Muir Russell Findings No Solace for U.S. EPA
[Update 07/29/10: The EPA has announced its decision to deny all the petitions asking it to reconsider its Endangerment Finding, claiming that it could find no evidence in the Climategate emails indicating that climate change science could not be trusted. Read on to see if you think this decision is justified.]
While the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency would surely love to use the findings of the Independent Climate Change Email Inquiry (aka the Muir Russell report) to brush aside the many challenges mounted, in response to the Climategate email scandal, to the EPA’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger the public’s health and welfare (a finding which enables the EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions), they’ll find little in the Muir Russell report to help in their defense.
Well, I should qualify that. They’ll find little scientifically to help their defense. Politics is another matter.
Since the EPA has largely based its Endangerment Finding on an appeal to authority—the primary authority being the IPCC—rather than its own investigations, the Muir Russell report plays right into the EPA’s hands when concluding (emphasis in original):
[W]e do not find that their [influential scientists from the Climate Research Unit of the U.K.’s University of East Anglia] behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.
At face value, it seems as if the EPA could take this as the only proof needed to dismiss all of the post-Climategate calls for it to reconsider it pre-Climategate Endangerment Finding.
But, as with just about everything else about the EPA’s Endangerment Finding, such action would be a gross oversimplification, a side-step around the deeper complexities, and an incomplete address of the issues raised against it.
The Muir Russell panel was hired by the University of East Anglia (of which the Climate Research Unit, or CRU, is a part) to look into many of the allegations levied against CRU scientists as a result of the contents of the leaked Climategate emails. The Muir Russell panel found that while generally some of the CRU scientists did not play well with others whom they didn’t like, that their poor social skills did not result in any gross perversion of the scientific process—or at the very least, they didn’t subvert things enough to “undermine the conclusions of the IPCC.”
Of course they didn’t—their subversion was integral in establishing the conclusions of the IPCC!
It is the scientific truth (or our uncertainty thereof) which undermines the conclusions of the IPCC, not the contributions of the CRU scientists that erected it.
And establishing scientific truth was not a focal point of the Muir Russell panel.
What the Climategate emails expose is how the CRU scientists, with the help of many others (whose behavior was not investigated by the Muir Russell panel), went about constructing the IPCC foundation—by selectively and purposefully portraying the science of climate change the way that they did.
As I have said repeatedly, the IPCC produced “assessment” reports—that is, selective presentations of climate science. Pick a different group of assessors, and you get a different “assessment.” Case and point, the NIPCC assessment report which has a fundamentally different take on things than the IPCC does.
Apparently, there is some debate as to whether or not the IPCC was supposed to operate in this manner. The Muir Russell panel claimed that is was (emphasis added):
The IPCC produces assessments of the current state of understanding of climate change, its causes and implications. Its approach is to produce the most probable account of these issues; together with their uncertainties, and to identify where there is insufficient evidence to discriminate between different interpretations of a phenomenon. Its purpose is to produce a “best estimate” of what is currently understood, through the work of a group of scientists chosen for their expertise and experience to make reasoned assessments on the balance of evidence. It is not to produce a review of the scientific literature.
While Roger Pielke Jr. claims that they were not:
The idea that the IPCC presents a “best estimate” understanding based on the views of a selected group of scientists is completely contrary to how the IPCC characterizes its own work. To suggest that the IPCC is “not to produce a review of the scientific literature” is just plain wrong.
However, since the title of the latest IPCC report is “The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,” and not something like “The Fourth Comprehensive Review of the Science of Climate Change by the IPCC,” I side with Muir Russell rather than Roger Pielke Jr. on this one. Whether or not that is how the IPCC was supposed to function, that is how it did function. And as such, the CRU scientists involved in the IPCC process helped develop and flavor the IPCC conclusions, as revealed in Climategate emails in their full glory.
The Climategate, the EPA, and Muir Russell
What the EPA has been asked to do by its reconsideration petitioners (in light of the Climategate emails and its fallout), is to consider just how much influence the actions of the CRU scientists and the many other leading climate scientists not investigated by Muir Russell had in shaping the assessment in a particular manner in lieu of other valid and in many cases more compelling evidence pointing to different conclusions.
The petitions to the EPA asked many more questions, and presented far more evidence—both from the body of the Climategate emails and from the scientific literature produced subsequent to the latest IPCC report—than the Muir Russell panel answered or even investigated.
Here are a few examples of questions from one particular EPA petition, the Peabody Petition, that the Muir Russell panel did not adequately address (because it was beyond their scope, they glossed over the issue, or both).
On the influence of the issue of “divergence” (i.e. in the past couple of decades some tree ring records fail to respond as expected to rising temperatures which calls into question the reliability of using them as temperature proxies in the pre-instrument era—for which they have been used), the Muir Russell panel has this to say (emphasis in original):
We do not find that the way that data derived from tree rings is described and presented in IPCC AR4 and shown in its Figure 6.10 is misleading. In particular, on the question of the composition of temperature reconstructions, we found no evidence of exclusion of other published temperature reconstructions that would show a very different picture. The general discussion of sources of uncertainty in the text is extensive, including reference to divergence. In this respect it represented a significant advance on the IPCC Third Assessment Report (TAR).
OK, so the IPCC included a discussion of uncertainty and a brief mention of divergence in its text. But the IPCC grossly downplayed how significant an issue divergence may be in interpreting the temperature reconstructions. In fact, as pointed out in the Peabody Petition (which acknowledges how the IPCC dealt with the topic), there have been at least three papers published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature since the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) was released that concluded that divergence eviscerates the reliability of temperature reconstructions. According to the Peabody Petition:
More importantly, after AR4 was issued, at least three studies have been published reanalyzing the data used in the proxy reconstructions cited in AR4, including two by authors whose reconstructions were used in AR4. These studies concluded that, in fact, the divergence problem makes the reconstructions unreliable. According to one study, the divergence problem “serve(s) to impede a robust comparison of recent warming during the anthropogenic period with past natural climate episodes such as the Medieval Warm Period or MWP.”57 Another study found that the divergence problem makes it “impossible to make any statements about how warm recent decades are compared to historical periods.”58 Another concluded that the divergence problem “is of importance, as it limits the suitability of tree-ring data to reconstruct long-term climate fluctuations, particularly during periods that might have been as warm or even warmer than the late twentieth century.”59
It would seem, therefore, that the IPCC should have been more cautious in dismissing the divergence problem. It would also seem that the IPCC may have understood that there was something to hide after all.
57 Rosanne D’Arrigo, et al., On the ‘divergence problem’ in northern forests: a review of the tree-ring evidence and possible causes, 60 GLOB. PLANET. CHNG. 289 (2008).
58 Craig Loehle, A mathematical analysis of the divergence problem in dendroclimatology, 94 CLIM. CHNG. 233 (2009).
59 Jan Esper and David Frank, Divergence pitfalls in tree-ring research, 94 CLIM. CHNG. 261, 262 (2009).
Clearly, Muir Russell in no way provides any scientific help for the EPA on the topic of divergence.
Transparency and Openness
Nor does it provide much assistance to the EPA on other topics raised in the Peabody Petition, including the (mis)match between recent temperature trends and climate model projections, demonstrable (and in some cases, admitted) errors in the IPCC reports, or the lack of openness and transparency in the preparation of the IPCC reports or the underlying literature upon which they rely. In fact, as to the latter, the Muir Russell finds (emphasis in original):
But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognise not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and, indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science
This is a huge blow to the EPA’s claims of a rigorous, transparent and neutral scientific process.
Subversion of Peer-Review
Further, the exposed infractions run far beyond “failing to display the proper degree of openness” and in fact spill over into perverting the peer-review process—one of the most fundamental elements of modern science.
Astonishingly, the Muir Russell panel gives the CRU scientists a free pass when it comes to their actions regarding peer-review (emphasis in original):
In addition, we do not find that their behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.
But the Muir Russell panel only focused on a few cases of peer-review meddling involving only a few CRU scientists. As a whole, Climategate reveals a much larger number of instances involving a much larger number of people. So the Muir Russell panel’s results are woefully inadequate for the EPA’s purposes.
And even in the cases that they did review, Muir Russell’s allegations that the way the Climategate scientists acted to wield their influence on the peer-review process was “ordinary,” is simply absurd.
For instance, it is not “ordinary” for a group of scientists to organize a boycott of a particular journal—in this case Climate Research.
Amusingly, in its submission to the Muir Russell panel (located here in its gory detail), the CRU maintains that the “CRU staff have not ‘boycotted’ the journal Climate Research.” An admission which indicates to me that they think “boycotting” a journal is not ordinary practice. Yet, back in the 2003/2004 time period, I specifically heard the term “boycott” being used to describe what was being organized against Climate Research for publishing papers that were not liked by some folks—and the Climategate emails confirm that such organization was taking place.
So what to make of CRU’s claim that they did not “boycott” Climate Research?
On the CRU web site there is a listing of publications by CRU scientists. On that list, I count 16 papers published by CRU scientists in the journal Climate Research during the 7 years prior to 2003/04 (by the likes of scientists like Phil Jones, Mike Hulme, Tim Osborn, Claire Goodess—all folks who make an appearance in the Climategate emails)—so obviously Climate Research was a journal frequented by CRU. In the years since 2003/04, CRU scientists published 2 papers in Climate Research (both papers by a pair of scientists, neither of whom was caught up in the Climategate scandal). Sounds like something changed in the 2003/04 timeframe.
And just in case you were wondering whether the (non)boycott had any impact on the types of papers accepted by the Climate Research editors, I was a co-author on 7 papers published in Climate Research from 1996-2004 and none since. In fact, the editors at Climate Research haven’t considered my last two submissions worthy of even being sent out for review, a fate that I would guess happens to less than 5% of all papers submitted to Climate Research, and one most commonly reserved for submissions that aren’t written in readable English. I may not be the world’s greatest writer, but I do write in English.
So, once again, it sounds like something changed at that journal in the 2003/2004 timeframe.
If you think the stink raised by CRU et al. didn’t have something to do with it, then you must sit on the Muir Russell panel.
And the Climate Research affair is just one of the instances of strong-arming peer-review that is evident in the Climategate emails. There are plenty of others—all well-documented in, for example, the Peabody Petition.
While the Muir Russell panel may look the other way on most of these issues (after all they only had to answer to the University of East Anglia, the very folks they were investigating), the EPA does not have that luxury—because the EPA serves the American public, and the American public deserves, and hopefully will insist, that EPA does a more in-depth and open-minded job in responding the points well-raised in the various petitions to reconsider its Endangerment Finding.
A diligent EPA will find little of substance in the Muir Russell report and instead will conduct a thorough investigation of its own into the points raised by the petitions brought against it.
We’ll find out what course the EPA decided to take pretty soon, as the EPA is supposedly scheduled to release its Response to the Reconsideration petitions sometime in the next few weeks.
And now that the Senate seems unlikely to take up the issue of greenhouse gas emissions control anytime soon, all eyes will be on the EPA. Hopefully it will conduct itself in a scientifically responsible manner.