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Book Review: The Climate Files by Fred Pearce

Fred Pearce (2010) The Climate Files: the battle for the truth about global warming. Guardian Books.

The saga of the hacked, or leaked, emails from University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) has gone on to become known, predictably, as ‘Climategate’. This release of thousands of emails and documents, sceptics argued, proved that climate science was fabricated and fraudulent, and showed scientists deliberately falsifying data. The release of the emails just days before the Copenhagen climate talks couldn’t have been worse timed, and they were dissected endlessly online, often by people with little understanding of the science, selected quotes being used to dismiss climate science in its entirety as a wicked scam (here’s one more lurid example of this). In this, the first book to look in depth at Climategate, Pearce offers a remarkably well balanced and up-to-date account of what really happened, what it all means and where climate science finds itself in the wake of the whole sorry saga.

The implications of Climategate are only just starting to really sink in. What the emails revealed was that climate scientists can be as territorial, unpleasant, defensive and bitchy as the rest of us. For anyone who thinks that teachers, for example, in the privacy of the staff room don’t discuss some of their students in rather derogatory terms, or lawyers, or nurses or whoever… this may come as a bit of a shock. Climate scientists are shown in the emails as having, on occasion, refused to comply with Freedom of Information requests for them to share their data sets, misused their position to try and keep papers they diasgreed with out of journals, and generally tried to shut up shop in the face of a barrage of demands from climate sceptics. Pearce, in spite of being a leading writer on climate change himself, is frank in his assessment that some of the behaviour within UEA was not up to the standards expected, and has put the process of peer review in a very bad light.

It is clear that several years before the release of the emails, relationships between the scientists and the sceptics had already broken down, and levels of animosity had reached such levels that it gets rather hard to start telling right from wrong. Like a ‘family at war’ on the Jeremy Kyle Show (such as this one), relationships had soured, and people were happy to block other people’s work on principle, and had started acting so unreasonably that nobody emerges from this story with very much credit.

Pearce does a great job of explaining just what it was that everybody was arguing about. Much of it relates to what is called ‘paleo-climatology’. While we have climate data, temperatures and so on for the past 160-odd years (“since records began”), it is the detective work required to build up a picture of temperature changes further back in history that is the source of much rancour. Debates revolve around which data is used to build up that picture, tree rings data being a bone of particular contention. Sceptics and critics point to Mike Mann’s famous ‘hockey stick’ graph and argue that he cherry picked the data in order to show flat temperatures followed by the more recent spike, an accusation which Mann himself has argued against for years. Pearce explains patiently and clearly what all this means, and the different sides of the debates.

The key question of course is whether any of this proves that climate science is wrong, or is part of some vast shadowy conspiracy to usher in a One World Government, or some such nonsense. Pearce is clear:

“none of the 1,073 emails, or the 3,587 files containing documents, raw data and computer code upsets the 200-year-old science behind the “greenhouse effect”. We might wish it weren’t so, but the world still has a problem. A big problem”.

This is a point also made by George Monbiot in this recent interview:

The world continues to warm, the first half of 2010 having been the hottest ever recorded. Evidence of other feedbacks and indicators of rapid warming continue to accumulate – Climategate has done nothing to undermine the science. Indeed if anything, as this recent report from WWF shows, the science published since IPCC’s fourth assessment in 2007 suggests a far graver picture than that set out in that report.

‘The Climate Files’ does occasionally feel like it was written in a hurry, rather like books about celebrities lives that emerge weeks after their demise, with no index and the odd typo, but the advantage of that is that it is right up-to-date with developments. Pearce’s style is clear and patient, and although I picked up the book in order to gain a clear overview of the story and implications of Climategate, I found I also picked up a great deal about climate change and the debates within the science. Clearly, he argues, something went horribly wrong here. The levels of openness, the practice of good science and, as he explicitly states, the levels of basic human courtesy, were not what one would expect from scientists of such repute.

Pearce argues that in moving forward from the mess of the past 9 months, given the damage and disrepute it has caused not just for climate science, but for science in general, a new principle of openness is required, in effect, the ‘Open Sourcing’ of climate data, the opening up of datasets and information, a new spirit of collaborative learning. This, Pearce argues, is actually one of the key objectives of the new generation of climate sceptics, who are not like the older generation of sceptics, often funded by petrochemical interests to ‘manufacture doubt’ (watch Naomi Oreskes’s excellent presentation on ‘manufactured doubt’ here), but who rather see themselves as ‘liberators of data’, arguing for the open sourcing of all climate-related data.

‘The Climate Files’ is a highly readable, fascinating account of an event which has been spun by so many different people as meaning so many different things, depending on their views about climate change. Is it the ’smoking gun’ that proves climate change is all a conspiracy? Does it prove scientific fraud on an unprecedented scale? Or does it show that climate scientists are, in fact, human, and that when put under pressure, sometimes people don’t behave to the standards they would otherwise observe? Pearce’s book is clear, fair and balanced, and a fascinating account of this whole sorry saga. Essential reading for anyone with an interest in climate change, and a reminder of why alongside good scientific practice we also need to value civility and courtesy.

You can also hear Fred Pearce, along with some of the other key players in ‘Climategate’ in the podcast of the excellent debate hosted recently by the Guardian in London, which explored many of the issues raised in the book, here.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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