Last Saturday’s BBC interview of Phil Jones, the former head of the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit (CRU) has been portrayed by some as a “retreat”; that, in effect, Jones is backing off his claim that human activities are catastrophically effecting the climate. That’s putting too strong a face on it. The interview was remarkable, but don’t believe for a second that Jones is trading in his alarmist badge for skeptical credentials. He’s simply engaged in damage control, but this interview was still something of an epiphany.
Jones was the central figure involved in “Climategate,” the release of e-mails and data files from the CRU last November that showed that leading climate scientists had been playing questionable games with data, attempting to suppress contrary opinions, and generally trying to steer their research towards desirable results, rather than allowing results to flow naturally out of their research. He is currently on leave from his position of director of the CRU and his work has been roundly criticized, not only by skeptics, but by many scientists who agree with his position on global warming.
It should be emphasized that, during his interview with the BBC, Jones said he remains confident that human activity is and has been causing global warming that can not be explained by natural causes. Nothing new there. What was stunning was that Jones admitted, in the sum total of his statements, that there is legitimate scientific disagreement about the evidence that supposedly proves the alarmist case. The science, it would seem, is not settled.
It’s a sad commentary on the state of the world when a scientist’s declaration that there is indeed room for reasoned scientific debate counts as a victory, but there you have it. The mantra “the science is settled” traces its roots back to the Clinton administration, when President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore declared that the certainty of the case for global warming, the “fact” that scientists were sure disaster lurked just around the corner, along with the magnitude of the supposed danger, meant that we must stop arguing and start acting. The mainstream media quickly fell into line, as did many respected technical publications like Scientific American and C&E News. The editor of the latter, the signature publication of the American Chemical Society, Rudy Baum, went so far as to declare that C&E News had little interest in publishing papers that might tend to undermine global warming alarmism. That policy led many chemists, including myself, to resign from the American Chemical Society.
Anyone who said that the science was not settled was reviled in the mainstream media, by politicians of both parties, by environmental groups and by ordinary citizens who could not imagine that the media and so many policy makers could possibly have gotten it so wrong for so long. At best, skeptics were portrayed as paid minions of Exxon-Mobil, dangerous right-wing eccentrics or both. At worst, pointing out all of the unsettled science earned skeptics death threats.
And now, along comes one of the world’s foremost climatologists, who has been leading the charge among alarmists for years, finally admitting that:
- The Medieval Warm Period might have happened and that it might have been a global phenomenon and that – if
- it was a global phenomenon – the existence of the Medieval Warm Period would make recent temperature trends much less worrisome.
- There have been other significant periods of warming in recent times, such as the period 1910 through 1940, that were not caused by human activities. (Jones hastened to add that the recent trend can not be explained away by natural causes, a position with which most skeptics disagree.)
- There has been no statistically significant global warming since 1995. For Jones, the lack of recent warming is but an aberration within a larger, more sinister long term trend. For skeptics, this fifteen year stabilization is further proof that alarmist predictions are terribly flawed.
- It’s not possible to verify the famous “hockey stick” graph, which purports to prove that recent temperature trends are unique and therefore must be caused by human activity, because Jones can not put his hands on the raw data.
These are all points that skeptics have made, time and time again, over the course of this suddenly resurgent debate. Alarmists, the mainstream media and most policy-makers dismissed such arguments out of hand. Who cares? The science, after all, was settled. But science is never settled. Science, when it’s done right, is an evolutionary process, constantly refined and always scrutinized. Two thousand years ago, the great thinkers of the day explained natural phenomena in the most rudimentary of terms. Three hundred years ago, a deeply-religious British mathematician discovered the principles of physics that govern much of the natural world. One hundred years ago, an obscure Swiss physicist figured out a way to explain nuances of nature that Sir Isaac Newton could not account for. Today, a new generation of scientists are hard at work filling in the gaps in Einstein’s theories and wondering what he might have gotten wrong.
That’s science. It’s a dynamic, ever-evolving process that demands skepticism if it hopes to arrive at the truth, or at least approximate the truth. Among the vast amount of collateral damage that has been inflicted by global warming alarmists during the course of a debate they have heretofore refused to acknowledge even existed is this: The public’s faith in scientists and the scientific process has been grievously undermined. As Lord Christopher Monckton has observed, these days many scientists appear to be nothing more than politicians wearing lab coats.
Last Saturday Phil Jones took a tentative step towards repairing that damage. Despite all of his previous efforts to derail the scientific process, he should applauded for that. Here’s hoping that more and more of his colleagues follow his lead.