The UEA Climate Mess

News that the third committee looking into the scandal that lately enveloped the UK’s lead climate center at the University of East Anglia (UEA) has finally delivered its report, and while clearing the top scientist involve of dishonesty chastised him for much else, raises all kinds of issues.

As is widely recognized, the hacking of a large number of emails from UEA handed an advantage to those critical of the position of the International Panel on Climate Change (as had several other discrete events, especially the exposure of the scary Himalayan glacier scenario as some kind of muddled error based on a popular publication) – in the crucial run-up to the Copenhagen summit. While it is hard to establish cause and effect, the failure of the summit to achieve what many had hoped for and expected was certainly not helped by the errors – and the whiff of hubris that lay behind them.
The point here is that the climate change debate runs from science and technology through social values and civil society to governments and the global community; it’s a phenomenon which offers a highly unusual case study. What led to the tipping point turning particular views among many science experts into a global movement is hard to explain. Many factors came together. By the same token, what led the movement to tip backwards at Copenhagen is also obscure. We can identify factors; it is hard to suggest causality.
What is of interest is the manner in which technical views (contested by some serious experts, but widely held) turned into a global crusade and then suddenly, when the key global policy event was convened, faltered. Without prejudice to the significance of this set of issues, there are many more with global moment that have barely reached the consciousness of a small, indeed tiny, minority. Yet they could. It may be they are of vast consequence; it may be they are not. But they would take on consequence if they experienced the kind of viral spread that climate change has. For example, what about the impact of humanoid robotics on employment? In x years’ time, it could be profound, essentially extinguishing either (the optimistic view) the need for menial, repetitive, unskilled labor; or (perhaps more realistically) the job opportunities of billions of unskilled and not well-educated persons. Or what about disastrous damage from asteroid or comet collisions? Or the escape or malicious manufacture of a dangerous pathogen? Or . . . . There is a very long list, much of which is tabulated in the illuminating short book by Martin (Lord) Rees, currently president of the UK’s Royal Society and a leading astrophysicist, Our Final Century. (American readers note: the silly title stateside is Our Final Hour. Rees is making an argument about the 21st century.)
Point is: the crossover from informed smart S and T opinion to, as it were, the public domain, is not a simple, logical progression. It occurs (cf. Thomas Kuhn and his evergreen prescience) in a jump. Just like the question, why did Europe decide to say no thank you to GMO food? The interface of heavy science research and widespread public sentiment is no easy thing to predict or manage. Next week I shall be at a conference of the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative on “stakeholder” attitudes to nano and the NNI’s latest strategic plan. People in general know and care little about these things. Then, all of a sudden, they care a good deal, whether they know or not.
Whatever other lessons we learn, the road from An Inconvenient Truth to Copenhagen went by way of some seriously short-sighted decision-making at the University of East Anglia. That may or may not have been where the wheels came loose. But as the 21st century presses ahead, the risk implications of public and political disinterest in science and emerging technologies get only greater.

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