New analysis of climate change data supports the theory that the world is warming up, but will it cool the warming debate, asks Peter Judge
Two years ago, emails stolen from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia were used in a bid to discredit the idea of global warming. Now, global weather data has been analysed more thoroughly, and the conclusion is that the world is warming up.
That in itself is big news. But another thing the story shows is big changes in our approach to handling scientific data. But first, the history, and the science.
Did Climategate kill Copenhagen?
The Climategate crisis, as it became known, had a big impact. A 61MB zip-file of emails was stolen from the CRU, and posted on various online sources (among others, the then-not-so-notorious WikiLeaks hosted it and claimed credit). People who disputed the idea of climate change (let’s call them “climate change deniers”) seized on the data, cherry picked the bits they liked, and presented them as evidence that climate change science was a big conspiracy theory.
Scientists involved in the field of climate research were sometimes rude about colleagues it emerged, and also had to apply statistical techniques to their data. These techniques were complex to understand, and could be misrepresented to claim the scientists had falsified the data.
The furore was quite astonishing, and must have been deliberately timed for the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen, where world leaders failed to agree on mandatory cuts in greenhouse gas emissions – a failure partly blamed on the Climategate publicity.
In time, the scientists involved were cleared of dishonesty, and the tumult went away.
But last month a two-year study was published, which analysed a huge stack of weather monitoring data – including that from the CRU, which Climategate questioned. And the result backed global warming.
The Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project is headed by Richard Muller, a scientist best known as an astrophysicist, and therefore untainted by the conspiracy theorists’ allegations about climate scientists. In fact, he is often described as a “fomer climate change sceptic”.
The study was also partly funded by the Koch Foundation, a body founded by David and Charles Koch, whose company Koch Industries, has argued against climate change and has, according to Greenpeace, spent millions of dollars funding a campaign against it.
The Berkeley group did basic scientific work, correcting the global weather measurements to get a real figure for the way in which temperatures are changing. Muller describes it well in an article for the Wall Street Journal.
“The temperature-station quality is largely awful,” he says. Using the data from those stations, “the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates an average global 0.64ºC temperature rise in the past 50 years, ‘most’ of which the IPCC says is due to humans,” he continues. “Yet the margin of error for the stations is at least three times larger than the estimated warming.”
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