A Superstorm for Global Warming Research
Plagued by reports of sloppy work, falsifications and exaggerations, climate research is facing a crisis of confidence. How reliable are the predictions about global warming and its consequences? And would it really be the end of the world if temperatures rose by more than the much-quoted limit of two degrees Celsius?
Life has become "awful" for Phil Jones. Just a few months ago, he was a man with an enviable reputation: the head of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, an expert in his field and the father of an alarming global temperature curve that apparently showed how the Earth was heating up as a result of anthropogenic global warming.
Those days are now gone.
Nowadays, Jones, who is at the center of the "Climategate" affair involving hacked CRU emails, needs medication to fall sleep. He feels a constant tightness in his chest. He takes beta-blockers to help him get through the day. He is gaunt and his skin is pallid. He is 57, but he looks much older. He was at the center of a research scandal that hit him as unexpectedly as a rear-end collision on the highway.
His days are now shaped by investigative commissions at the university and in the British Parliament. He sits on his chair at the hearings, looking miserable, sometimes even trembling. The Internet is full of derisive remarks about him, as well as insults and death threats. "We know where you live," his detractors taunt.
Jones is finished: emotionally, physically and professionally. He has contemplated suicide several times recently, and he says that one of the only things that have kept him from doing it is the desire to watch his five-year-old granddaughter grow up.
'100 Percent Confident'
One of the conclusions of his famous statistical analysis of the world's climate is that the average temperature on Earth rose by 0.166 degrees Celsius per decade between 1975 and 1998. This, according to Jones, was the clear result of his research and that of many other scientists.
"I am 100 percent confident that the climate has warmed," Jones says imploringly. "I did not manipulate or fabricate any data."
His problem is that the public doesn't trust him anymore. Since unknown hackers secretly copied 1,073 private emails between members of his research team and published them on the Internet, his credibility has been destroyed -- and so has that of an entire profession that had based much of its work on his research until now.
Those who have always viewed global warming as a global conspiracy now feel a sense of satisfaction. The so-called climate skeptics feel vindicated, because Jones, in his written correspondence with colleagues, all of them leading members of the climate research community, does not come across as an objective scientist, but rather as an activist or missionary who views "his" data as his personal shrine and is intent on protecting it from the critical eyes of his detractors.
An Entire Branch of Science in Crisis
The Climategate affair is grist for the mills of skeptics, who have gained growing support for their cause, particularly in English-speaking countries. What began with hacked emails in the United Kingdom has mushroomed into a crisis affecting an entire scientific discipline. At its center is an elite and highly influential scientific group, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
Working on behalf of the United Nations, the scientists organized under IPCC's umbrella -- including Phil Jones -- regularly prepare prognoses on the Earth's looming greenhouse climate. Without the IPCC reports, governments would not be embroiled in such passionate debate about phasing out the age of oil and coal.
In late 2007, the IPCC was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize jointly with former US Vice President Al Gore. IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, as the personification of the world's conscience, accepted the award on behalf of his organization. "Climate change poses novel risks," Pachauri told his audience, saying that the decision to award the prize to the IPCC was "a clarion call for the protection of the earth as it faces the widespread impacts of climate change." He also warned of the risk of not taking action: "Every year of delay implies a commitment to greater climate change in the future."
Since then, the IPCC has experienced a dramatic fall from grace. Less than three years after this triumph, more and more mistakes, evidence of sloppy work and exaggerations in the current IPCC report are appearing. They include Jones' disputed temperature curve, the prediction that all Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 -- which was the result of a simple transposition of numbers -- and the supposed increase in natural disasters, for which no source was given.
In mid-March, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon slammed on the brakes and appointed a watchdog for the IPCC. The InterAcademy Council, a coalition of 15 national academies of science, will review the work of the IPCC by this fall.
There is already a consensus today that deep-seated reforms are needed at the IPCC. The selection of its authors and reviewers was not sufficiently nonpartisan, there was not enough communication among the working groups, and there were no mechanisms on how to handle errors.
Offering the Skeptics an 'Unprotected Flank'
Also at issue is the position of IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri, who is praised as a "leading global thinker" in his official biography. A railroad engineer by trade, Pachauri wrote an erotic novel and recommended that people reduce their meat consumption while traveling around the world to save the climate. He has cut a miserable figure during the current crisis. The climate guru summarily dismissed justified objections to the IPCC report as "voodoo science."
Germany's Leibniz Association, an umbrella group which includes several climate research institutions as its members, is the first professional organization to call for Pachauri's resignation. Leibniz President Ernst Rietschel believes that climate research is now "in a difficult situation" because the skeptics have been "offered an unprotected flank." Rietschel told SPIEGEL: "Rajendra Pachauri should take the responsibility for this and should resign."
On balance, the entire profession has been seriously harmed by the scandal. "We are currently suffering a massive erosion of trust," concludes German climatologist Hans von Storch. "Climate research has been corrupted by politicization, just as nuclear physics was in the pre-Chernobyl days, when we were led to believe that nuclear power plants were completely safe."