Climate Scientists Move Forward After Scandal

Last December, e-mails written by climate scientists raised suspicion of scientific misconduct and conspiracy. International investigations have since exonerated the scientists of accusations of manipulating data. New York Times contributor Andrew Revkin explains what happened.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

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I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next, the Climategate that wasn't. Last December, hacked or leaked emails from the University of East Anglia caused an uproar. The emails - really a back and forth between climate scientists - were evidence that scientists were allegedly hiding or falsifying climate data. Reputations were dashed, heads rolled. Among scientists involved with those writing reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC.

And over the last few months, investigations into the issues found no real hardcore wrongdoing going on there. Last week, for example, a Dutch investigation of the IPCC's 2007 report found that it had no errors that would undermine the IPCC's main conclusion that manmade global warming posed a serious threat to human society.

A British inquiry in March and a Penn State investigation last week cleared several climate scientists of any misconduct and malpractice. But does that mean everyone believes in global warming and the IPCC report now? Has it been exonerated? Probably not, says my next guest. Joining me now is Andrew Revkin. He's author of the Dot Earth blog at The New York Times and senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Andrew.

Mr. ANDREW REVKIN (Pace University): It's great to be with you, Ira.

FLATOW: Is Climategate over?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, you know, for those who are dead set to oppose any restrictions on greenhouse gases, Climategate will never be over. They're going to keep - that reverberating echo chamber of the blogosphere will keep asserting that this episode fundamentally eroded understanding, you know, the idea that we have a clear picture of a human warming climate. And that's all -that's not going to change, just because there are people who are immune to evidence.

In many corners of polarized discourse these days, people pick the evidence that suits - or sometimes manufacture evidence that suits an agenda. Unfortunately, there were enough snippets within this body of stuff, you know, several megabytes of emails and other things, to provide conspiracy theorists with lots of fare(ph) for a long time to come.

But again, as you said, none of this really undercuts the basic understanding of what's been achieved over 100 years of peer reviewed work on climate.

FLATOW: There were really two issues involved in it, were there not?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, it depends - this whole - most of the emails and folders related to one specific part of climate research, which was putting recent warming in the longer term context by using indirect measurements of temperature in the years, the many centuries and millenniums preceding when we had thermometers. And there's a lot of interpolation and imprecision that goes into taking a tree ring, for example, and deducing where the local temperature was. And then there's an even greater body of analysis, incorporating even more uncertainties, that goes into turning those little sort of pixel points into a broader picture of what climate did a thousand years ago.

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Mr. REVKIN: That's one of the - that's the one constrained area of research this all was concerned with.

Separate from that, there was a question - there were a bunch of different questions. One was whether papers by competing scientists had been kept out of the IPCC report, which they hadn't. Another was just sort of - there were some, you know - these internal conversations among scientists saying, hey, should we kind of boycott this journal, which has been publishing some jerks? You know, that kind of thing. So there were all kinds of different categories of, you know, questionable discourse of that kind.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And the IPCC had some stumbling on its own.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah.

FLATOW: There's a letter the chairman wrote to scientists telling them to avoid the media?

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. Well, the IPCC is separate from Climategate, whatever you want to call it - but also sort of spurred by it. There was a burst of critique of the 2007 reports of the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also over the last year. And the IPCC made some mistakes. It's, you know, a thousand person and plus enterprise spanning years with an ever increasing body of research to vet. Every five years they've had more and more work to assess. And they made some, some errors.

I think actually they had a bigger problem that was discussed in a Dutch report, the Dutch government report that I blogged on sometime in the last week - it's been busy - that there is a tendency within the IPCC report for the summaries - you know, you have these thousand-page baseline reports and then these brisk summaries.

The summaries intended to highlight the negative. And that could be - that was spun by some critics of the IPCC as - aha, see, they're trying to play up the alarming aspects of global warming. What the IPCC failed to do and what the Dutch panel said and what I've said in the blog is, it didn't adequately describe to it's users, people like the media, the public and policyholders -by the way, their mandate from the start was, in the summary, is to focus, for policymakers, on the things that would be worst.

So, yes, there is a torquing, but it was part of what they were asked to do from the very beginning, by these - the countries that created the IPCC. And I think they helped facilitate the wrong kind of spin that they're being alarmists by not explaining clearly, from the get-go, you know, that that was actually what they're supposed to do.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So how do climate scientists have been impact with - by this? How do they move on?

Mr. REVKIN: They're learning really slow. There's a letter that you just mentioned. The IPCC is just getting ready for its fifth assessment in 22 years of existence, that will come out in 2013, 2014. And they've just announced the 831 main authors. And the chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, who had - has a tendency, in public, to also kind of step into trouble sometimes by overstating things, which I wrote about last year. But in this case, in the letter - the letter was your normal cautionary letter.

Hello, we're getting started on this big enterprise. You're going to get calls from reporters. It basically said, refer them to me. I think here in Geneva -refer them to secretary, don't... It said - I can't remember the exact line, but it was, keep a distance. I strongly recommend you keep a distance from reporters.

And if it had not had that line in it, it wouldn't have been as contentious. But it basically perpetuates the idea that there is a group here that has something to defend or to hide, instead of what it is, for the most part, which is, you know, largely open exploration of the literature to try to clarify for the world outside, just verify the realm of climatology, what's going on.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Jim(ph) in Carmichael of California. Hi, Jim.

JIM (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

Jim: My question is, has the hockey, the so-called hockey stick graph, has that been discredited?

Mr. REVKIN: Well, let me tell you what it is, for those listeners who don't know. In the late '90s, Michael Mann at Penn - who now is at Penn State and some other researchers, pulled together some of these threads from tree rings and other things and came up with an estimate, over the last thousand years, of temperature, and found that the last 50 years was really outstanding. It stood out as the - a period of warming unparalleled in a thousand years.

The original paper was riddled with caveats, all these could, would, might, to be sure, kind of phrases. And it - but then it quickly got spun, including by the IPCC in 2001. In the illustration they derived from it, they removed the gray bands that showed you the error, the possible up and down error. And as you go farther back in time, the range of possible error in these estimates is much, much higher. So that was where the problem was. The National Academy of Sciences did a study that assessed this. And largely, there were some problems that they raised with the way it had been done. But since then also, the main thrust of that work has been repeatedly replicated by other groups of scientists.

So the idea that we're in a period of unusual warming in the last 50 years has not been erased. The - what's been returned is - for the original paper - the sense that it's important to be sure you talk about the things we don't know, even when you talk about what's been learned in climate science. And if you don't do that, then you can be accused of, kind of, oversimplifying things.

FLATOW: Yeah, try to show there's a science and there's room for all wide range of data to be (unintelligible)...

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. I mean, to me, one of the real problems that really has emerged, you know, in covering this so long - I mean, you and I both, we -getting to be graybeards in this realm - that I think that many scientists have gotten very frustrated with the lack of traction for the - they see this body of information building and the public isn't moving and policymakers, or the treaty makers, are just sort of sitting on their hands. And there's this growing sense of frustration. So that has led, for sure, sometimes, to oversimplification. And to scientists, also, increasingly getting into the advocacy realm, you know, not just telling what is, but telling us what we should do.

And this even came up this past week. One of the lead authors for the new IPCC round, who's been an author before, Chris Field, was - he co-signed a piece in politico.com., you know, hardly National Geographic website or NPR, or that kind of thing. And there was a line about urgent need for action. And I asked him, just last night - I haven't had time to blog on this, so this exclusive to SCIENCE FRIDAY. He strongly defends the idea of stepping into the public realm and behaving, not just as a scientist, but also as a human being and saying this what I feel.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. REVKIN: My issue with that is - in the signing, in the piece in Politico, it doesn't mention that he's an author of the next round of the IPCC, and it didn't have a disclaimer, saying this is my personal view. And so that, again, can potentially distort or give fodder to - provide fodder to critics of the IPCC, going forward, because an author has basically already stated that there's dangerous things going on and advocated policies, which the IPCC, by its charter, is not supposed to do.

FLATOW: But there must be room for scientists to - who think that we really are headed towards a terrible state of the planet, to be able to speak and say, we must do something.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah, although it gets into an interesting arena. And, again, Jim Hansen of NASA is one who has really pushed hard - he's gotten arrested at a coal mines.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. REVKIN: But when you do that - and Jim is pretty careful about saying, I'm doing this as a human being and a grandfather, not...

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. REVKIN: And the reality is, when Jim Hansen was talking about his view of crime at legislation, for example, his experience as a climatologist really has marginal significance. That's an arena, you know, where you're dealing with economics and the costs of energy and equity issues, about, you know, fired coalminers versus hired wind turbine builders. So many of those issues involve so many sectors of society that everybody can be in that game. And that includes Exxon Mobile...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. REVKIN: ...and that includes scientists who are libertarians. If it's okay for Jim Hanson to do that, it should be okay for Pat Michaels at the Cato Institute to do that.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

Mr. REVKIN: That's what I'm saying. But that's when you're getting into the policy arena, as opposed to Jim Hanson talking about the latest modeling of, you know, how warm it's going to get.

FLATOW: Talking with Andrew Revkin on SCIENCE FRIDAY this hour from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. Andrew writes the Dot Earth blog at The New York Times, and senior fellow for environmental understanding at Pace University.

Let's see if we can get a quick phone call in here. 1-800-989-8255. Is it Tao(ph) in Hillsboro, Texas?

TAO (Caller): Yes, yes.

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

TAO: Hi. Yeah, I have a question for the guest. I consider myself a skeptic, but not a naysayer, to the idea of global warming as a human activity and CO2 emission. And I'm hoping to be convinced. My problem is, what I've read to hear so far, is just, there's a heaps of data, but I couldn't find a source for the well-built(ph) theories. Like, for example, like the theory of evolution. You can find a high school textbook that you can read about it and then be convinced about it. Data don't make a theory. So I have my pen and paper with me here. If you can give me a website...

Mr. REVKIN: Mm-hmm.

TAO: ...that I can go and read that theory. I went to the website for the U.N. report and just scanned through - I didn't read it. I just couldn't find a thing. It's just heaps and heaps of data.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. You know what's a good resource? There was a book written, and it's all - the entire book is online. Actually, the online version is fantastic because it's all hypertext.

FLATOW: Okay.

Mr. REVKIN: Everything in it is linked back to the source. It's called "The Discovery of Global Warming"...

TAO: Okay.

Mr. REVKIN: ...and it's by a guy named Spencer Weart, W-E-A-R-T.

TAO: Spencer Weart, W-E-A...

Mr. REVKIN: E, A, R, T.

TAO: Okay.

Mr. REVKIN: Now, if you just Google for "Discovery of Global Warming" and the name Weart.

TAO: Okay, and (unintelligible).

Mr. REVKIN: And you'll find it - and I review it frequently, because it charts the hundred-year peer review of history as the work that led up to this idea that humans are tangibly influencing the climate.

FLATOW: And he's no newcomer to this, either.

Mr. REVKIN: Well, Spencer. No, no, he's a physicist and a historian of physics.

FLATOW: Yeah. He's been around awhile. That's a great suggestion, Tao.

TAO: Okay, thank you very much.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

TAO: Bye.

FLATOW: And, you know, people, I think naysayers, they have a left brain -what they call a left brain, right brain problem, you know? The political side of their mind is now clashing with the logical side. You know, they could see you up in the North Pole pictures of you showing there's no ice anymore up there in the summertime and say, wait a minute, but my political side says that shouldn't happen.

Mr. REVKIN: Well, this gets into this realm. Ira, you know, for the first 15, 20 years writing about climate, I came out of from the physical sciences and the biology. And it's like the last five or seven years, I really started diving into the sociology and psychology - and it's the scariest of all. If you think the glaciologists are saying things that are unsettling, just talk to the psychologists about how the human mind - for the human mind, information is just the starting point. We have all these filters built into us.

And some of us have very different filters than others that - that's where you hear these phrases like confirmation bias. You go out onto the Web and you find the stuff that reinforces your existing view. And this isn't just among skeptics. This is six - there's a great study that was done, I think, very useful one called Six Americas, looking at people's attitudes about climate. And a group at George Mason University in Yale, they basically have found six kinds of Americans, six kinds of brains - ranging from the alarmed to the dismissive, and very little evidence that new information would dislodge people with those outer, firmer stances.

FLATOW: Yeah. I've always thought that to be true, you know? If you believe that the Grand Canyon was caused by Noah's flood, not much anybody's going to tell you, you turn you around? You'll find the data.

Mr. REVKIN: Yeah. Yup.

FLATOW: And make it believe, you know, fit in to the way you believe. We've run out of time, Andrew.

Mr. REVKIN: Well, I imagine there'll be more opportunities.

FLATOW: I certainly hope so. I want to thank you for taking time to take out of your busy schedule this Friday.

Mr. REVKIN: That's okay. And I just posted some more on - the National Academy of Sciences came out with a new report on climate, just today, so there's more on Dot Earth right now.

FLATOW: All right. So if you go to Andrew Revkin's blog, at Dot Earth blog, you can - at dotearth.com.

Mr. REVKIN: Say, and well, nytimes.com/dotearth.

FLATOW: Okay. If you can't remember that, it's on our website. We'll get you right through it.

Mr. REVKIN: Thanks again.

FLATOW: Thanks a lot, Andrew. He's author of the Dot Earth blog at The New York Times, get to it on - from The New York Times' website or our website. And also, now he's a fellow at the Environmental - of Environmental Understanding at Pace University right here, a little bit up in New York - right above - a little bit above New York City.

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