended that the framework be applied within the context of the new (post-2008) program(s).”

Of course, it didn’t happen. For one thing, salinity was completely dropped from the political agenda in 2008. But even the more general successor to SIF3, the Investment Framework for Environmental Resources (INFFER) has not been applied by the new program, Caring for our Country.

I was initially surprised to learn how easy it is for government to ignore the recommendations of inquiries, even its own inquiries! For example, I am on record as being a strong critic of the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality (Pannell and Roberts, 2010). In my judgment, it was a very poorly conceived program that spent a lot of public money and achieved very little (PD174). There were four government reviews of the program conducted during its life (two by the Australian National Audit Office, one by a Senate committee and one by a House of Representatives committee), and many of my concerns about the program were raised in one or more of the inquiry reports. But the program continued on with no fundamental changes. The responsible departments were not held to account. They could get away with glib assurances that they would take the recommendations into account, but then continue on as before.

So why bother? There are several reasons why I persist in putting in submissions to almost every inquiry that is related to my research.

The main reason is that, even though change to an existing program seems to be almost impossible (unless there is some sort of public scandal), change can occur on a longer time scale. One can detect that many of the new features of Caring for our Country were attempts to address concerns about previous programs raised by the Australian National Audit Office. Not all concerns were addressed, and some of the new features introduced new concerns, but at least there was some attempt.

Another thing is that it provides another channel for communication. I accept that any particular act of communication is likely to have limited impacts, but over the long term I’m hopeful that lots of communication can add up to something that has an influence.

Finally, it doesn’t cost much time to put in a submission. They have to be pretty brief if you want them to be read, and given the other issues I’ve raised here, it isn’t worth labouring over them too much. So I usually do one, but do it quickly.

These thoughts are on my mind because last Thursday I put in a submission to the current review of the Caring for our Country program.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Further Reading

Frost, F.M., Hamilton, B., Lloyd, M. and Pannell, D.J. (2001). Salinity: A New Balance, The report of the Salinity Taskforce established to review salinity management in Western Australia, Salinity Taskforce, Perth, 78 pp. Full report (732K pdf)

Pannell, D.J. and Roberts, A.M. (2010). The National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality: A retrospective assessment, Australian Journal of Agricultural and Resource Economics, 54, 437-456. Journal web site here

176 – The Murray-Darling Basin Plan

A couple of weeks back I attended a very good workshop in Brisbane on the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, which is causing so much political controversy at the moment. Here I’ll summarise a few key points from the workshop.

The workshop, organised by John Quiggin’s group at the University of Queensland, pulled together a who’s who of Australian water economists, including Mike Young, Jeff Connor, Lin Crase, Quentin Grafton, Jeff Bennett, Peter Gooday and Alistair Watson. In addition there were presentations from other social sciences, from ecology, and from the Murray-Darling Basin Authority.

The workshop came only a few weeks after the release of the “Guide” to the draft Plan, and in the wake of big public protests against the Plan by communities throughout the Basin.

The key point of the plan is that there needs to be a reduction in the amount of water taken from the rivers for irrigated agriculture. This has been obvious for a long time, and has been, on its own, a point of relatively little controversy. The recommended reduction is 3000 to 4000 GL, which amounts to 27 to 37% of current diversions. This size of reduction has clearly been a concern to many people.

Part of the controversy seems to be that farmers object to the government taking away their water. Given the media coverage that has occurred, most people who aren’t close to the issue assume that Government is going to forcibly acquire water rights from farmers, maybe even without compensation. This is completely wrong. To the extent that the protests are meant to protect agriculture per se, they reflect a total misunderstanding of the proposals in the Plan.

The proposal is for Government to buy back water from willing sellers only. This means that those farmers who end up with less water will be, by their own judgment, better off than they would have been without the plan. If they don’t think they’ll be better off, they won’t sell, and nobody will make them sell. Thus, farmers are protesting against a program that would make the farmers who sell better off.

Increasing Government purchases of water amounts to increased demand, which will result in a higher market price of water. This will obviously affect farmers who wish to buy water. I don’t think they are protesting about this, but even if they were, the protests would have little merit. The higher price would simply reflect that there are competing uses for the water, some of which are more valuable than some of the agricultural uses. It is just a better reflection of the true scarcity of water. The problem is not that water prices will be too high, but rather that they have been too low.

The other cause of consternation has been the predicted loss of non-agricultural jobs that depend on agriculture. Predicting the level of such job losses is extremely difficult, but the several different economic modeling teams who presented results at the workshop had a strong consensus that it would be small. The total loss of jobs attributable to the Plan over 20 years would probably be less than the daily turnover of jobs in Australia. John Quiggin notes that “For most towns and cities in the region, the ‘job loss’ estimates will be similarly notional. Total population in the Basin is growing, and so is employment.”

There are some communities in the basin where job losses are likely to be more significant locally. It would not be sensible to walk away from the whole Plan as a whole on their account. Rather, strong Government support for social and employment programs would be well justified.

Under the Howard government, billions of dollars were assigned to upgrading irrigation infrastructure in the Basin, as a way of saving water and limiting the need to purchase of water from irrigators. Given the controversy, this strategy probably looks tempting to the current government. Another point of strong consensus among the water economists was that this strategy is a bad idea, costing 2 to 4 times as much as purchasing water from willing sellers. Back-of-the-envelope calculations show that investing in infrastructure as a way to limit job losses would cost millions of dollars per job saved.

We heard about one very reasonable sentiment that is coming from people in the Basin community: if the Government is going to do this, they had better fix it! One could not blame people for being very unhappy if there are large, expensive, disruptive changes but they don’t achieve the hoped-for environmental results. There is a big risk for the Government here. If they aren’t very careful, they could easily find that they spend the money without getting worthwhile environmental benefits. The risks include:

1. Program failure. Past experience with large natural resource management programs does not give one much confidence about the likelihood of success. The Natural Heritage Trust and especially the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality spent billions for very disappointing outcomes (see PD174). The Government will need (a) a real determination to pursue outcomes, not just activity, (b) to take the science and economics seriously, and (c) allow the time and resources to undertake good quality analysis to support decisions about how the money is spent on environmental assets.

2. Uncertainty about cause and effect. There is always a lot we don’t know about the relationship between particular changes in resource use and the resulting impacts on the environment. Even with the best will, and with very good analysis, there is still a risk that our poor understanding of the system will lead to poor results.

3. Ambiguity about the objectives. At the workshop, Hugh Possingham highlighted that, when we invest in the environment, we typically don’t know what we are trying to achieve or why. My experience strongly reinforces this point. This ambiguity makes it impossible to evaluate and compare different investment options.

Unusually for a long-term policy problem, it appears that we actually do have enough money on the table to achieve worthwhile outcomes. Whether we do actually achieve them will be a huge test.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

Note: the article has been edited to delete a comment about the effect of the past decade of drought on non-agricultural jobs. I accept a comment that was sent to me that this is complicated. Drought is not the same as permanent reduction in water — some business activities that are maintained at a loss during a drought would be shut down if there was less water permanently.

165 – ClimateGate part 3: Reactions and implications

Part 1, Background · Part 2, What is revealed?

In Part 2 I provided extracts from some of the emails that have been hacked or leaked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia. This week I look at some of the reactions, and discuss where it might lead.

Up to this point, the Hockey Team (the group of scientists at the centre of the controversy) has stubbornly (indeed, virulently) resisted all attempts to improve the quality of their statistical methods, transparency of their methods and accessibility of their data. It will be fascinating to see whether this continues, or whether the rest of climate science requires them to get their house in order.

Pressure may come from public opinion, which has clearly been affected by this episode.

“The staggering arrogance of these people nauseates me. I am a physicist and am appalled that these people are even called scientists; as far as I’m concerned they’re not.” (commenter at a blog).

Some commentators with strong sympathies for the global warming side are saying that the incident is not all that serious. What does this say about them? I can understand them saying that it doesn’t disprove the case for climate change, which is fair enough – it doesn’t. But I cannot understand or accept them saying that it is just part of the normal rough and tumble of science – that it’s just what Thomas Kuhn would expect of science. I’ve seen a lot of science up close, and I’ve never seen anything remotely like this. Any science that does look like this needs some pretty serious reform.

Others on the warmist side are very worried. A few mainstream climate scientists have come out acknowledging that the emails reveal serious problems in their discipline (here, here). George Manbiot of the Guardian newspaper, who is very strongly pro-warming and anti-skeptic, immediately called for the resignation of Phil Jones, the scientist who either sent or received all the leaked emails.

“It’s no use pretending that this isn’t a major blow. The emails extracted by a hacker from the climatic research unit at the University of East Anglia could scarcely be more damaging. I am now convinced that they are genuine, and I’m dismayed and deeply shaken by them.” here

“I apologise. I was too trusting of some of those who provided the evidence I championed. I would have been a better journalist if I had investigated their claims more closely.” here

At the start of the part 1 of this series of PDs, I said that the story is about a small group of scientists, rather than the whole of climate science. On the other hand, many commentators on the skeptical side have gone to extremes, claiming that the episode shows that the whole of climate science is corrupt. That’s obviously extrapolating things too far, but it is fair to ask how the episode would affect reasonable judgments about the state of climate science and its interaction with climate politics? Different peoples reasonable judgments will vary, of course, but here are a few thoughts and observations on this.

  • The research in question is only a small proportion of the world’s climate science. We cannot conclude from this episode that climate science is generally corrupt.
  • The individuals involved have political and scientific influence way in excess of their share of the world’s climate science. Their actions have had an effect on the contents of IPCC reports.
  • I think we are entitled to look at all the research outputs of members of the Hockey Team with a jaundiced and suspicious eye. I would not trust any of their results unless they have been independently checked and reproduced. This means that much of the so-called “independent” evidence in support of the general hockey-stick shape of historical temperatures is brought into doubt.
  • All members of the Hockey Team should be barred from participating as lead authors for the IPCC, and there should be processes put in place to ensure that they do not have undue influence on the IPCC process. Their research should not be included in future reports until it has been independently reproduced.
  • In science related to important and controversial areas of policy, the institutional arrangements need to be designed to ensure that there is genuine balance, transparency and accountability. The IPCC clearly has not sufficiently delivered this. Some emails are quite disturbing in what they say about the IPCC process.

Acknowledgement of pressure to cook the books to conform with the IPCC’s requirements:

“I know there is pressure to present a nice tidy story as regards ‘apparent unprecedented warming in a thousand years or more in the proxy data’ but in reality the situation is not quite so simple.” (This and all direct quotes from the ClimateGate emails can be found here.)

Admission that what goes into an IPCC report is not solely a question of the science:

“I tried hard to balance the needs of the science and the IPCC, which were not always the same.”

Concerns about the IPCC process:

“the rules of IPCC have been softened to the point that in this way the IPCC is not any more an assessment of published science (which is its proclaimed goal) but production of results. … Essentially, I feel that at this point there are very little rules and almost anything goes. I think this will set a dangerous precedent which might [under]mine the IPCC credibility, and I am a bit uncomfortable that now nearly everybody seems to think that it is just ok to do this.”

I’m particularly interested in the comments about the IPCC by Mike Hulme (from University of East Anglia!), made since the release of the emails. He suggests that the IPCC may have run its course. His views carry some weight within Climate Science – he is apparently the 10th most cited author in the world in the field of climate change.

“The I.P.C.C. itself, through its structural tendency to politicize climate change science, has perhaps helped to foster a more authoritarian and exclusive form of knowledge production – just at a time when a globalizing and wired cosmopolitan culture is demanding of science something much more open and inclusive.” here

What the community wants is one thing, but there is also the integrity of science to consider. Decisions about the content of IPCC reports rely on scientists who have strong vested interests to promote their own work and to suppress critics, and we can see that this group of scientists, at least, has done exactly that. As a result, in my view, some of the information provided to policy makers is not balanced. Addressing this problem is tricky, since the people making the decisions about the reports need to have sufficient expertise to judge the science, but I think there at least needs to be a reconsideration of the checks and balances in the process, and a much stronger commitment to public transparency and accountability. Reliance on peer review as the sole form of due diligence and failure to enforce openness with data and methods for any science included in the IPCC reports means that some of the information provided to policy makers is simply wrong. So far, the IPCC is in denial (here).

It will be fascinating to see how it plays out. Will the discipline reform itself, or will it just retreat further into bunker mentality and persecution complex? Will higher powers enforce reform from outside? Will there be a push to reform the IPCC?

Some flow-on effects have already started.

  • Phil Jones has stood aside from his position as Director of the CRU pending results of an independent inquiry commissioned by his university. At Penn State University, an internal panel is reviewing all of the leaked email correspondence between Michael Mann and the CRU.
  • The UK Met Office has announced plans to re-analyse 160 years of temperature data after admitting that public confidence in the science has been badly affected by the leaked e-mails. The Met Office is one of the main suppliers of information to the IPCC. They have also announced plans to release as much of the data as possible, starting immediately. These seem like they might be positive developments. Interestingly, The Times Online claimed that “The Government is attempting to stop the Met Office from carrying out the re-examination, arguing that it would be seized upon by climate change sceptics.” Clearly, some people don’t understand the lessons from this episode.
  • The conservative side of US politics has jumped on the episode, using it to energise their political campaign against global warming policies. here
  • A new US poll shows that 59% of people think it “somewhat likely” or “very likely” that scientists have falsified research data to support their own theories and beliefs about global warming. here
  • I strongly suspect that the leak led to the defeat of emissions trading scheme legislation in the Australian parliament. The emails almost certainly resulted in a change in the leadership of the opposition party in Australia, from a moderate leader who supported the legislation to a right wing leader who opposed it. This difference in their positions on global warming was the primary reason for the change in leadership. The emails came in the midst of debate about party leadership, they were publicly discussed by some prominent members of the party, and then the new leader won by a single vote. The emails only had to change a single vote to cause the leadership change, which then led on to the defeat of the legislation.

One important question is whether the custodians of the Global Circulation Models used to make long-term climate predictions will learn from this episode and adopt higher standards of scientific and public accountability and transparency than their paleoclimatology colleagues. Time will tell.

One final example to highlight just how much things need to change to get this train back on the rails. Of the many problems that Steve McIntyre has found with published Team research, one of the more amusing ones is in another study by Mike Mann and colleagues in 2008 in which one of the proxy data series is included in the statistical model upside down. The proxy data actually trends in the opposite direction than would be expected if it reflected rising temperatures, so the statistical estimation process has done what seems sensible to it – flipping the data series over by giving it a negative sign. It’s not physically meaningful, but the statistics don’t care about that. It’s up to the modelers to spot these sorts of things and weed them out. They missed this one, but in fairness it’s the sort of mistake anyone could make. It’s easy to understand and not something that anyone would need to fight about, you would think.

McIntyre and McKitrick submitted a comment to the journal to point out some serious problems with the paper. They also mentioned this upside-down issue, which is probably not really all that serious in the scheme of things, but why put up with something that is obviously wrong. Mann’s published response was that “The claim that ‘upside down’ data were used is bizarre” (no further explanation or defense) and that “their criticisms have no merit”. He must have an unusual personality, to be so totally immune to criticism, even unambiguously correct criticism.

Subsequently, in September this year, another Team paper (by Kaufman et al. not including Mann as a co-author) included the same data series upside down. This time when McIntyre pointed it out on his blog, Kaufman acknowledged the problem and published a correction. It was done grudgingly – no acknowledgement of McIntyre – but at least it was done. Now, you’d think, Mann had nowhere to hide. A group of colleagues who are very much from his camp had publicly acknowledged that McIntyre was right about the upside-down data.

Now just in the last couple of weeks, Science (the top American journal) published yet another Mann et al. study involving statistical analysis of proxy data. It even includes two of the same co-authors as the Kaufman et al. paper, who had conceded on the upside-down issue. And yet, believe it or not, in this new paper the same data series is still upside-down. That’s determination for you.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

164 – ClimateGate part 2: What is revealed?

In Part 1 I provided background to the ClimateGate scandal. This week I look at some of what has been revealed in the leaked emails.

 Most commentary on the release by hackers (or perhaps by an internal leak) of material from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia has been highly critical of the views and behaviours that are revealed. As I noted in PD163, we already knew that the Hockey Team (the group of scientists at the centre of this controversy) had taken extraordinary measures to prevent people from scrutinising their data and methods, and now we can observe the process in action, as revealed by the written words of Team members themselves. (The McIntyre referred to below is Steve McIntyre, a Canadian statistician who runs the Climate Audit blog and attempts to replicate key climate studies. See PD163.) For each quote, I’ve included a link to the full email so that you can see it in context if you wish to.

“I took a decision ages ago not to release our station data, mainly because of McIntyre”. (This and all direct quotes from the ClimateGate emails can be found here.)

“If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.”

“Think I’ve managed to persuade UEA [University of East Anglia] to ignore all further FOIA [Freedom Of Information Act] requests if the people have anything to do with Climate Audit”.

Reading the emails, one gets a sense that the Hockey Team scientists feel persecuted, which is odd given that they are on the side of the huge majority, and have influence and funding vastly in excess of their critics. They seem to consider that a desire by others to replicate their research is in no way a legitimate thing to do – that all such efforts are, pretty much by definition, the acts of climate change “deniers”.

This quote from a blog provides a nice summary of the attitudes and behaviour of the Team scientists.

“The emails I’ve reviewed so far do not suggest that these scientists are perpetrating a knowing and deliberate hoax. On the contrary, they are true believers. I don’t doubt that they are sincerely convinced – in fact, fanatically so – that human activity is warming the earth. But the emails are disturbing nonetheless. What they reveal, more than anything, is a bunker mentality. These pro-global warming scientists see themselves as under siege, and they view AGW skeptics as bitter enemies. … The emails show beyond any reasonable doubt that these individuals are engaged in politics, not science.”

Here are a few examples that illustrate this. Explore the blogs for many more. The quotes are from a variety of different correspondents, the most common being Phil Jones, Director of the CRU.

Discussion of the possibility of getting a journal editor sacked:

“If you think that Saiers is in the greenhouse skeptics camp, then, if we can find documentary evidence of this, we could go through official AGU channels to get him ousted.” Note: he subsequently did lose the editorship.

Discussion of trying to influence journal editorial policy to prevent publication of skeptical papers:

“One approach is to go direct to the publishers and point out the fact that their journal is perceived as being a medium for disseminating misinformation under the guise of refereed work. I use the word ‘perceived’ here, since whether it is true or not is not what the publishers care about.” There is a striking irony here. These scientists incessantly say that the views of skeptics are not worth considering unless they appear in the peer-reviewed research literature, while at the same time they conspire to keep such research out of the peer-reviewed literature.

Conspiring to punish a journal that had published some peer-reviewed papers by skeptics:

“I think we have to stop considering Climate Research as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal.”

Discussion of censoring and other strategies on RealClimate.org:

“Anyway, I wanted you guys to know that you’re free to use RC in any way you think would be helpful. Gavin and I are going to be careful about what comments we screen through, … We can hold comments up in the queue and contact you about whether or not you think they should be screened through or not, and if so, any comments you’d like us to include. … think of RC as a resource that is at your disposal to combat any disinformation put forward by the McIntyres of the world. Just let us know.” RealClimate.org has routinely censored comments, even if they are slightly critical or questioning of Team research or climate change orthodoxy.

Asking colleagues to delete emails that were subject to Freedom of Information requests:

“Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise. … Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same? I don’t have his new email address. We will be getting Caspar to do likewise.” If the remaining emails are considered safe, one wonders how bad the deleted ones were! They now claim that none were deleted. They have a strong incentive to claim that since such deletions would be illegal under the Freedom Of Information Act. In any case, in a later email the same correspondent says: “About 2 months ago I deleted loads of emails, so have very little – if anything at all.”

Conspiring to exclude inconvenient peer-reviewed papers from the IPCC report, by deception if necessary:

“I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!” 

Internal acknowledgement that refusing to provide data might not look good (but not that it is unscientific):

“And the issue of with-holding data is still a hot potato, one that affects both you and Keith (and Mann). Yes, there are reasons – but many *good* scientists appear to be unsympathetic to these. The trouble here is that with-holding data looks like hiding something, and hiding means (in some eyes) that it is bogus science that is being hidden.” This sensible advice from one Team member to another had no impact on Team behaviour.

Expressing a wish that climate change would occur to confirm the science:

“If anything, I would like to see the climate change happen, so the science could be proved right, regardless of the consequences. This isn’t being political, it is being selfish.” Maybe this is just loose talk. But given the fanaticism revealed in the rest of the leaked/hacked material, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he was serious.

Truncating data to avoid recent divergence in trends from warming expectations:

“The data are attached to this e-mail. They go from 1402 to 1995, although we usually stop the series in 1960 because of the recent non-temperature signal that is superimposed on the tree-ring data that we use.” See the consequences of this deletion here. One of the other leaked documents reveals similar truncations even more starkly here

Deleting proxy data that diverged from actual temperatures and inserting the actual temperature data instead:

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.”

This last quote has probably had more attention than any other, given the sinister look of “trick” and “hide the decline”. Unlike most of the other quotes, this one has had a spirited defense from Phil Jones and scientists friendly to his cause. The defense focuses on the word “trick”. Jones says that he used the term to mean a clever way to do something, rather than a deception. Looking at the wording of the quote, I think that is probably a reasonable claim. On the other hand, is it reasonable to “add in real temps … to hide the decline”? Jones claims that he has no idea what he meant by the words “hide the decline”. I find this claim completely unconvincing. From the detailed article here, it is is perfectly obvious what he meant. He wanted to hide the fact that the proxy data departed radically from the actual temperatures. The additional fact that the “trick” was done without acknowledging it in the published results adds weight to concerns about what they have done.

Some skeptical commentators have gone too far in their reading of the quote, implying that it refers to hiding falling temperatures. It does not. It refers to hiding falls in proxy data (tree ring widths), by replacing them with actual temperature data, which follows a rising trend, and smoothing over the join. The significance of this is two fold. Firstly, it disguises the fact that the tree ring data do not represent temperatures as well as they would like, casting doubt on the scientists’ ability to estimate temperature levels in previous centuries (which for some of them represents a threat to their life’s work). And secondly, it provides a much more dramatic and alarming graph, which might help to galvanise support for the climate change cause.

If you care about science, and if you understand and believe in the principles that are supposed to underpin it, these emails make miserable reading. If you are a member of the public who expects science to provide independent, honest information, they are extremely concerning. Although the number of scientists directly involved is tiny, they are among the most influential climate scientists in the world.

In part 3 I’ll talk about the reactions to and implications of the ClimateGate scandal.

David Pannell, The University of Western Australia

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