The private emails and logs leaked last month from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia can’t tell us whether industrial activity is really heating the earth’s atmosphere and endangering civilization. But they have settled the identity of the Great Satan of climate science. Torontonian Stephen McIntyre, a gentle, persistent amateur who had no credentials in applied science before stepping into the global warming debate in 2003, is mentioned more than 100 times.
In the emails, leading climate researchers dismiss him as a capitalist hireling or a hapless “bozo,” and argue about the relative merits of ignoring him versus counterattacking him, even as others acknowledge that his criticisms have merit and imitate his use of the Web as a venue for hyper-detailed scientific discussion. At one point in 2005, CRU director Phil Jones, now under suspension, ponders the possibility that McIntyre might use U.K. freedom-of-information laws to obtain raw weather-station data compiled by the CRU. He grumbles: “I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.” The overall impression is that of 100 elephants stampeding in confusion and panic around a mouse.
The political stakes are now so high when it comes to the “Climategate” scandal, and motives are being questioned so loudly on both sides, that few are noticing the remarkable story at the heart of it all: a 62-year-old mining executive and squash enthusiast has, for better or worse, found his way into the centre of a major scientific melée—almost by accident—and been able to make legitimate contributions.
McIntyre first became notorious in 2003 for his statistical critique, co-authored with economist Ross McKitrick, of the “hockey stick graph” that showed global temperatures rocketing upward in the 20th century. The hockey stick, featured in the 2001 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, had a profound influence on policy worldwide, and played a starring role in presentations like Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The McIntyre-McKitrick critique called attention to uncertainties in its temperature reconstructions dating back before 1600, to certain problems with dendrochronology (the use of tree rings to estimate past temperatures), and to issues with the statistical calculations underlying the hockey stick. Some climatologists insist that the graph tells the same story when you correct for all this, but much of the critique is now accepted, and the hockey stick, whose weaknesses are better understood, has itself become a somewhat inconvenient distraction for climatologists and environmentalists.
Meanwhile, McIntyre, working alone, has gone on to score further critical points. In 2007, he caught a mistake in the reporting of U.S. surface temperatures by NASA’s Goddard Institute that was quickly acknowledged, with thanks, and corrected. (NASA’s gracious manner contrasts sharply with the attitudes displayed behind the scenes at the CRU.)
The truth is that McIntyre, 62, little resembles the caricature of a wild-eyed climate-change “denier.” He is scrupulous about focusing his criticism on statistical procedures and disclosure practices. He is polite to, and about, climate scientists. He refuses to make grand categorical statements of the “Global warming is just commie horse puckey” type, preferring to remain agnostic, and he discourages such talk on his website, Climate Audit.
When reached for an interview, he interrupts briefly to turn down a request to appear on BBC television about the exploding “Climategate” scandal. “Anything I say now would just be piling on,” he remarks, noting that he has no interest in helping the media stage a drama of personalities. Given the opportunity of a lifetime to gloat over those who referred to him as a “moron” and “Mr. I’m Not Entirely There In The Head,” he demurs.
Close observers of the climate wars recognize that the small group of scientists who first advanced the case for urgent concern over global warming were ill-prepared for the appearance of a critic like McIntyre. Spanish paleoclimatologist Eduardo Zorita of Germany’s GKSS Research Centre, who has clashed at times with both McIntyre and the climate-research elite, says that “in the realm of science, it doesn’t really matter by whom and why a study is criticized. It only counts whether or not the criticism is reasonably well-founded, is logical, and relevant for the final results.”
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