Thursday, November 26, 2009

An ally in demanding Climategate accountability

While nearly all of the Climategate outrage and ridicule has come from global warming skeptics, an ally of the embarrassed scientists has finally argued that it’s time for fellow environmentalists to come clean.

Environmental blogger George Monbiot wrote Wednesday in the Guardian:

I have seldom felt so alone. Confronted with crisis, most of the environmentalists I know have gone into denial. The emails hacked from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, they say, are a storm in a tea cup, no big deal, exaggerated out of all recognition. It is true that climate change deniers have made wild claims which the material can't possibly support (the end of global warming, the death of climate science). But it is also true that the emails are very damaging.

The response of the greens and most of the scientists I know is profoundly ironic, as we spend so much of our time confronting other people's denial. Pretending that this isn't a real crisis isn't going to make it go away. Nor is an attempt to justify the emails with technicalities. We'll be able to get past this only by grasping reality, apologising where appropriate and demonstrating that it cannot happen again.
Monbiot likens the loss of credibility by CRU head Phil Jones to the expense padding scandal that has wracked the British parliament recently:
Most of the MPs could demonstrate that technically they were innocent: their expenses had been approved by the Commons office. It didn't change public perceptions one jot. The only responses that have helped to restore public trust in Parliament are humility, openness and promises of reform.

When it comes to his handling of Freedom of Information requests, Professor Jones might struggle even to use a technical defence. If you take the wording literally, in one case he appears to be suggesting that emails subject to a request be deleted, which means that he seems to be advocating potentially criminal activity. Even if no other message had been hacked, this would be sufficient to ensure his resignation as head of the unit.

I feel desperately sorry for him: he must be walking through hell. But there is no helping it; he has to go, and the longer he leaves it, the worse it will get. He has a few days left in which to make an honourable exit. Otherwise, like the former Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, he will linger on until his remaining credibility vanishes, inflicting continuing damage to climate science.
Monbiot particularly faults the university for stonewalling and denial, “a total trainwreck: a textbook example of how not to respond.”

Monbiot is trying to save the credibility of his global warming allies. As an academic, I want to save the credibility of academia and the scientific process (beyond just meteorology). However, the argument goes beyond just trying to save a cause.

This is a far more important societal problem. If our institutions are to have credibility, then failure must have consequences — a rule to be applied to government, business, academia, churches, charities and all other institutions.

Ethical leaders will demand consequences for their friends, not just their enemies. Alas, this is an all too rare sight nowadays (NB: partisan cover-up by both parties for Congressional corruption within their ranks.)

Hat tip: Chris Morrison, BNET.

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