29 September 2010

Empty Debate and Climate Attack Dogs

Earlier this week, Andrew Turnbull, who was Cabinet Secretary under Tony Blair, had an op-ed in the Financial Times stating his views on the need for the climate science community to rebuild trust.  Lord Turnbull's essay, written under his byline as a trustee of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, is fair and generally unremarkable.

He writes:
To restore trust, it was essential that the government, parliament, the University of East Anglia and the Royal Society should respond quickly to get to the truth. They set up three inquiries but did those inquiries resolve the issues? A report by Andrew Montford for the Global Warming Policy Foundation shows serious flaws in the inquiries, which it says were marred by the failure to ensure independence in the panel members; by the refusal to take account of critical views; and by the failure to probe some serious allegations.

The result has been that the three investigations have failed to achieve their objective: conclusive restoration of confidence. In The Atlantic, Clive Crook of the Financial Times referred to “an ethos of suffocating group think”. That is exactly what the GWPF report revealed, with the investigators almost as much part of the group as the scientists.

The UK’s new parliamentary committee on science and technology needs to look again at how the inquiries were conducted to see if the exoneration claimed is merited. The government then needs to look at the serious criticisms of the IPCC made in the recent InterAcademy Council Report.
Reasonable people can certainly debate whether or not the various UK inquiries succeeded in restoring confidence or not, and whether or not it would make sense for the new UK government to reopen these issues.  My judgment is that the inquiries did not go very far in restoring trust among many, but at the same time, this situation does not justify a new set of investigations.  At this stage, these are issues for the scientific community to deal with, not governments.  So I disagree with Lord Turnbull's conclusions.

In a letter printed in today's FT, Bob Ward, a public relations specialist at the London School of Economics seeks to counter Lord Turnbull's arguments.  The manner in which he chooses to do so illustrates how it is that debate over climate change has devolved to comical farce.  The entirety of Ward's objections to Turnbull's arguments are that the GWPF has a flawed logo on its website and that Ward is unaware of GWPF funding sources.

I agree that the GWPF logo is flawed and my own policy views run counter to those of the GWPF.  However, my judgments about trust in climate science have nothing to do with the GWPF choice of logos or their funding source.  Even if they had a brilliant logo and money provided by Jeremy Grantham (whose generosity pays Mr. Ward's salary), I'd judge their policy recommendations as being flawed.  Ward insults FT readers by suggesting that they should judge Turnbull's arguments not on their merits but by irrelevant distractions.  Such is the state of climate debate in many quarters these days.

Ward's frequent efforts to reduce debate over climate change to tabloid-style mud wrestling is symptomatic of a debate that has lost touch with what matters.  It is remarkable to me that an institution of higher learning such as LSE would hire a spin doctor to systematically engage in attacking reputations across the blogoosphere and letter pages of newspapers.  Of course, when Bob does rarely engage in a public, scholarly debate, he is cordial and the attacks disappear.  I am unaware of anyone playing an analogous PR "attack dog" role in a US academic context.