Monday, August 20, 2012

29 September 2011 – Climate Science Credibility


You may recall that, a couple of weeks back, I penned a panegyric on peer review based on the questionable practices of internal friendly review of scientific papers within the climate science community.  One of the examples I cited was the timeline for a warmist’s critique of a sceptical paper (R.W. Spencer and W.D. Braswell, “On the misdiagnosis of surface temperature feedbacks from variations in Earth’s radiant energy balance”, Remote Sensing, 2011, 3, 1603-1613).  The paper was received on 24 May 2011 and accepted for publication on 15 July, a lapse of only 7 weeks, a remarkably short turn-around time for a peer-reviewed journal.  The critique, however - Andrew E. Dessler, “Cloud variations and the Earth’s energy budget”, Geophys. Res. Lett., (2011) doi:10.1029/2011GL049236 - was received on 11 August and accepted on 29 August, a mere 18 days later, an illustration of the benefits of sympathetic viewpoints, if not intimate relationships, within the climate clique.

Well, the week before last the warmists managed to blow even THAT record out of the water.  The Spencer and Braswell paper has attracted another critique, this time from arch-warmist Kevin Trenberth (whose contribution to the Climategate emails included the lament that it was a travesty that climate scientists like himself “couldn’t account for the lack of warming”).  Entitled “Issues in establishing climate sensitivity in recent studies”, Trenberth’s comment - which at 6 pages is more than half as long as the Spencer-Braswell paper itself - was published on 16 September in GRL, after having been received and accepted on the same day (8 September; Note A).

Received and accepted on the same day.  Wow.  A turn-around time for the peer review of less than 24 hours.  That’s fast work.  Clearly certain parties enjoy privileged treatment in the peer review and publication process.

The question of peer review in federal science programmes came up again this week when the Office of the Inspector General of the US Environmental Protection Agency released a report highly critical of the EPA’s review process for the endangerment finding on greenhouse gases released in 2009.  The endangerment finding is the basis for the EPA’s proposed regulatory regime for greenhouse gases, which according to some estimates will cost American taxpayers between $300B and $400B a year in increased energy costs, and which according to the EPA will require an additional 230,000 employees and $21B to implement.  Whether these new regulations will ever be enforced is an open question, of course; earlier this month, Obama quashed an EPA move to tighten ozone regulation that would have forced the closure of dozens if not hundreds of coal-fired generating stations.  Although I can't imagine why he'd do that; I mean, wasn't a policy of bankrupting coal-fired electricity generators one of the key planks in Obama's campaign platform?

You can find the OIG report here, for your reading pleasure.

The key criticisms in the Inspector General’s report were that the EPA downplayed the endangerment finding as not being a “highly influential scientific assessment” despite the fact that it is expected to entail historically unprecedented compliance costs; did not adhere to internal processes (including guidelines for peer review) to ensure data quality; failed to address conflict of interest concerns with respect to peer reviewers; failed to rotate peer reviewers; failed to ensure adequate information access to peer review results; did not ensure a sufficiently transparent peer review process; did not produce supporting documentation to show the EPA made its determination on the validity of outside scientific information before disseminating that information; did not maintain documentation showing the chain of comments and responses between the EPA and peer reviewers; and did not independently assess alternative scientific viewpoints.  Instead, the EPA relied on the IPCC’s annual reports, and argued that “there was no evidence to show that alternative perspectives were not incorporated into the IPCC process”, as stellar an example of bureaucratic equivocation (and grammatically inscrutable double negatives) as I’ve ever seen.

Even without these obvious failings, the review process itself is questionable.  According to the EPA, the Technical Support Document (TSD) underlying the endangerment finding was peer reviewed by 12 “federal climate change experts”.  The OIG report criticized this process simply because one of the experts was also an EPA employee, breaching conflict of interest guidelines.  My problem, though, is that both that individual and the other 11 were all “federal climate change experts” who all worked for federal agencies, i.e. they were by definition scientists whose continued employment and research funding depends on perpetuation of the AGW thesis.  This is kind of like claiming that a papal bull was peer reviewed because the College of Cardinals looked it over and gave it a collective thumbs-up.  Seriously, if it’s a conflict of interest for an EPA employee to conduct the peer review, then how is it NOT a conflict of interest for other federal employees in exactly the same circumstances to review it?

The EPA excused the all-government review by arguing that “the TSD did not require an external peer review because the scientific assessments it relied upon had already been rigorously reviewed.”  In other words, in crafting an endangerment finding likely to result in the creation of a quarter of a million federal jobs (generally understood to not be a good thing in a time of skyrocketing deficits) and likely to cost the American taxpayer close to half a trillion dollars, the EPA’s scientific review process consisted of “we can trust the IPCC because they did an AWESOME job and their science is totally peer-reviewed”.

Look, there are two big problems here.  The first, obviously, is that the government of the most scientifically advanced country on Earth has outsourced its responsibility to conduct good science on a matter of supreme importance to the national interest to a highly politicized, international quasi-scientific body that has exactly zero responsibility or accountability to the US taxpayer.  By any measure, that’s gross negligence.  The second problem is that due to political pressure to enact the Obama Administration’s anti-fossil fuel, pro-"green power" agenda, the time-tested, reasonable and responsible procedures designed to ensure the best possible science were run over roughshod.  In a way, Americans should be thankful for their current financial woes; had it not been for the collapsing US economy and Obama’s imploding poll numbers, he might have been able to get away with dumping half a trillion in new, pointless taxes on the US economy. 

Did I say “pointless”?  Yeah, I did.  Don’t take my word for it, though; let’s consider what Obama’s EPA Administrator, Lisa Jackson, said in testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on 7 July 2009:

“U.S. action alone will not impact world CO2 levels.” (Note B)

$400,000,000,000 and 230,000 new EPA carbon dioxide-sniffing bureaucrats is a pretty high price to pay for “no impact on world CO2 levels”.  What, then, is the purpose of the endangerment finding and the consequent regulatory process?  Other than perhaps to ensure that Obama keeps his campaign promise to bankrupt coal-fired electricity producers?  Reconciling the cognitive dissonance in this equation must take a special sort of mind, because it’s beyond me.

Friends, I don’t mean to suggest that sound, transparent, impartial peer review is the answer to all of the world’s ills.  I certainly don’t mean to suggest that it can stop an ideologically-motivated political juggernaut like Obama’s apparent determination to comprehensively kneecap the US energy sector.  But what it CAN do is deny the zealots the ability to claim that their position is grounded in sound science.  The manner in which (and the extent to which) the EPA had to do violence to the peer review process in order to push its endangerment finding demonstrates that even the most outrageously unscientific nonsense can easily “move forward” when the peer review process is deliberately and systematically subverted by bureaucrats working to ensure that one viewpoint - the politically preferred viewpoint - is heard, and that all contrarian viewpoints are ruthlessly suppressed.

Scientists everywhere need to be constantly on the alert for attempts to undermine the methodology that underwrites our integrity - and, as the EPA case demonstrates, it’s especially relevant for scientists who work in federal science organizations.  Eternal vigilance is the price of scientific credibility; it's as simple as that.