getting it right when science goes wrong

At the risk of sounding perverse, I think the recent scandal around the alleged data-faking at the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University may turn out to be a good thing for all of us, when it comes to talking about climate change, pollution, and

At the risk of sounding perverse, I think the recent scandal around the alleged data-faking at the Climate Research Unit of East Anglia University may turn out to be a good thing for all of us, when it comes to talking about climate change, pollution, and tomorrow’s energy technologies.

For those of you who have not been paying attention, the scandal concerns a large collection of e-mails and other electronic documents stolen by a hacker from the CRU’s computers and released anonymously at several different locations on the internet.

Several of the emails have been criticized as revealing a culture of intellectual intolerance and scientific dishonesty at the centre – a centre which has for some time been a key contributor to scientific research on global warming.

The most potentially damning allegation is that one e-mail appears to show a CRU scientist purposely fiddling with the available data, employing a statistical “trick” to support his contention that world temperatures have been steadily increasing over the past years, when the actual data would seem to indicate otherwise.

Given that whoever performed the hack and leak operation clearly had a grievance against the centre, and is likely to have been very selective about the kinds of e-mails and files he or she chose to make public, it is wise to proceed with caution about deciding just how incriminating all this evidence really is.

Nevertheless, the portrait that emerges from the documents shows the CRU to be a highly contentious, politicized organization.

Neither does it help the centre’s credibility that it subsequently had to admit that it had lost or disposed of a lot of key temperature data used in creating its contention that the world has been measurably warming over the past 150 years.

These lapses in judgment and scientific discipline have, of course, been a boon to opponents of the theory of global warming, both of the lunatic fringe and scientifically respectable variety, who can use the current embarrassing situation to discredit both the science of global warming and the scientists who propound it.

My own response, since I am something of an agnostic on the global warming/climate change proposition, is less contentious.

I think it is a good thing that we have been reminded that the question of climate change or global warming is indeed still a question, and that we should proceed accordingly.

This is not to advocate some form of ecological and technological quietism, where we just keep on with our existing activities because we have no absolute evidence that they are having an effect on our environment.

I think we would do well to un-couple the argument about global warming from the argument about the need to reduce pollution and find alternative forms of energy.

Whatever its overall ecological effect – and I think it is reasonable and good that we continue to scientifically study that effect – we can all agree, I think, that pollution is in and of itself a bad thing.

We do not need an argument about its effect on ice sheets or animal species; it is sufficient to argue that it is bad for people – an argument that already has sound and un-contentious medical science behind it.

If we are going to get rid of pollution, we are going to have to find alternative energy sources, and cleaner ways of burning fossil fuels – coal, in particular.

A recent report from the Global Carbon Project showed that coal burning is actually on the increase in the world, at present, while pollution generated from oil is decreasing.

Coal accounted for 40 per cent of carbon dioxide pollution world-wide, last year, while the carbon dioxide pollution from the burning of oil stood at 36 per cent.

This shift is largely due to the movement of mass manufacturing from rich, oil-burning countries like the USA to poorer, coal-burning countries like China.

We already know how devastating pollution has become in China.

We do not need an argument about global warming to make a case making sure that kind of coal-fired “China syndrome” does not propagate itself even further across the globe.

Furthermore, though both coal and oil are still plentiful, they are depleting resources, and will deplete even faster as more and more “second world” nations continue to develop as centres of industrial production and consumption.

Carbon fuel technology, then, is both unhealthy and, in the long term, economically unsustainable.

By focusing on those two things – human health and economic sustainability – we can do ourselves (and possibly the planet, too) some good; we do not need to get into divisive arguments about whether the world is warming or not, and what if anything is causing it.

You don’t have to love the planet to be interested in cleaner energy technologies; you just have to love your kids.

Rick Steele is a technology

junkie who lives in Whitehorse.