Business, Politics

LETTER: Ivo Vegter hits a climate nerve, ‘should be fired’ (and Vegter responds)

By Branko Brkic 27 November 2009

Ivo Vegter's column (Pop goes the hot air balloon, published 24 November 2009) has drawn some strong responses. Among those was this letter to the editor from David Le Page and Eduard Grebe. Due to its length we publish it here rather than in the comments section of that column. If you want to skip straight to Vegter's subsequent response, click here.

Ivo Vegter has jumped on the public disclosure of emails taken from a hacked server at the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, suggesting that it vindicates those who argue that “alarmism about athropogenic global warming was at least distorted, and probably an outright fraud”. It does no such thing.

Vegter concedes his own vested interests in the “climate change debate” when he worries that “a veritable fountain of subject matter will dry up”. After all, one who writes for The Daily Maverick has a professional interest in being contrarian. But peddling dangerous nonsense based on distortion and vague innuendo is surely not the work of a true maverick.

Clearly, he has not picked through the (massive) archive himself. Nor have we, in detail. But nothing that has been published reveals any attempt to manufacture evidence, much less a conspiracy of the scale that Vegter’s suggestion of “outright fraud” demands. For if he and his fellow sceptics are correct, and global warming is a “fraud”, then it would have to involve not just Vegter’s “close-knit group”, but also the no less than 2,500 scientists who contributed to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and countless others in literally hundreds of universities and research institutes.

Instead, the archive seems to hold merely a catalog of vanities and mostly petty errors proving only that climate scientists are mortal humans with mortal failings. The attacks by climate sceptics, which have largely relied on taking quotes out of context and distorting the meaning of their authors, actually reveal more about the methods of climate change denial than about climate science. Some of the scientists who appear in the emails have attempted to provide context and explain the quotes that have been most widely cited. But this is all rather besides the point, since even if some of them have acted questionably, this does not discredit the vast body of evidence built up over decades of research (and subjected to both peer review and public scrutiny).

Never pausing to question the timing of this hack, mere days before the beginnings of what many believe are the most important negotiations in human history in Copenhagen, Vegter tells us that these revelations will prick “the bubble of hot air promoted by a close-knit group of prominent climate scientists”. But far from being “close-knit”, there are and always have been furious debates and disagreements within this huge science community over the precise nature, extent and pace of global warming and its effects – as the archive itself reveals. But on the basic science of global warming, including that it is caused by human activity, there is no real disagreement.

So Vegter clearly has a poor understanding of how real science works – and of the scientific method, or he would not refer to the likes of Viscount Monckton or Lord Lawson as “peer reviewers”. Peer reviewers, in climate science, need to be qualified climate scientists, specialists in the fields in which they review the work of others. Monckton and Lamont are neither of them scientists of any description, and between them, have never published a single piece of original peer-reviewed science in a reputable journal. Being exemplary upper-class twits does not make them peer reviewers, only peers.

Most of the organisations working to refute the climate science consensus are linked to conservative political organisations in the US. Many have been and are still funded by big oil: BP and Shell openly contribute funds to the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies against climate change legislation. Most of the scientists who deny the human contribution to climate change are not, in fact, climate scientists.

Vegter also repeats the tired old suggestion that we should distrust predictions of global warming because of some predictions made in the 1970s of global cooling. Of course, he neglects to mention that those predictions were made in just seven papers by scientists who later changed their minds – as real scientists often do – and joined the overwhelming and comparatively massive consensus – thousands of papers – that now chart existing, and predict further, global warming

Real mavericks would question the fossil fuel consensus that has us heading for a likely massive global economic crisis when oil supply peaks, as a UK industry group including Virgin and Yahoo! has concluded it may do by 2013. Real mavericks would question the consensus that has us building new coal power stations more expensive than investments in energy efficiency. Real mavericks would ask why it is apparently acceptable to South Africans that we should passively watch India and China as they innovate and take care of their people with massive investments in clean technologies that produce none of the other forgotten nasty pollutants besides carbon dioxide that Eskom is content to foist on us. Real mavericks would ask why our government is not better preparing our economy for a future in which our exports are likely to be taxed according to the carbon dioxide created in their production. Real mavericks would be looking to an energy future that is fundamentally different to the present, which is dirty, exploitative, insecure and unsustainable even if one ignores CO2 emissions. Real mavericks would be worried about the extraordinary suffering already starting to affect the poor of Southern Africa, which will be one of the regions most hard hit by global warming.

Vegter, clinging to old energy and in deep denial about climate change, has adopted a deeply conservative position. He’s no maverick: fire him.

David Le Page is a freelance journalist. Eduard Grebe is a graduate student at the University of Cape Town.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Daily Maverick has a deep belief in the importance of robust debate – in fact, we do our damnedest to foment it. We strongly encourage our columnists to speak their minds fearlessly, and equally encourage our readers to challenge columnists when they see fit. What we don’t do is fire columnists for doing their jobs.

The columnist strikes back: Vegter responds to Le Page and Grebe

On 28 November Vegter sent us the following letter to the editor, in response to the above.

This letter came as no surprise, given that it arrived several days after Eduard Grebe publicly accused me of unspecified distortions, and The Daily Maverick of publishing “right-wing agitprop”, no less.

Grebe is an AIDS activist whose own writing draws on Hegel, Adorno, and Derrida to “articulate a new [post-Marxist] vision for the left”. His influences do not inspire much confidence in clarity of thought or appreciation of the philosophy of science. Perhaps it is not surprising that he considers my views as “right-wing agitprop”. The organic herb co-op down the road must seem dangerously conservative to him.

David Le Page, who so ably assisted Grebe in writing this letter, also appears to be rather more than his unassuming self-designation suggests. But more on that later.

Let me start with matters of fact. Contrary to their claims, and voluminous though it is, I have “picked through” the archive, as have many others. I can highly recommend that Le Page and Grebe do the same. It makes for enlightening reading, and arguing with the facts at one’s command is always commendable.

The archive contains more than just “vanities and petty errors”. What it reveals is a bunker mentality, sometimes emerging as active conspiracy, on a number of fronts.

Most worrying to me is the apparent influence Phil Jones, Michael Mann and their colleagues appear to have over peer review. If you’re going to appeal to the very unscientific notion of “consensus” in defence of your hypotheses, it helps not to be caught corrupting the process by which such consensus might be achieved.

Having arranged to boycott one journal which failed to toe the party line, they proceed to plot “an end-run” around another peer-review journal, Geophysical Research Letters, described as one they can’t afford to lose. Its crime? It “has published far too many deeply flawed contrarian papers”. The solution? “Proving bad behavior here is very difficult. If you think that [James E.] Saiers is in the greenhouse skeptics camp, then, if we can find documentary evidence of this, we could go through official AGU channels to get him ousted.” This exchange, involving Michael Mann, Tom Wigley and Malcolm Hughes, and copied to Keith Briffa, Gavin Schmidt, Tim Osborn, and Rob Bradley, occurred the year before Saiers was in fact ousted.

That merely being “in the greenhouse skeptics camp” is thought to be sufficient to “get him ousted” casts a shadow over the entire establishment of “climate science”. Excommunication is not a very scientific approach to disagreement. Moreover, it confirms the claims of scientists who say that their papers are systematically ignored by the clique that informs the UN’s IPCC.

The notion that this involves just a few bad apples is hardly comforting when those rotten names have so much influence over the rest of the scientific community, have so much political clout, and appear often enough in temperature reconstructions that their names are familiar even outside the scientific community. Using Grebe and Le Page’s logic, one could argue that the Catholic Church in the dark ages retained its credibility despite the corruption of a few cardinals.

So much for peer review. Le Page and Grebe also appeal to “public scrutiny”, ignoring the inconvenient fact that the leaked e-mails reveal a determined effort to avoid exactly that. The CRU scientists used every legal loophole they could find to avoid disclosure of data and code, and failing that, considered deleting data and correspondence altogether rather than comply with the law. The lack of public scrutiny is exactly what critics have long argued is the problem with climate research. Those who have tried to independently verify the results Mann and company present to the world as indisputable evidence of anthropogenic global warming have been stymied at every turn.

A cursory look at the state of the data and code in question reveals the likely reason. They are a horrible mess: from a complete lack of version control and naming conventions, reams of opaque and undocumented code, and extensive tracts of missing or duplicated data, to “very artificial” corrections applied to paper over cracks and bugs or errors that are simply ignored. That this tangled chaos can be held up as justification for why we need a legally binding global treaty to be taxed and regulated is, frankly, staggering.

The timing of the hack (or leak, as it more likely was) is not relevant to its content. If it were, however, that it came a day after a Freedom of Information Act request was denied seems more significant than its proximity to the upcoming Copenhagen Conference to which I suppose Grebe and Le Page refer.

The “context” and “explanations” offered by those implicated in the scandal are naturally defensive, and they are intelligent enough to do a creditable job at squirming. However, in the end they merely reveal that the science is far from settled. When even such a committed alarmist as George Monbiot calls it a “major blow”, declares himself “dismayed and deeply shaken”, calls for the resignation of Phil Jones, and admits that the relevant data should be re-analysed, the defensive posturing of the conspirators themselves is hardly going to convince the rest of the world.

All these things should give great cause for pause if you’re one of the billions whose prosperity is threatened by campaigns to limit or tax productive energy use. When so much of the world continues to live in poverty, and faces urgent problems of sanitation, nutrition, health and education, can we really afford to spend billions, and maybe trillions, on the basis of such a sloppy corruption of “science”?

Let me now briefly turn to the personal attacks. Clearly Le Page and Grebe have a weak understanding of “vested interests” (much like they failed to grasp my jape about the peers). I declared that it was NOT in my interest to see global warming alarming so discredited. Undeterred, they continue with a hackneyed slur about “big oil”. I have never accepted a cent from “big oil” or from any lobbying organisation funded by “big oil”. I am what I claim to be: a freelance journalist. I earn my living exclusively from writing.

Contrast my “vested interests” with those of, say, David Le Page, who might identify himself innocently enough as a “freelance journalist”, but in fact works with Incite Sustainability, a green consulting outfit committed to “develop[ing] momentum and enthusiasm for promoting sustainable development”. Among its clients are Sasol, Anglo Coal, Lonmin, Pick ‘n Pay, Engen, and Bidvest. Clearly, his income, like that of our CRU scientists, but unlike mine, depends very much on keeping the fear of anthropogenic global warming alive, and influencing policymakers to enact laws that would enrich sustainability consultancies.

As for dictating what my opinions should be, and demanding that I should be fired, I can only say that I value my right to think for myself, and that those thoughts are published at the pleasure of my editor. However, I ought to thank Messrs Le Page and Grebe for illustrating exactly what sort of consensus-building machinations James E. Saiers faced at the hands of Michael Mann and his band of corrupt cronies.

Ivo Vegter


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