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Harrabin's Notes: Questions for an inquiry

In his regular column, the BBC's environment analyst, Roger Harrabin, looks at the questions which could be asked by an inquiry into stolen climate e-mails from the University of East Anglia.

CLIMATE E-MAILS: INQUIRY QUESTIONS

Keyboard (EyeWire)
UEA is set to announce details of its inquiry into the stolen e-mails

What will be the purpose or purposes of the University of East Anglia (UEA) inquiry into the stolen e-mails from its Climatic Research Unit (CRU), and who will be its chair?

We should know in the next couple of days. But how much detail will we know? And how far has the university considered the significance of the e-mail affair on climate science in general as well as public and political opinion of that science?

I've tried to speak to the people at UEA who are making the key decisions on the inquiry, but haven't managed to.

So I've jotted down a few questions they might be likely to face when they announce their decisions.

Mainstream scientists may feel that many of these questions hand far too much power to climate sceptics, some of whom have tried to discredit them and their work - by fair means or foul.

But the inquiry will need to be supported by the global public in a wired world. So it will need to strive as far as possible to avoid reproach in the blogosphere. Here are some questions:

1 - What is the purpose of the inquiry? Is it to reach a judgment on the ethical conduct of the scientists involved, or on whether their activities affected the science on which the Copenhagen deal is being forged. Or both?

Professor Phil Jones, the researcher at the heart of the e-mail affair, insists that his science is clean. And most scientists I have spoken to say that if any potential anomalies in the CRU data were to be uncovered they probably wouldn't prove significant because that data set is almost identical to other ones.

But the public will want to see both issues - science and ethics - fully addressed.

2 - How will UEA ensure that its chairperson is acceptable to commentators and the public, as well as to the mainstream scientists convinced of the risks posed by climate change and angry that media attention is being diverted by an apparent sabotage campaign?

Will the university find a way of seeking the opinion of key sceptics like Lord Lawson before they name the chair? My guess is that if key players like Lord Lawson don't support the chair's independence, the inquiry will be compromised.

How will the inquiry command international respect? Will there be an international element - perhaps from the US?

3 - Can UEA allow the chair to determine (with the university's agreement) the remit of the inquiry and to nominate other members of the inquiry panel? If UEA tries to control the remit, sceptics won't accept it.

4 - Will the university ask for the inquiry to report in a specific time period?

5 - Will the inquiry have to consider all aspects at once, or report in stages? Under the two-stage scenario, stage one might examine the key scientific question. This is important because politicians preparing to ratify any Copenhagen deal will be asked by their publics to ensure that the assessment of the risks of climate change doesn't need to be re-visited because of the CRU affair.

Stage two of the inquiry might ask broader questions about the peer review process and about procedures for dealing with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This has been discussed in my earlier column. Stage two is very important, but in my view it's not as urgent as stage one.

6 - How will the inquiry be run? They are expensive and need staff. Who will pay and will the funders be trusted by the public? Some bloggers appear not to trust anyone with anything, but they do not form the full court of public opinion.

7 - How will the inquiry team communicate with the public? This is a key issue. Any chair who turns up in a UEA hall for his/her press conferences will be described by sceptics as a patsy. But if communications are not to be arranged through the university, then who will do it?

This is a scary time for the people running UEA. There are big risks for them in floating the inquiry into total independence. But in my view, the risks of not doing it are far greater for the world of science and climate policy.

The timetable here is important. For the US climate bill to pass in its current form, it arguably needs to get through the Senate by June.

Republican climate sceptics in the Senate will demand conclusions from any inquiry before they agree to sign off any bill. They will in all likelihood attempt to block the bill anyway - but it will be embarrassing for UEA if the e-mails are cited as a cause for delay.

Some senators are unlikely to accept any findings if they don't agree with their pre-determined view. But unless the UEA inquiry is demonstrably impartial it will fail, and a new fully independent enquiry will almost certainly have to be formed. That process will take us beyond June. That's why the details of UEA's announcement this week is so crucial.



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