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Review - The Climate Files - Fred Pearce


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Books take a long time in production. A typical book will take at least a year to write, then another year from being submitted to the publisher to hitting the shops. So when a book comes out much quicker than this, you have to be a little suspicious of the quality of the content.

The Climate Files has, without doubt, been rushed out. It tells the story of the leak of emails and other materials from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit (CRU) that has proved such fruitful fodder for those who want to attack the idea of a human contribution to global warming. The leak itself happened in November 2009 and we see references to events in March 2010 - but the book came out in June 2010. Quick work indeed.

But to be fair to Fred Pearce, a lot of the content is derived from material he had already amassed for the much quicker turnround of newspaper coverage (this is a Guardian Books title, and the newspaper the Guardian is central to Pearce's work on this story). More importantly, the book doesn't bear the signs of a rushed job - it is well structured, readable and doesn't appear to be scattered with errors and typos (doubly amazing given the Guardian connection).

After a rather unnecessary long list of dramatis personae (I really can't see why that's there except that one of the problems of last minute books is you have to pre-guess the page length, and this could be a filler), Pearce plunges us into Phil Jones of the CRU appearing before a House of Commons committee. From there we go into all the elements that built up to the leaking of the emails - the key bits of science, how the scientists and global warming sceptics responded to each other, the infamous 'hockey stick' graph, the reasons why individuals were sceptics and the approach they took - and much more.

Finally, with the publication of the emails we see exactly how these have been used in an attempt to discredit both CRU and climate science in general. Pearce is fair and balanced throughout. He points out the errors the scientists have made. He shows how doubts over tree ring data have not really come through in the way the science has been presented. He highlights the proprietary approach taken to data that should have been available for checking. And at the same time he shows how information has been distorted by sceptics (particularly sceptical politicians), how the leaked emails totally fail to discredit the evidence for manmade climate change and how the behaviour of scientists has been misrepresented.

I think this is a crucial book because climate science is at a crossroads. After the 'Climategate' affair, and the errors on the subject of glacier melting in a recent IPCC report, there is widespread doubt about climate science. What we need is a clear picture of what parts of the science are doubtful and why, and a better idea of the risk attached to various predictions. At the same time we need to get away from the illogical response that just because some scientists behaved stupidly it somehow invalidates climate change science. The Climate Files gives us a unique opportunity not only to understand just what happened with Climategate, but also to get a better understanding of how climate science has worked and how it could be improved. It even gives useful material for discussions on the future of the peer review process. Essential reading for anyone with an interest in the truth and lies of climate change.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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Last update 05 June 2007