Mike Hulme on the impacts of “climategate”


Mike Hulme has an editorial in the Guardian about “climategate”. It is a thoughtful piece, where he tries to take some distance from the events and see what impact they’ve had, focusing mostly on the positive:

I believe there have been major shifts in how climate science is conducted, how the climate debate is framed and how climate policy is being formed. And I believe “climategate” played a role in all three.

How climate science is conducted

As to the first, “climategate” may indeed have spurred the inevitable transition to more open source computer code and increased transparency. With the increased public and political interest, it is only natural to expect increased openness and transparency, to the extent possible and desired by scientists themselves (that last addition is not unimportant). The hope is that this could aid in the understanding of and respect for science, though that may be a little naive.

Efforts to re-examine the surface temperature record don’t signify a major shift in how climate science is conducted; they are replication exercises which, unsurprisingly, come to pretty much the same results as CRU or GISS do.  This seems merely a response to the misplaced decrease in trust in the temperature record. Overall, I don’t think the way climate science is conducted has changed dramatically as a result of this affair. It probably made a lot of scientists more afraid to speak out or more defensive when they do, neither of which is a good thing. That is the most significant impact as I see it.

How the climate debate is framed

Second, there has been a re-framing of climate change. The simple linear frame of “here’s the consensus science, now let’s make climate policy” has lost out to the more ambiguous frame: “What combination of contested political values, diverse human ideals and emergent scientific evidence can drive climate policy?”

The ‘ambiguous frame’ as Hulme calls it makes a lot of sense, and it always has. Does that signify a change? I don’t think so. Isn’t it common wisdom that there is more than just science that influences what policies are enacted? Consider e.g. this quote from the late Steve Schneider via mail to Andy Revkin:

To be risk averse is good policy in my VALUE SYSTEM — and we always must admit that how to take risks — with climate damages or costs of mitigation/adaptation — is not science but world views and risk aversion philosophy.

And as I wrote in a comment at the polarization and ideology thread:

One’s value system and circumstances influence how this risk is perceived. (…) How do you value the future vs the current (encapsulated in the discount rate), how is your sense of responsibility vs freedom, how do you weigh small probability – high impact events, those are the issues there, and they are inherently tied to one’s value system.


The events of the past year have finally buried the notion that scientific predictions about future climate change can be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.

This is puzzling to me, as it seems to imply a straightforward relation between scientific certainty and policy making, whereas he just made the obviously correct point that there are other things that influence this relation. Update: I think I misinterpreted what Hulme said. Even if the science were 100% certain (which it will never be of course, by its very nature), it would still not ‘force’ a particular policy, exactly because contested values and human ideals will still enter the picture of decision making.

In effect, the big picture of what we know is clear, at least as to the ‘needed’ direction and thrust of policies (paraphrasing Herman Daly). But this direction and thrust apparently clashes with the values and ideals of a not unimportant segment of society.

The increased polarization between supporters of science and contrarians over the past year did probably contribute to putting this ‘ambiguous frame’ more into focus:

The meta-framing of climate change has therefore moved from being bi-polar – that either the scientific evidence is strong enough for action or else it is too weak for action – to being multi-polar – that narratives of climate change mobilise widely differing values which can’t be homogenised through appeals to science.

Very true.

How climate policy is being formed

Hulme’s third point, the lack of faith in reaching a global agreement on emission reductions, has much more to do with the failure of Copenhagen than with “climategate”, I think. During CoP 15 in Copenhagen, the overhyped expectations collided with the harsh reality of nations thinking mostly about their own short to medium term self interest. This classic tragedy of the commons on a global scale proved much too viscous to be easily solved.

Hulme argues that

with scientific uncertainties and complexities about the future proliferating (…) further policy fragmentation around climate change is inevitable.

Here again, Hulme seems to suggest that scientific uncertainty is the primary cause for the differences in opinion about the policy direction, in apparent contradiction to him stating earlier that contested values and ideals are also important. Is lack of scientific certainty really the limiting factor in reaching political agreement? I don’t think so. Policy fragmentation will be inevitable because people will continue to have different values and ideals and live in different circumstances, not because of scientific uncertainty (which concern the details rather than the big picture anyway).

Hulme continues:

But if such fragmentation reflects the plural, partial and provisional knowledge humans possess about the future then climate policy-making will better reflect reality. And that, I think, may be no bad thing.

Here I’ll quote a comment by Lcarey over at CaS, which captures my take quite well:

My conclusion is a little different.  IF the prevailing conclusions in a number of related fields within climate science are broadly correct, then humanity faces a global scale problem beyond the power of any given nation or small group of nations to address [except perhaps by geoengineering as a risky bandage-type strategy. BV].   In that case “fragmentation” translates into “pursuing our own short term interest, and not doing anything of great significance regarding CO2 emissions anytime soon”, which translates into “we’re screwed”

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10 Responses to “Mike Hulme on the impacts of “climategate””

  1. Paul Kelly Says:

    “… it seems to imply a straightforward relation between scientific certainty and policy making, whereas he just made the obviously correct point that there are other things that influence this relation.”

    I read it as here are all the salient influences; and therefore, scientific predictions about future climate change cannot be certain or precise enough to force global policy-making.

  2. Rocco Says:


    I’d like some of the stuff he’s smoking.

  3. Sou Says:

    The whole point is that what we do or don’t do now will affect the future. If we do nothing different to now, we’re screwed. If we cut emissions, we might be a bit less screwed.

    The policy issues are not about whether or not we need to cut emissions – they are about the way we cut emissions, and how we share the cost of mitigation and adaptation, around the world. Most of this is less about values or even politics than logistics, practicality, feasibility and likelihood of success.

    In future, there may well be differences in how governments and the public deal with those who attempted to stop any slowing of climate change. Various approaches may demonstrate differences in ‘values’. The more primitive will probably opt for lynching.

    BTW – governments almost always make decisions in the absence of 100% certainty. The actions by governments and the rest of us affect the future. (Eg many people quote Y2K as a non-event. It was only a non-event because action was taken to prevent major problems.)

  4. Bart Says:


    You’re right, I think I misread what Hulme meant. I updated the post to reflect that. Later on though, he does seem to ‘credit’ uncertainty with a very large influence on policy fragmentation.

  5. dhogaza Says:

    As to the first, “climategate” may indeed have spurred the inevitable transition to more open source computer code and increased transparency

    “spurred the inevitable transition” sounds as though Hulme thinks Climategate served to *start* the transition. If you mean “spurred” as in “sped it up”, you might have a case, but it’s still a weak case other than the one dataset used by CRU that caused so much excitement among the McI’s of the world.

    It’s been an ongoing evolution, and as far as that 5% or so of the data that the CRU FOI kerfuffle was focused on, CRU had been working on getting permission to release that data for about a year before Climategate.

    GISS Model E, GISTemp, and the source to many other bits of software were available long before Climategate. All of the data used by GISS was available, and indeed you could get DVDs with digital scans of the original data sheets (yes, paper) in the global temp data archives long before Climategate (you could – and can – see sample online for free if you don’t believe me). That for those who don’t trust any of the post-observation processing and *really* want to get to the “data”.

    One could go on for a long time, and in fact, RC responded by posting lists of data, source code etc that HAD BEEN and ARE freely available online.

    I’ll tell you what “spurred the inevitable transition”, because I know what made the transition inevitable:

    The relentless decrease over time of the cost of computer equipment and bandwidth and the consequential widespread use of same by the public and scientists.

    Remember, the web was invented by someone trying to make the sharing of scientific data, papers, etc over the recently (at the time) rapid increase in spread of the internet and the bandwidth available over it. Something that researchers who hadn’t bothered to learn FTP and other more primitive ways of moving data around and who didn’t want to be bothered.

    And of course the rise of modern search engines (in large part an inevitable consequence of increasing computer power at decreasing cost) makes finding that data by laypeople and scientists alike orders of magnitude easier.

  6. Steve Fitzpatrick Says:

    “IF the prevailing conclusions in a number of related fields within climate science are broadly correct”

    A very appropriate use of capital letters. ;-)

  7. Bart Says:


    Those were my words.

    Steve F,

    The capital letters were used as such by lcarey; I just quoted him verbatim (except for having corrected one typo).

  8. Heraclitus Says:

    Bart, I think you are generous to Hulme in calling this a thoughtful piece – I found it somewhat disingenuous. I know you say he was focusing on the positives but it still seems questionable that he should ignore the real story of climategate, the manipulation of the media and the exaggerations that swamped any legitimate criticisms.

    Maybe you are right to have changed your interpretation of Hulme’s comment on scientific certainty and policy, but remember that this was an editorial in the main-stream media and there is little doubt that most readers would have understood it in the way your original comment suggested.

    I also think that Hulme underplay’s the extent to which the positive outcomes he describes were already emerging before climategate and fails to acknowledge that the same ends could have been achieved in a far more constructive manner, without falsely discrediting both individuals and institutions.

  9. G.L. Alston Says:

    Bart, you say —

    With the increased public and political interest, it is only natural to expect increased openness and transparency, to the extent possible and desired by scientists themselves (that last addition is not unimportant).

    Ummm… look, when scientists are accepting government cash to do their work, it belongs to the public and is open by definition. If this isn’t an acceptable working condition, the scientists in question need to seek other employment or cash input.

    Simply put, if I paid for the data, I’m free to look at it or do anything else I like, any time I want, and for any reason that pops into my head. Don’t like that? Don’t take my money.

    This isn’t necessarily limited to climate science, either, but certainly any sort of taxpayer funded science that is being used to drive policy needs to be EASILY accessible to the interested taxpayer. IF the taxpayers can find a problem with it (which is doubtful) then that problem needs to be addressed.

    I’m guessing that a LOT of skeptics/deniers are created unnecessarily by scientists who aren’t open — it looks like they’re hiding things (they are) and the skeptic/denier imputes wrongdoing from this. And even if wrongdoing isn’t imputed, certainly the notion that the science must be flawed or otherwise improper is. I’d say that 99% of the charge of wrongdoing vanishes the moment the data is accessible, which makes for a positive first blush perception rather than a negative one that becomes increasingly difficult to overcome.

    Doubt me? Just look at some of the right winger sites like PajamasMedia and focus on the climate threads; you will see a veritable echo chamber of conspiracy silliness that is initiated almost entirely by the inaccessibility of data and gets worse from there. Take away the charge of inaccessibility and make taxpayer funded code/data open, and the trigger mechanism for denier conspiracy charges becomes invalid.

    This (dealing with deniers) is a key thing that needs to happen, whether anyone likes oit or not. Deniers are voters. Government that overrides the voter always creates a backlash. Implement policy that isn’t the express wish of the majority, and the backlash will get ugly.

  10. adelady Says:

    “initiated almost entirely by the inaccessibility of data and gets worse from there”

    What data is inaccessible?

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