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George Monbiot: Emails don’t disprove climate change science, but suppressing skeptics unacceptable

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, in Washington, DC. And joining us now from our Toronto studio is George Monbiot. George is an author—the best-selling book Heat: How to Stop the Planet from Burning. He writes a weekly column for The Guardian newspaper, and he’s been involved in the climate-change issues and environmental issues for decades. Thanks for joining us, George.


JAY: The Earth is not the only thing that’s burning right now: the Internet is burning with emails flying back and forth and blogs and articles about some stolen emails, emails that were stolen from the East Anglia climate change unit. So can you give us a bit of background on what these emails are and then give us your take on it?

MONBIOT: Yes. It seems that someone hacked into the server of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia and extracted a lot of emails, of which 1,000 or so have been put online. Most of them are pretty innocuous, but some of them are quite damaging to the climate scientists who posted those emails. They show a culture which is a little bit secretive, which isn’t as open as it ought to be, which appeared to be attempting to frustrate the release of information. And that’s antithetical to science. That’s not how science should be conducted. Science is all about openness and transparency. Now, of course, these people have been subject to tremendous pressure from the climate change denial industry, which was desperately trying to stymie their efforts to demonstrate what was going on in the world and the impacts and extent of man-made climate change. And that, I think, partly accounts for the rather closed and secretive approach that they had. But it’s still not really good enough, and we need to demand very high standards from our climate scientists. But what’s happened is that these emails have now been blown out of all proportion by this denial industry, much of which is funded by the fossil fuel industries, and they’re saying this is the final nail in the coffin of climate science and all the rest of it. Well, that’s complete nonsense.

JAY: Well, let’s get into a little bit about what the emails said. There seems to be two different things or even three different categories you can say that the emails cover, but perhaps the most important part is the thing that is the part of the email that seemed to question the basic science of climate change. So in 1999, in November, Phil Jones writes an email which goes, “I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie, from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s”—in other words, substituting this for what Keith did. And then the key line is: “to hide the decline.” Now, to put this into context for people, I assume this means that people thought, after 1998, where there was a high point in the global temperature, that temperatures would continue to rise through the late ’90s and through the last decade or so, and they haven’t. They seem to have more or less plateaued. There was an article written in October 2009 by Paul Hudson, BBC news correspondent, and he writes in the headline, “Whatever happened to global warming?” And he writes, “This headline may come as a bit of a surprise, as too might the fact that the warmest year recorded globally was not 2008 or 2007 but in 1998. . . . For the last 11 years we have not observed any increase in global temperatures. And our climate models did not forecast it, even though man-made carbon dioxide, the gas thought to be responsible for warming our planet, has continued to rise.” So one of the emails people are really jumping on now is another email, written by Kevin Trenberth, another climate scientist. And this was written to Michael Mann, the scientist that developed the “hockey stick” theory of global warming, where the global warming took off after the Industrial Revolution. And the key line there, he talks about how in Boulder, Colorado, where he is, it’s actually getting cooler in October, not warmer—record cool temperatures. And then the key line is: “The fact is that we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.” So that raises two very critical questions. Is the data being manipulated to prove a theory, that man has caused climate change? And to what extent is data that contradicts the thesis being suppressed? So, again, your reaction. And what do you make of it all?

MONBIOT: Well, there’s a number of different issues being conflated here. What they were talking about with that “Nature trick” and the idea of hiding the decline was not the recorded temperature series showing what the world’s average temperature is; it was to do with some very complicated business of reconciling a proxy record, as I understand it, from things like tree rings with the actual recorded temperature record. These people having that correspondence had no engagement with the actual recorded-temperature record, and they weren’t responsible for measuring it and monitoring it.

JAY: And just to explain this, if I understand this correctly, if you’re going to try to understand what the temperature was for the last thousand years, there were no television weatherman 1,000 years ago, so you have use tree rings and whatever kind of physical evidence to kind of deduce what the temperatures were.

MONBIOT: That’s right. And there are some difficulties, I think, in reconciling the more recent proxy data, which sort of tests the value of the ancient proxy data with the actual temperature record. Now, what the scientists say is that the word “trick” actually doesn’t mean a trick to try to disguise something; it means a clever use of statistics to try to reconcile a whole load of different and competing data sets. That’s an unfortunate word, but I don’t think that that word is in itself damning. “Hide the decline,” again they say there’s a perfectly innocent explanation for that, and it’s all to do with incredibly complex statistical analyses. Now, those aren’t actually the emails that concern me. They’re not the ones that worry me, because I think there are good explanations for those emails. Incidentally, you talk about what Paul Hudson’s saying, that there hasn’t been a rise in global temperatures. You know, that is complete nonsense. Eight of the ten warmest years in the whole temperature record—and this is the actual measured temperature with thermometers around the world—occurred since 2001. Eight of the ten warmest years since 1850 occurred since 2001. And what Paul Hudson is talking about—and it’s a grotesquely intellectually dishonest approach—is he’s saying no year has been as warm as 1998; therefore there’s been a temperature decline since 1998. But actually it simply doesn’t work like that. Nineteen ninety-eight was a wild outlier, and even at the time it was recognized as such, and it was greatly boosted, the temperature in that year, by the El Niño event. And, in fact, the very climate change deniers who are now saying, “Oh, temperatures have gone down since 1998,” in ’98 were saying, “This has nothing to do with climate change. This is El Niño.” They can’t have it both ways. So there was a very strong El Niño event coupled with the background climate change, which has been taking place for a long time as a result of industrial emissions in ’98. Since then, the actual trend of emissions has continued to go upwards. In other words, the average of the last ten years has been much higher than the average of any preceding ten years, and all the record years, bar two, have been since 2001. So what’s the issue? If you were to say since 1997 let’s look at the temperature series, you would see that temperatures have been consistently higher since 1997. If you look at 1999, temperatures have been consistently higher since 1999. But these people like Paul Hudson are cherry picking 1998 quite deliberately, in order to pretend that there’s been a decline in temperatures, and it is simply not true.

JAY: Well, how do you deal with this issue, then, where Trenberth says this is a “travesty” that we can’t prove this?

MONBIOT: Well, I mean, I don’t know exactly what Trenberth is talking about, but what we see around the world is monitoring stations which have been tested to destruction, showing a global rise in average temperature. And, you know, these are thermometers. We’re not talking about incredibly detailed computer models or proxy indicators or anything like this. We’re just talking about thermometer readings. And those are going up and up and up.

JAY: Now, you said there are other parts of these emails that concern you more.

MONBIOT: Yes. I’m much more concerned about the emails which appear to be denying freedom of information requests and trying to prevent scientific data from being released. I think that’s where the real danger lies, that, you know, science has got to be open, it’s got to be transparent, it’s got to be unimpeachable, and withholding data and trying to frustrate inquiries to get a hold of data, regardless of who they’re from—and, you know, there’s no question that some of the people making those inquiries appear a bit like serial pests, where they’re constantly making life very difficult for these scientists. Regardless of that, I think you just have to release your data so that other people can analyze it. Otherwise it’s not science. And that’s where my concerns really lie.

JAY: Now, you’ve called for the resignation of Phil Jones as the head of [the University of] East Anglia Climate Research Unit. Why?

MONBIOT: Because he wrote an email where he appeared to be encouraging other scientists to delete material which was subject to a freedom of information request. That’s contrary to the spirit of science, it’s contrary to the spirit of the open Society, and it’s also potentially a criminal matter, because you’re not allowed to do that under UK law. And it seems to me that we have to clear this matter up and we have to draw it to a close and say, yes, fault has taken place, what these people have done is not wholly justifiable, and they must be held accountable for that. I don’t think they’re bad people. I think they tried to do a good job. But in that respect they messed up, and we should be honest enough and broad-shouldered enough to recognize that and to be able to state that. Now, by comparison to what the climate change deniers have been doing, what these scientists have done is nothing. It makes them look pure as the driven snow when you look at what the denial industry has been doing, where for a very long time now, two decades, the fossil fuel companies have pooled literally billions of dollars into trying to persuade the world that climate change is not taking place. And in misrepresenting the science, in some cases fabricating the science, direct and straightforward scientific fraud—. I mean, in one instance they published a paper which—they published it in the font and format of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which is a very major scientific journal, and they published it with a forward of a previous chairman of the National Academy of Sciences to make it look as if it was in fact from that journal. It was nothing of the kind; it was just a fabricated paper. Now, that’s the sort of thing which is far, far worse than anything revealed by these emails, embarrassing and deeply disappointing as some of those emails are. And, you know, what the emails show is that these scientists can be flawed. They haven’t done everything the way they should have done it. I completely agree with that. But we’re talking about three or four scientists—three or four is an absolute maximum who have been involved in this—and we’re talking about one or two lines of evidence out of several hundred lines of evidence which show that man-made climate change is taking place. So to suggest, as some people have been doing, that this is the end of climate science is just hyperbolic nonsense. And, you know, you look at the enormous weight of evidence and you see that the science of climate change is as solid as the science of evolution, or as the link between smoking and lung cancer or between HIV and AIDS.

JAY: Mojib Latif, who’s a member of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), he said that it’s not impossible to have several years of cooling, even as much as a decade or more of cooling, but it would still not refute the idea that the overall trend is towards warming. To what extent is that possible, from what your research has shown you, that we might get a few years of cooling?

MONBIOT: Well, that is possible. We might do. Carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions are not the only driver. The sun is a driver. We know that. The El Niño and La Niña events, they’re drivers. There are all sorts of factors involved. But overall, on a long time frame, the real push for global warming over the past few decades has been man-made carbon dioxide emissions and other greenhouse gas emissions. That’s very clearly established now. But you wouldn’t expect that trend to be a totally smooth and linear one, because it’s what they call a multivariate trend. In other words, there are lots of variables involved, and so the trend is going to go like that. That’s what’s been happening. But it’s been going like that upwards. And so sometimes when it’s going like that, if you take only that tiny little fraction of the graph, it looks like the temperature’s going down, and then it goes like that and you think, “Oh, is going up again.” But what you’re looking at is not the noise but the signal, and the signal is doing that.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview let’s talk about Copenhagen. Most of the world has accepted the science of the IPCC. Most of the world scientific community and political community, at least in words, accepts that we are facing an urgent climate-change crisis. People, the governments, and state leaders are meeting in Copenhagen. But is anything real going to get done there? So in the next segment of our interview, we will discuss Copenhagen. Please join us for that on The Real News Network.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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