A Climate Sceptic in the Court of Environmentalism

Almost a decade ago (December, 2011) I was viciously outed. My life changed irrevocably and I succumbed to the trauma of close-combat blogging. It was amusing to many that I had sung from a different hymn sheet at one of the hearts of climate alarmist manufacture. Climategate had taken place two years earlier and although I was entangled in its outcomes, my minor role had previously gone unnoticed. Yet that was to change.

Since this article is about me, dear reader, you may dismiss it as solely being self-aggrandisement, boosting my role in the bathos of Climategate. However, my motives are pure. In the heat of a Bishop Hill blog frenzy nine plus years ago I tried to steer a course that gave weight to the “other side” – the CRU henchmen (and women), the UEA Vice Chancellor Ed Acton and his “toadies”, and the numerous totally innocent UEA small people swamped by the tsunami of hate and vituperation that Climategate created. But I failed spectacularly. I became a Marmite Man, publicly reviled for refusing to further criticise my climate-researching colleagues for their “crimes”, yet praised by others for my role of questioning the climate consensus to undergraduate students. The heat of the exchanges, which included calls for UEA to be closed down root and branch, led “the Bish” to post a request for greater calmness in the exchanges, something I think was unique.

So why, having drawn attention to the deficiencies in the climate science of my colleagues at UEA, did I step up to the plate at Bishop Hill to 1) defend my university, 2) defend my School of Environmental Sciences (within which the Climatic Research Unit was sited) and 3) refuse to further criticise my CRU colleagues for their activities? Answers to these questions I believe are still of interest and, at the risk of stirring the pot again, are my reason for this, and subsequent articles. I will begin with my defence of the teaching in the University and its (then) almost unique School of Environmental Science and how a roughneck geologist became assimilated into this den of potential wokeness.

A fish out of water?

I was not an obvious candidate for employment. Trained as a geologist I had worked for the ‘evil’ oil companies in North America and taught petroleum geology at a foremost hard-rock geology department in Canada (the University of Toronto). In 1989 I was back in the U.K. at UEA, feeding at the bosom of academic environmentalism. Reasons for this transhumance are irrelevant. However I was on “soft money” and had heard reports of a founding professor of the Environmental Science School expressing views to the effect that “The last thing the School needs is a petroleum geologist”.

So I tried to make myself indispensable to the teaching programme. Eventually I taught on eight different course units ranging from a single lecture on salt lake biotas for an ecology module, to two weeks on the physics of fluid flow in porous media (in a course unit on groundwater and hydrogeology), and covered geothermal energy in a module devoted to renewables. Later, after my wife contracted cancer, I had to take over her teaching and gained access to the first-year course module that all environmental science and ecology undergraduates took. There I instigated my reign of terror upon CRU with my single lecture each year presenting alternative evidence pertinent to climate change. Later I started an interdisciplinary module on Fossil Fuels, which I believe caused even further grief within CRU.

At this point I feel compelled to praise a large part of the staff at ENV for the considerable support I was given for my teaching of alternative facts and opinions about climate change – even immediately after Climategate. I was told that it was good for our budding undergraduates to be exposed to alternative views and was actively encouraged to present them. I do not know of another university that did the same – most were busy pushing climate change scare stories to the max. I, in contrast, taught in a University that lived up to its motto – “Do different”.

Diversity starts in the classroom

Within six months of arrival within ENV I knew that I no longer wished to teach or do research within a geology-only department. I had adapted to life within a multidisciplinary department, or been assimilated within it (take your pick). I found myself in the company of people of completely different outlook, experience and concerns to my own and revelled in it. If I had a problem understanding ENSO events, or why malaria might be worse in a warmer world (I don’t think it will) I could ask a colleague who was well versed in the topic, and sometimes an expert in it. I had access to fellow geologists, to geophysicists, ecologists, meteorologists, oceanographers, climate scientists, statisticians, epidemiologists and mathematicians, but also to those versed in environmental politics and economics.  

The diversity of the School was further stretched by cooperation with other schools leading to joint degree programs and joint appointments. Chief amongst them was cooperation with the School of Biology with a degree in Ecology, and, in an inspired move, cooperation with the School of International Development. The range of subjects taught within ENV was so broad that instead of the usual single external examiner to adjudicate final exam placements, we needed four.

Graduates to be proud of 

It might be surmised that such a diverse department couldn’t possibly produce the specialists capable of understanding let alone contributing to the solving of environmental problems. In fact the School’s rationale was the opposite: that these problems needed people with an interdisciplinary outlook. Assertions by the misinformed commonly were that our graduates would not be properly equipped, mentioning their presumed lack of knowledge of mathematics and statistics. Yet this is far from the truth.  A full module upon statistics was given to all first-year students by our epidemiologists and this was tough. Mathematics was taught at various levels varying from a basic course for those without GCSE mathematics (usually non-scientists) to a first year module in the School of Mathematics for those with appropriate A-levels. All students were stretched and all considered this to be a major hurdle to their advancement into the glories of their chosen sciences. This together with introductions to new subject areas – geosciences and social sciences, made their first year programmes rigorous and to them, difficult. Our external examiners each year would state that our best students were the equivalent to their best students in their single subject departments. Furthermore our “average” student was considerably better than theirs. We had almost no tail.  We also occasionally had students who were, there is no other word for it, awesome.

Based upon comparison with applicants to other UEA science schools and final degree results, we understood that our undergraduates were of much higher quality, and came from a wider catchment area than normally would have applied to such a small and provincial university. There were two types: those who were genuinely concerned with environmental matters (some of whom were out and out tree huggers) and another tranche who loved the different science subjects they had taken at A-level and didn’t want to focus upon just one of them. This type of student recognised that taking an environmental science degree enabled them to defer making a choice between them. Of course, most had no previous contact with the geosciences, and many students were eventually attracted to them, making their science-choice decision even more difficult.  

Colleagues to be proud of 

All assessed work, counting towards final degree standings, was rigorously second-marked. This commonly necessitated second marking in areas outside one’s area of expertise. As a result, ENV staff became well versed in other areas of the School, and adept at assessing work done in these other subject areas.

This familiarity with much of the diverse teaching programme was also encouraged by our mentoring system. All assessed work of advisees was returned to students via a member of the teaching staff acting as an advisor. Good advisors read through this returned work in order to offer comments, advice and/or encouragement even though the work could be in a completely different subject area to one’s own.

I mention these details because they relate to a huge contrast I experienced when coming from the University of Toronto where student monitoring and rigorous checking of marking were minimal. There I set and marked exam questions on my own. There was no checking by any other person and I learned little of what other staff were doing. The situation at ENV was so, so different; so much more caring, so much better.

The separation of CRU from the rest of the School meant that I had very little knowledge of them and little contact. As far as I could see, there was no way CRU could absorb the School ethos. To me they really were separate.

Birth of a Blogging Marmite Man  

As you will have gathered I felt extremely privileged  to be associated with both UEA and its School of Environmental Sciences. This feeling of being part of a first-class School, teaching fabulous undergraduates and caring for them, even though it was set within a rather small university commonly disparaging labelled as being third-class, this feeling never left me, and if anything grew over time. All my ships had come home. Even though the School itself in 2009 had relatively little contact with the shenanigans of the Climatic Research Unit, Climategate came as a profound shock and the fallout from it, with critics making no distinction between the Climatic Research Unit and the School of Environmental Science and calling for their destruction, even the closure of the entire University, caused heartache. Two years later with Climategate 2, my exposure, and a second concerted attack upon the School and University, I felt it necessary to rise in their defence, becoming a Marmite Man. In the process I slowly, and sometimes painfully, learned the “skills” of a blogger.

Next time I will deal with my relations with CRU and why I felt it unnecessary to further their considerable distress as a result of the first two Climategate revelations.

6 Comments

  1. As a student of UEA BIO I had quite a bit of truck with ENV, but my first loyalty was to “my” school. The workshop of ENV was legendary and quite handy (they made me an “auger”, anyway, a device for planting pitfall traps, more like the bulb planters you can get these days, in the third year). I also used the Tullgren funnel machine in the shady but fascinating basement. I well remember one practical in ENV (presumably ENV101) when us BIO ecology students were confronted by a series of benches. There was a rock on each. We were invited to go around and identify the rocks. This was rather difficult for us, having only rudimentary geology knowledge. I think the ENV students were doing parallel courses that stood them in better stead. (I probably picked out granite, though could not name the minerals.)

    As for CRU, my abiding memory is that they refused me met data when I was embarking on my PhD, owing to the licensing conditions. Thus I had to pay the Met Office for it out of my grant or copy it manually (£1500 to have it delivered, or a couple of weeks copying and typing it in: we went for the latter and bought a computer). (I think at the time the Met Office had received instruction to become more commercial. Doing so meant putting a handbrake on science.)

    Regarding the leak/hack, I actually thought the response was overblown. My argument was quite simple. If you trawl through anyone’s inbox, you will find stuff that could be used to start a witch hunt. The name UEA has now become a byword for corruption for some sceptics, even if they can’t remember exactly what it is called. UAE? East Anglia U? They don’t seem to quite know, but they know it is the heart of darkness.

    I look forwards to reading the next part…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I appreciate this article because I think it serves as a timely reminder that this is not an anti-science blog. And sometimes one has to make a stand against the binary arguments, even though this can attract criticism from both sides.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. To my shame, I’d never heard of UEA before the Climategate shenanigans, which had the potential to tar the whole institution with the faults of one department – and to many people patently did just that. So this is a useful and balanced piece, IMO, and as John says, a useful corrective to the idea that everything is binary.

    Like

  4. JIT

     If you trawl through anyone’s inbox, you will find stuff that could be used to start a witch hunt.

    You can trawl through mine, but you won’t find me rejoicing that some obscure person who disagrees with me is dead. Nor any calls to get editors fired or destroy data.

    As I remember it, the anger and disgust wasn’t aimed at UEA until they started their monstrous coverup. The offender was quite clearly Phil Jones and his fellow members of the hockey team in the USA. (He had no need to send emails to his colleagues in the tiny climate unit.) Criticism of UEA was probably either standard university snobbery (Oxbridge – Russell Group – redbrick nyah nyah nyah) or designed to avoid libel actions (and later, to avoid driving poor Phil over the edge.)

    Like

  5. interesting post Alan thanks, look forward to the next bit.

    what JIT said above – (I think at the time the Met Office had received instruction to become more commercial. Doing so meant putting a handbrake on science.)

    seem to remember warwick hughes was the first to raise questions/ask for data about temp with Phil saying “why should…” you know the rest – “https://www.warwickhughes.com/blog/?p=204”
    the bbc (science team) at the time said FOI was a bad thing as it would “stop scientists doing what they do (or something like that)

    fast forward to today & FOI is the BBC & others best source of info (strange days)

    Like

  6. Geoff, you may be correct that initially the scorn was not directed at the School of Environmental Sciences or the University. Instead it was focussed upon CRU’s disposal of the raw data (so that others could not replicate CRU’s main products, or out of shear stupidity) and upon the media that tried to bury the story as “scientists squabbling”. The important fact from my viewpoint was that ENV, and shortly afterwards the University administration, were immediately fearful that they would become embroiled in the Climategate scandal and be blamed. ENV was not immediately distinguishable from CRU and many (including some Cliscep Contributors) cast equal blame. Unfortunately some ENV staff with CRU connections appeared in the media supporting CRU, adding to this perceived connection. As it also transpired, the University made exactly the wrong moves, thereby embroiling themselves. I will be covering this aspect (from my limited viewpoint) in a later article, where I will make the case that UEA was not exactly a free agent and others were pulling strings. Watch this space.

    Like

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