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MPs' message of climate trust

Richard Black | 13:29 UK time, Wednesday, 31 March 2010

The first of the numerous enquiries into the state of climate science has just been published in the UK, and - you might be tempted to conclude - so far, so predictable, in terms of its conclusions and of the reactions to it.

Iceberg meltsIt's important to be clear on what the enquiry by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee did encompass,and what it didn't.

It isn't the main review into whether poor practice at the University of East Anglia (UEA) - allegedly revealed in e-mails and documents stolen from the university and posted on the web last November - changes the mainstream picture of global warming driven by humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases; that's for a later panel, chaired by Lord Oxburgh.

It isn't the investigation into who stole the e-mails and why - that's still in the hands of the Norfolk police force.

It isn't the global review of the state of climate science and the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) - that's being handled by the Inter-Acadermy Council.

And there are other reviews, too.

Professor Phil JonesSo although the MP's report does make more than a nod to some of these issues, the focus is overwhelmingly on whether UEA or Phil Jones, the long-time director of the university's Climatic Research Unit, were guilty of poor scientific practice - and if so, why.

In doing so, it also touches on reaction to the so-called "ClimateGate" issue in the big rough-and-tumble world of politics that now encircles scientists working in the field.

In the days and weeks following the news of the e-mail hack, I've had many, many discussions about the issue with people working on climate change in the fields of science, policy and journalism; and the vast majority of the reactions I've had tally with the conclusions of the report.

The hacked e-mails and documents date back more than 10 years, and huge changes have occurred since then in three key areas: scientific practice, information technology and the expectations of society regarding openness and transparency.

A decade ago, scientific journals were mainly disseminated on paper, and thus the capacity to publish reams of background and workings was constrained by space. Now, many journals have their main or indeed their only existence on the web, which is never full; and the practice of publishing supplementary material in separate files is now commonplace.

A decade ago, I would have been struggling to write this on a computer with perhaps a couple of gigabytes' space on the hard drive over a 56k modem connection. The one I'm using now has more than 400G of memory, and the megabytes stream fluidly through my cable modem. Scientists, 10 years ago, were just as limited by now obsolete technology as anyone else.

A decade ago, we didn't expect Members of Parliament to publish details of their expenses, or bankers their bonuses. Now we do; and, through Freedom of Information legislation, all kinds of institutions have had to become more open in their dealings.

It is through this lens of change that the MPs have looked back at CRU and Professor Jones:

"On the accusations relating to Professor Jones's refusal to share raw data and computer codes, we consider that his actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community. We have suggested that the community consider becoming more transparent by publishing raw data and detailed methodologies."

UEA accepts that it has been "taken to task on a number of issues which we are determined to address" - and this is clearly one of them.

DroughtHowever, on the most significant and potentially damaging of the accusations - that Professor Jones and other climate scientists sought to subvert the peer review process, and manipulated data in a manner calculated to produce a picture of rising temperatures (the infamous "trick" e-mail) - the university and Professor Jones are in the clear:

"...insofar as we have been able to consider accusations of dishonesty - for example, Professor Jones's alleged attempt to "hide the decline" - we consider that there is no case to answer."

The vast majority of the raw data that UEA had been accused of hiding had in fact been freely available for years, the MPs found, while accepting the explanations Professor Jones has been giving for years as to why the few bits that remain could not at the time have been published.

There are implications for the government - re-framing bits of the Freedom of Information Act - for academic institutions - the need to properly resource areas tasked with responding to FoI requests - and for the media, with implicit references to a rush to judgement on the part of some journalistic institutions.

But in the main, it is in the established practices of scientists and their institutions that reform is urged - with the caveat that as far as this review was able to ascertain, individual scientists were not behaving fraudulently and the overall mainstream picture of climate science is not challenged.

There are a couple of other things worth mentioning about the report.

Firstly, it wasn't something that the Science and Technology Committee had to do, in the same way that UEA clearly had to mount an inquiry; committee members chose to do so themselves. And secondly, as their report admits, it was done in something of a hurry, as the end of this parliamentary term approaches.

Whether you think the balance of those two factors adds to or detracts from its credibility may depend largely on where you already stand on man-made climate change.

Some of the most vigorous critics have not leapt to endorse the report:

"The report is clearly biased and far too kind to Professor Phil Jones," said Benny Peiser of the sceptical Global Warming Policy Foundation, who had given evidence to the committee.

Steve McIntyre of ClimateAudit also criticises what he sees as mismatches between the questions asked by the episode and the answers obtained by the committee.

Dr Peiser says the report "will be widely regarded as an attempted whitewash".

Absolutely, it will. But in parts of the opinion spectrum, anything that did not result in mass resignations and a conclusion that man-made climate change is a myth and a fraud would be so regarded.

What is more important is how its conclusions, and those of the other reviews yet to come, are seen across the broader mass of uncommitted people who simply expect scientists to do a good job, and were unsure whether the behaviour of Phil Jones and his fellow climate researchers was good enough that they could trust their conclusions.

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