Magazine | February 8, 2010, Issue

Two Inconvenient Canadians

The unlikely men who shook up global-warming science

In 2006, a major American climate scientist referred to them as “two Canadians.” He did not mean that very nicely. They are also known as “M&M,” “M/M,” and “the two M’s.” In the recently publicized e-mails of the Climatic Research Unit in Britain, one of those M’s is referred to as “a certain Canadian.” Across the CRU e-mails, both M’s are treated as objects of fear and loathing. You may wonder, Who are these monsters from Canada? They are Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick, and they are inconvenient to the men of the CRU: They have challenged the work of global-warming red-hots. And “Climategate,” as the scandal of the CRU e-mails has been called, has embarrassed the red-hots. They are on the defensive, for the first time since global warming became a going concern. And M&M are looking pretty good. McKitrick says that Climategate has brought “a loss of innocence”: about how the major climate scientists operate, about their devotion to scientific truth.

The Climatic Research Unit, ensconced at the University of East Anglia, feeds the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an arm of the United Nations. The IPCC is considered the ultimate authority on global warming (for better or worse). In 2001, the IPCC’s report featured a killer graphic: It was a graph, in fact, claiming to show the global temperature for the past millennium. From the year 1000 to about 1900, the line was relatively flat; then, from 1900 to 2000, there was a very sharp upswing. The graph looked like a hockey stick, and came to be known as just that: the “hockey-stick graph.” It was the work of a team headed by Michael Mann, then of the Uni­versity of Virginia, now of Pennsylvania State University. These men are allied with the CRU. Such scientists are known, collectively and cozily, as “the climate community.”

The graph in question was not only a hockey stick, but a smoking gun, as people saw it: proof positive of man-made global warming. The stick went around the world, impressing and alarming people in all corners. It was featured in endless government reports, on newscasts, on posters. Al Gore used it in his Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth. The hockey stick became an icon, a symbol of global warming, along with the polar bear stranded on an ice floe. And the symbol was accompanied by a “soundbite,” as Stephen McIntyre says — a bite taken from the IPCC report: “It is . . . likely that, in the Northern Hemisphere, the 1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year” during the past thousand years. Nineteen ninety-eight as the warmest year: That, along with the hockey blade — the graph’s sharp upswing — concentrated the mind.

In due course, Al Gore and the IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize, “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change,” said the committee, “and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” Man-made global warming became accepted by almost all right-thinkers. To dispute it was to dispute the roundness of the earth, or its perpetual trek around the sun. The science was settled; there was to be no more discussion.

In truth, the science was not quite settled. The hockey stick had been called into grave question by those two inconvenient Canadians. When McIntyre first saw the graph, his curiosity was piqued. He had spent his career in mineral exploration, and had witnessed his share of spectacular claims. Dot-com rackets would forecast big profits, using hockey sticks. Most of the time, the forecasts proved bogus. It was necessary to examine the raw data behind a hockey stick. McIntyre had never even heard of the IPCC — how many of us had? — but he was determined to look into its stick. And he was astonished to discover something: No one had challenged that stick, had put it to the test. Was the world to accept the IPCC’s claims about global warming, and alter its economies accordingly, without due diligence?

#page#McIntyre would perform this due diligence himself — and the mineral-exploration man had some skills: He had math in his background, having studied the subject at the University of Toronto. He was offered Ph.D. scholarships in mathematical economics by Harvard and MIT. One of those offers came personally from Paul Samuelson, the late MIT economist. But McIntyre went a different route, accepting a Commonwealth Scholarship to Oxford, where he studied philosophy, politics, and economics. He overlapped with Bill Clinton, possibly even played rugby against him, he says. And he has long liked to explore intellectual byways. When he was interested in archeology, he taught himself “a bit of Assyrian cuneiform,” as he puts it, and also taught himself “a bit of German,” for the purpose of reading relevant articles in that language. This kind of activity may not be commonplace — but “there are no rules against it,” as he notes.

In 2003, he linked up with Ross McKitrick, an economist at the University of Guelph, west of Toronto. McKitrick had co-authored a book called “Taken by Storm: The Troubled Science, Policy and Politics of Global Warming.” Together, the two M’s formed a kind of Team B, doing a rigorous check or audit of the “A” team’s work. McKitrick points out that this is perfectly normal, even mandatory, in business — in the engineering fields, for example. You don’t attempt to put a new plane in the air, or a new space shuttle, without a serious Team B — or C or D — effort. Shouldn’t the U.N.’s climate panel have the soundest information possible, before spooking the world with a hockey stick? Shouldn’t the world’s governments be on the soundest footing possible before spending billions and upsetting their arrangements?

Team A was not especially grateful for M&M’s work, to put it mildly. They resented the Canadians as amateurs and interlopers and spoilers. They were not inclined to share data, or discuss theories, or debate. They circled the wagons tightly and hotly. A referee for Nature magazine said, “I am particularly unimpressed by [this team’s] style of ‘shouting louder and longer so they must be right.’” In one of those publicized e-mails, a CRU scientist had this to say about a member of the team: “His air of papal infallibility is really quite nauseating at times.” Many others, over the decade, have suffered the same nausea.

Along the way, M&M attracted some support. When they submitted a paper to Geophysical Research Letters, a referee told the journal, “I urge you not to shy away from this paper because of its potential controversy. The whole field of global warming is currently suffering from the fact that it has become politicized. Science really depends for its success on an open dialogue.” GRL published the paper (“Hockey Sticks, Prin­cipal Components, and Spurious Significance”). A Dutch journal, Natuurwetenschap & Techniek, was originally skeptical of M&M, thinking they needed a dismissal. On investigation, however, N&T wound up respectful and supportive. In 2005, Congress asked the National Academy of Sciences to look into the controversy. Once the report was issued, both sides claimed victory. M&M said that the NAS had confirmed them, in all substantive points — but that they had lost the “spin war,” which is to say, the war for media (and therefore public) support. Another panel, headed by the statistician Edward Wegman, had a look: and came down very hard on the hockey-stickers, or “hockey team,” as they are sometimes called. Michael Mann, the team leader, issued a statement saying that the Wegman panel “simply uncritically parrots claims by two Canadians (an economist and an oil industry consultant).” (Actually, McIntyre is in minerals, but “oil” sounds worse.)

The economist and the consultant have persevered, despite slights and snubs. At one point, in response to a data request, a member of the hockey team said to McIntyre, “The climate community has moved on — so should you.” This is quite typical, says the other M, McKitrick. “When you point to a study of theirs that is flawed, they say, ‘We’ve moved on,’ or appeal to some nebulous big picture. They say, ‘Okay, this one study may be flawed, but that really doesn’t matter, because we have all this other evidence.’” And on it goes. Some of the battling is waged on two prominent websites. Mann launched RealClimate.org — “Climate science from climate scientists” — which dumped heavily on M&M. In response, McIntyre launched ClimateAudit.org.

#page#In mid-November 2009 came that explosion in the “climate community,” and in the world at large: the CRU e-mails, Climategate. Someone — either a computer hacker or a disgruntled, whistleblowing insider — made available more than a thousand e-mails, from the chieftains of climatology. And those e-mails reveal a tawdry world of stonewalling, dissembling, covering up, scheming, defaming, and unprofessionalism at large. They show a determination to present one claim, no matter what: and that claim is man-made global warming, requiring dramatic global action. Honest global-warming believers and activists are shaken by what the e-mails reveal; others manage to glide on.

In an article for The Weekly Standard, Steven F. Hayward pointed out the following: “After 2003 the CRU crew became obsessed with McIntyre above all others” — above all other critics. “He appears in 105 of the emails by name (in some others, he’s referred to as ‘a certain Canadian’), usually with a tone of resentment and contempt.” The head of the CRU, Phil Jones, wrote to Michael Mann, “Don’t leave stuff lying around on ftp sites [File Transfer Protocol sites] — you never know who is trawling them. The two MMs [sic] have been after the CRU station data for years. If they ever hear there is a Freedom of Information Act now in the UK, I think I’ll delete the file rather than send to anyone.” That is just a flavor of these e-mail communications.

McIntyre says that his first reaction to the e-mails was “one of exhaustion, not one of satisfaction.” He did not feel any sort of vindication or triumph. He had been through a lot, to challenge the hockey stick, to get a fair hearing. And, “at some level, you should be able to discuss statistical issues without being attacked personally. Even the simplest point seems to have occasioned tremendous ground warfare, with people being reluctant to concede anything.” McIntyre adds that he is old enough — has had “enough ups and downs” in life — not to be too affected, one way or the other. And “I didn’t take any particular satisfaction in seeing these guys run into trouble.” The second M, McKitrick, says that his first reaction was, “Nothing here surprises me” — because he had been working in this field for so long. But the e-mails were eye-opening to journalists, he says, some of whom were “shocked.” “They’ve been reporting the standard global-warming line for years, and I’ve learned in conver­sations with them that they had no idea that this group of scientists acted this way.” Hence, the “loss of innocence.” McKitrick says that Climategate “pried the lid off the process behind the IPCC reports and what goes on in journals, and forced people to realize that this is not a pure, rarefied search for truth” but “a very partisan and distorted process.” Reporters, he says, are more respectful to him now. Before, it was basically, “Why don’t you believe what all the world’s scientists are saying?” Now they are humbler, asking more intelligent questions.

McKitrick is not particularly worried about being on the minority side in the global-warming debate. For one thing, he says, he has “the privilege of being a tenured professor at a university.” And, as an economist, he has other fish to fry than global warming. But also, is his side really the minority one? McKitrick says that there are plenty of scientists and other well-informed people who are skeptical of the big IPCC claims. “I’m convinced that the numbers on our side, and the credentials on our side, are just as impressive as on the other side.” The problem is that the global-warming red-hots have the funding, the influence, and the media. They also tend to be in control of the professional societies and journals. They can claim to represent thousands and thousands of scientists. But are their pronouncements ever put to a vote of those multitudes of scientists? McKitrick makes a further point: Many scientists, in many disciplines or subdisciplines, have a finger in the climate-change pie. They tend to say, “In my own particular field” — be it sea ice or solar physics or what have you — “I don’t really see evidence for global warming. But I of course accept the consensus view.” This calls to mind one of (Robert) Conquest’s Laws: “Everyone is a conservative in his own field of expertise.”

#page#Some are with M&M, where the hockey stick and other points are concerned, but keep mum, so as not to bring trouble on themselves. “Government scientists are often in that position,” says McKitrick. “They have to keep their mouth shut.” McIntyre recalls attending a conference of the American Geophysical Union. He says that “two of the more eminent young scientists” told him of their admiration for his work. They said that, as far as they were concerned, he and McKitrick had smashed the hockey stick. But they were not prepared to go public.

Politics is never far from climate science, and we may ask about the Canadians’ politics. Are they right-wingers? McKitrick, in addition to being an econ prof at Guelph, is a senior fellow (unpaid) of the Fraser Institute, which is a free-market think tank. Some of his opponents like to make something of this. McKitrick says that, when they argue on any grounds other than substantive ones, they are conceding defeat. It is “their way of crying uncle.” As for McIntyre, he says that the only political donations he has made in the past 20 years have been to “an extremely left-wing municipal councilor in Toronto, who’s a friend of my wife’s.” He does not allow any political discussion at his blog. And he points out that “I live in downtown Toronto, which is a liberal city. I am not a red-meat-eating Midwestern Republican.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that, surely.) “I’m the same age and generation as Bill Clinton. I admire him.”

Have the M’s had any fun in this debate, as Davids taking on Goliaths? McKitrick says no, not really. “I wouldn’t ever choose this as a hobby or pastime. There has been a lot of stress.” He doesn’t take any pleasure in causing an intellectual opponent embarrassment. There is, in fact, a hint of weariness about him, of someone who just wishes that science could be discussed dispassionately, and conclusions arrived at civilly. McIntyre has the same wish, as we have seen. But he has a greater liking for combat. “I wouldn’t do what I’m doing if I didn’t like it,” he says. He has sacrificed a good deal of time and money to pursue the global-warming question: “I used to make money.” In recent years, not so much. But he forges ahead “because I’m interested” and because he considers his work a kind of public service.

McIntyre is loath to make any big claims about global warming. “I’m saying that they can’t know what they claim to know,” about a thousand years of temperature history. And the “they” refers to the IPCC/CRU crowd. Someone may come along with fresh data that make a hockey stick, says McIntyre — a right and defensible hockey stick. But, according to him, that has not happened. His partner, McKitrick, says that “you’ve got a range of data sets of varying levels of quality.” And the best data sets indicate the least amount of warming. He is for keeping an eye on the global temperature, and making adjustments in policy when needed — adjustments based on solid information and not merely model predictions.

The M’s are in a great tradition of scientific inquiry and enterprise. They saw a major claim, which was to shake up the world. And they were skeptical of this claim, or, at a minimum, curious. They went ahead and did some testing. And they have shaken up the world a bit themselves. Science is no respecter of persons. Whether you are a High Priest in the Church of Climatology or a head-scratching Canuck, the question is, Can you make it add up? And while science may be no respecter of persons, the two Canadians, in the wake of Climategate, are getting some new respect.

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