Climate Debate (C) Greenpeace / Cumming
It wasn't quite pistols at dawn, but in the softly-softly world of climate science, it was definitely a show down. Some of the key players in the "Climategate" scandal gathered in central London last night for a public debate; the first time some of them had met in person.
To recap for those who missed the email hack brouhaha: Late last year, emails were leaked from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in England. The emails were between scientists at the university and their colleagues and peers around the world. At first glance they were disturbing, seeming to show that the scientists had manipulated or hidden data. Or, as last night's chairman George Monbiot put it, they were heavily suggestive of "grubby behaviour". Climate sceptics rejoiced, jumping on the emails as proof anthropogenic global warming wasn't happening. There have since been four independent reviews/ investigations into exactly what the emails meant and whether they have any bearing on the efficacy of global climate science. All have cleared the university and scientists of the more serious allegations, but heavily criticise both for lack of openness and transparency. It's generally agreed that the scientists dug their own hole by adopting a siege mentality and withholding information; information which really wasn't that damaging to them in the first place. The science? It stands. Procedure and candour? Improvement needed.
The sceptics, however, have refused to drop their barren bone, and are calling all four reviews a whitewash. Cue a public debate: "Climategate, the greatest scandal to hit climate science or a storm in a teacup?"
On the affirmative: [ie-the science stacks up, the email scandal was overblown and a distraction from the undisputable facts of a warming planet] Professor Trevor Davies, the UEA's pro-vice chancellor of research and former head of the climate research unit, and Bob Watson, former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and currently the UK Government's chief scientific advisor.
On the negative: [ie- science which points to man-made climate change is all wrong, does not stand up to scrutiny and has caused "global warming alarmism"] - prominent climate sceptic bloggers Stephen McIntyre and Douglas Keenan.
And somewhere in the middle- environment journalist Fred Pearce (he's the one who blew the cover on "clean green New Zealand" last year). And chair - Guardian comment writer George Monbiot.
Each panelist had five minutes, then there was 15 minutes of discussion between them, then audience questions for 45 minutes. In summary, Fred Pearce was what I thought he'd be - measured, thoughtful, more interested in the big picture and long term veracity of climate science than personalities and nit-picking. Sceptic Douglas Keenan (Canadian) was just sort of freaky - robot mixed with rabbit-in-headlights and just a touch of American Psycho thrown in for good measure. Stephen McIntyre (also Canadian) was unconvincing - droning on and on for his five minutes, and when asked a simple question by the audience about where the energy that's heating the earth is coming from if it's NOT coming from humans, blustering and bumbling his way through a non-answer. Bob Watson came across well but seemed to have to fight to keep calm in the face of robot and drone. George Monbiot was his usual no-nonsense self. And Professor Davies? Dare I say he should consider losing the self-satisfied smirk if he's to convince the world that a lesson has been learned.
The audience was big, prestigious in part (many of the UK's top science and environment journalists were present), heated and curiously divided in terms of where it stood on the issue. I was surprised by the number of people trying to trash the science. (I've seen assessments estimating the audience was split 70/30 in favour of the science and scientists). At one point George Monbiot threatened to throw out an audience member out for being tempestuous. (I think it might actually have been Piers Corbyn.)
Many of the arguments had been thrashed out before: McIntyre's dogged attack of the hocky stick graph; Keenan accusing Phil Jones (the UEA scientist at the centre of the scandal) of not fronting for the investigations; the argument that solar activity not humans are heating the globe etc etc. So what was new? Well, Trevor Davies put the UEA's delayed response to the email furore down to shock. "We were shocked too by the email excerpts…we had to verify if they were real". And he very clearly conceded that lessons had to be learned and have been learned: "we need to be more aware of the interaction between the blogosphere and mainstream media…scientists need to be able to explain uncertainty better….we have to be more helpful to freedom of information requests"….etc etc.
The question was asked, what is "balanced reporting" in relation to climate change? If 90% of the world's scientists say it's man-made and 10% say no it's not, balanced reporting is surely NOT giving them 50/50 airtime. Sure, allow the minority a voice, but make it proportional. The debate wrapped up with a rather flustered Monbiot concluding "we've got absolutely nowhere" which I suspect will be the case for some time yet with this debate. Yes, the fact we're still arguing over the very basics of climate change is depressing, but as Monbiot also pointed out, at least the issue has been brought to the forefront of people's minds once more. On the issue of the emails however, it's well and truly time to shut the gate.