The Climate Commission and the integrity of science

The Climate Commission’s visit to Hobart was a welcome vindication of good science. [28 February 2012 | Peter Boyer]

Tim Flannery at the launch of the Commission’s Tasmanian report. PHOTO KIM EISZELE (MERCURY).

Tim Flannery at the launch of the Commission’s Tasmanian report. PHOTO KIM EISZELE (MERCURY).

In case you missed it, the Climate Commission roadshow rolled into town last week. Tim Flannery and four other commissioners fronted public forums in Launceston and Hobart to explain what climate change means for Tasmania.

From where I sat, on their first Tasmanian outing they did the job impeccably. In the forums each expert (I think that overused word applies here) stuck to his or her stated areas of expertise and dealt with questions competently and without condescension.

The two discussions I attended were generally agreeable affairs, but it was a relief to hear some dissent. A compliant audience isn’t going to progress this conversation. The meetings need to have a wide spectrum of attitudes about climate aired so that popular misconceptions can be addressed.

At Hobart’s Town Hall, for instance, Professor Will Steffen was asked to explain why this was a “critical decade” when certain commentators were saying the opposite; why a rising carbon dioxide level was seen as a culprit when it was just a result of rising temperature; and why the concern about sea level which some have said isn’t rising at all.

Steffen’s decades of study of the chemistry and physics of Earth’s systems, including many years heading the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, came to the fore in his lucid, well-referenced responses. The audience’s relief at seeing some popular misconceptions dealt with so effectively was almost palpable.

The threat to Tasmanian biodiversity, especially its marine life, was one reason why we could ill-afford to be complacent in a warming world, said Professor Lesley Hughes. But another was the future of human life, which she illustrated in a graph featuring her children and grandchildren.

Steffen and Hughes presented as smart, widely-read and committed to telling it as they find it, while also approachable and egalitarian — one of us. This was science-public interaction at its best.

While all this was happening on our island, the role of scientists in the public sphere was the subject of a new controversy involving an eminent US climate scientist, Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security in Oakland, California.

The trigger for the controversy was Gleick’s admission that he had pretended to be someone he wasn’t to obtain confidential documents from the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based think-tank whose main claim to fame in recent years has been its relentless campaign to convince Americans that people don’t significantly influence climate.

Gleick said that his judgment was blinded by his frustration with organisations like Heartland “to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate”. But, he added, “I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected.

The admission was welcome relief for Heartland, whose financial backers had suddenly come under a media spotlight. We didn’t learn a lot from the documents that we didn’t already know, but they provided written evidence which was for the most part acknowledged by Heartland to be authentic.

There was immediate speculation about the identity of an “anonymous donor” whose multi-million dollar donations seem to have kept Heartland afloat for some years. One name seems to fit pretty well: Barre Seid, a reclusive Chicago businessman known for his strong aversion to the case for human-induced climate change.

Heartland may be justified in saying that Gleick may have fabricated one of the documents and that his apology was “not enough to undo the damage”, but its demand that websites delete the “stolen and fraudulent” documents and “issue retractions” reeks of hypocrisy.

In 2009, a swag of emails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia (UK) found their way into the public domain courtesy of a raid on the university’s email server.

Heartland gleefully launched into the debate over the emails’ content by claiming they “pulled back the green curtain on the secret world of leading climate scientists, exposing a disturbing pattern of apparent scientific misconduct” (a claim dismissed by three independent inquiries). But Heartland failed to condemn the theft of the emails.

This does not forgive Gleick’s action. It could be argued that the ruse he adopted to get access to the Heartland files has nothing to do with his scientific honesty. But in this fraught debate plenty of mud has and will continue to be thrown, and some of it will stick. Gleick made a big mistake.

Before releasing the documents to journalists he should have anticipated the damage his actions would pose to his profession. He did eventually work that out, it seems. Just before disclosing his deception he resigned from two national posts to do with scientific ethics and public education.

Australia’s police code of conduct demands “integrity and honesty”, and journalists are charged with being “fair, responsible and honest”. It would be naïve to think that deception plays no part in policing or journalism, but nonetheless such standards are important.

They are even more important in science, whose method demands absolute integrity. Fake science distorts research agendas, costing sometimes millions of dollars to establish the fraud. Worse, the disclosure of such fraud inevitably diminishes the public confidence on which scientists depend.

So yes, I welcome and applaud the work of the Climate Commission. In continuing to inform us of the reality behind the climate debate, may it also continue to uphold the highest standards of integrity and transparency, in the best traditions of science.

This entry was posted in Australian politics, biodiversity, biological resources, carbon, carbon emissions and targets, Climate Commission, climate politics, contrarians, education, future climate, organisations and events, promotion and publicity, science, scientific institutions, scientific method, social and personal issues, social mindsets and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.