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War and peace: Making sense of climate conflict

Richard Black | 18:49 UK time, Friday, 18 February 2011

It must have seemed a good idea at the time; to get a group of people together from "both sides of the climate debate", put them in a room for a few days, and see whether peace would spontaneously break out.

It's worked with apparently thorny issues such as nuclear arms control, it's failed with others - notably, and repeatedly, Middle East peace.

Fight in the Ukraine parliament

Politics can be a passionate business

The meeting I'm referring to took place a few weeks ago in Portugal.

I first read about it on the New Scientist blog written by Fred Pearce, who was there; and as Fred relates, there doesn't appear to have been a magical exchange of olive branches.

There may be many reasons for that, but one is central, fundamental and simple - a truism explained to me many times down the years by experienced negotiators.

Essentially, you can only make deals and make peace if everyone involved wants to.

Apply that to the bitter world of climate politics and... what do you think the chances look like?

You have genuinely held differences, some regarding interpretations of science and some regarding political philosophies.

And while the former ought in principle to be capable of resolution, there's no reason why political factions should agree on anything - in fact in this case, they're actively lobbying for very different sets of policies.

So while you might expect little meeting of minds, what emerged was something even worse, at least from Fred's point of view - finding himself subject to attack from "warmist" bloggers who accuse him of having made things up to discredit one of the invited scientists - Nasa's Gavin Schmidt, a prominent climate modeller and a bete noire of "sceptical" bloggers.

The messenger, too, is painted as a combatant.

So much febrile heat; so little light.

This is familiar stuff in the political world where part of the job description is to be able to give and take knocks without complaining - some of the best politicians, in fact, revel in the scrap.

But it's not the way science is: nor, I would suggest, the way it ought to be.

Penguins on the Antarctic coast


The issue is illustrated again by a row over temperature trends in Antarctica.

Almost exactly two years ago, a research group led by Eric Steig from the University of Washington published a somewhat controversial analysis of the Antarctic temperature record.

Their analysis suggested that the giant frozen continent had, on average, warmed up over the last half-century - clarifying a picture in which other studies had produced various accounts of trends in different parts of the region.

I say "controversial" because the team, acknowledging that there wasn't as much data as they might have liked, used various techniques to produce data that instruments would probably have generated if they had been in existence (that's the best lay description I can muster, but around the time of publication Eric Steig wrote a fuller description on RealClimate, the website to which he and Gavin Schmidt frequently contribute).

Shortly afterwards, RealClimate noted that a blogger called "Ryan O" had posted a new analysis he'd done that showed, he claimed, flaws in the Steig study.

That blog eventually turned into another scientific paper that has just been published in the Journal of Climate - "Ryan O" turning out to be Ryan O'Donnell.

Well - so far, so good, you might say.Researchers are doing what researchers do - using different methods to reach differing conclusions, putting them into the scientific literature and allowing the research community as a whole to sift and sort and decide, in time, what is wheat and what is chaff.

Except that outside the strictly scientific corridors, an almighty row has blown up over who-said-what-to-whom.


Tempers grew pretty hot over the icy continent

Eric Steig was one of the experts the Journal of Climate called on to review the paper before publication, and has been accused of trying to block it - which he denies.

You can read the whole account elsewhere - mainly on the pages of RealClimate and ClimateAudit - if you want to.

Or you can read the potted version from jcmmooreonline  - or you could short-circuit the lot and go straight to the contribution Andy Revkin of the New York Times highlights on his dot.Earth blog from Cornell University's Louis Derry, himself a journal editor.

It's the most cogent, no nonsense account I've seen.

And the most cogent point in it (which he doesn't highlight, but I will) is surely that what he terms the "Steig vs O'Donnell debate" played out in the open - and largely before the paper was published.

That means that arguments seeking to assert the validity of one conclusion or the other are being made long before the methods - which are key in assessing validity - have been thoroughly scrutinised.

Such rows make brilliant fodder for bloggers on "both sides of the debate"... and for the newish breed of journalists in mainstream media who've discovered that climate blogs make superb sources for stories, the entries requiring minimal adjustment in order to generate articles that appear ahead of the game and brim with righteous indignation - all without having to spend time reading peer-reviewed scientific papers.

So much febrile heat; so little light... and perhaps deliberately so - especially given that the O'Donnell paper did not disagree with the most important point from Steig's analysis, that warming had not been limited to the Antarctic Peninsula, but had affected the much more globally relevant West Antarctic region.

In the process, sophisticated analytical techniques have been dissected at length, which should mean we have better ones to work with next time - everyone wins.

So you might ask - what was all the fuss about?

There are certain issues where factions come together apparently seeking peace, reconciliation and a common way forward, when in reality at least one and possibly both profit from maintaining the status quo.

Climate change may be one; in which case, events like the one in Portugal are condemned to failure even before they begin.

And both episodes surely show more clearly than ever the need to separate the very different discplines of science and politics, in order that the factual conclusions of one can properly inform the choices of the other.



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