New controversy in battle over the future of climate politics

28 January 2010

Mount Everest, Himalayas, Nepal

Climate change controversy increased today as a climate research unit was found to have breached Freedom of Information rules in the withholding of data. The Information Commissioner's ruling said requests for information from East Anglia University's Climate Research Unit (CRU) were "not dealt with as they should have been".

The findings put further pressure on the scientists and science around climate change. Although no further action is likely, today's ruling adds fuel to the fire of increasingly vocal climate change sceptics.

The criticism

The work of the CRU first came under fire in November last year. Hacked emails appeared to show manipulation of scientific data to support arguments for man-made climate change. The unit has always strenuously denied the emails show manipulation. The emails were revealed on the Climate Audit blog which has become a focus for sceptics' comment.

Since the controversy involving the East Anglia unit's research, a further study has also been questioned. The 2007 assessment report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear completely by 2035. It turned out that this claim, about one of the earth's most significant ice bodies, was not founded on solid research.

The error in the IPCC report has been withdrawn but mainstream commentators, including the BBC's Andrew Neil, are now openly questioning how "settled" climate science actually is.

Nigel Lawson, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, recently launched the Global Warming Policy Foundation to bring what it described as "reason, integrity and balance to a debate that has become seriously unbalanced, irrationally alarmist, and all too often depressingly intolerant."

It is a surprising turn of events in the UK. All major political parties support the Climate Change Act which endorsed the scientific consensus and made legally binding commitments to cut UK emissions by 80% by 2050. Consensus on this substantial commitment was also matched by cross-party calls for British leadership on climate change internationally.

The developing crisis has unfolded in the context of the failed Copenhagen climate summit in December 2009. Despite the presence of world leaders the summit closed in near disarray and momentum for international action on climate change has since stalled.

The response

The Government's Chief Scientific Advisor Professor John Beddington called for greater honesty among scientists. In an interview with the Times, he said that "science grows in the light of criticism" and called on climate scientists to be more open about their data.

Beddington acknowledged that recent events had been unfortunate but that the essential message of climate science was unchallengeable: "CO2 traps heat and warms the Earth and that burning fossil fuels shoves billions of tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere." US academic Richard Somerville also published a six point rebuttal of climate change denialism.

The WWF released a statement of regret about its role in promoting the IPCC's now discredited Himalayan glacier claim. Nevertheless, speaking to Full Fact, WWF insisted that "one isolated incident does not and should not be used to undermine the credibility of this [the IPCC's] outstanding and respected group of scientists who are at the forefront of climate change research."

Even so, Richard Hawkins, a senior researcher on climate science at the Public Interest Research Centre, acknowledged that there was shock amongst the scientific community about the recent turn of events. In an interview with Full Fact he spoke of a "changed landscape" in the UK where it was no longer safe to assume that the battle over climate change sceptics had been won.

Hawkins strongly defended the IPCC report. Responding to the Himalayan glacier claim, he explained that in a 3000 page report several errors were likely - and just as many would be underestimates as those that were overestimates. In the last two years, he pointed out, many concerns had been raised that the IPCC's analysis of the pace of change was too conservative.

In a heated debate, the climate change sceptics also face charges of manipulating information. During the recent cold weather snap in the UK, Mail on Sunday journalist David Rose looked to a new Ice Age and cited the work of scientist Mojib Latif as a "challenge [to] some of the global warming orthodoxy's most deeply cherished beliefs".

Latif however firmly rejected the way his views were portrayed and in an interview with the Guardian a day later insisted he was a "believer in manmade global warming". He added that his work and the wider debate about climate change were not comparable.

With a general election only months away it is an important time for environmental politics. Polling figures for the BBC before the Copenhagen summit suggested that 90% of the public view climate change as a "somewhat serious" or "very serious" problem. And, according to the poll, 70% of Britons supported government investment to tackle climate change "even if it hurts the economy".

Nevertheless, other polling suggests that the environment lags behind the economy, health, crime, immigration, terrorism and poverty as important national concerns. See YouGov poll for Left Foot Forward.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee has announced an inquiry into the disclosure of climate data from the East Anglia institute. It will hold evidence sessions in March 2010.

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