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What do the 'Climategate' hacked CRU emails tell us?

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate Advanced

Several investigations have cleared scientists of any wrongdoing in the media-hyped email incident.

Climate Myth...

Climategate CRU emails suggest conspiracy

“[T]he 1079 emails and 72 documents seem indeed evidence of a scandal involving most of the most prominent scientists pushing the man-made warming theory - a scandal that is one of the greatest in modern science. […] emails suggesting conspiracy, collusion in exaggerating warming data, possibly illegal destruction of embarrassing information, organised resistance to disclosure, manipulation of data, private admissions of flaws in their public claims and much more.” (Andrew Bolt, Herald Sun)

At a glance

What do you do if you cannot overturn well-established scientific theories by fair means? In the case of climate science deniers, you cheat. You play foul.

This is exactly what happened in November 2009. Sometime earlier, the email server at the Climatic Research Unit, University of East Anglia, was hacked (an illegal act in itself). A huge number of emails were stolen, sifted through and a selection was made available for download on a Russian server. The timing of the release was unsurprising, for early the following month the COP15 Climate Summit was due to be held in Copenhagen.

Selectively quoting parts of an email message removes all context. One of the most widely-quoted sentences, that will do nicely as an example, was as follows:

"I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline."

Those fanatically promoting this conspiracy theory encouraged people to take such sentences at face value. The implication that was intended to be the take-home in this case was that climate scientists were covering up declining temperatures. However – and serial misinformers have a long track-record in this kind of thing - it means nothing of the sort. The people in that email were not talking about measured temperatures. Let's take a look at the context to find out what it really meant.

"Mike's Nature trick" referred to a technique described in a 1998 Nature paper, presenting a 600 year-long global temperature reconstruction by Michael Mann and colleagues. Michael is a palaeoclimate specialist who has for many years used tree-ring growth patterns in ancient wood to reconstruct conditions at the time those rings formed. The basic idea is that in cold, dry years, trees grow more slowly so their rings are relatively narrow and densely-spaced. In warm wet years, it's the opposite.

The "trick" is the technique of plotting recent instrumental data (i.e. weather observations) alongside the reconstructed tree-ring data for the time they overlap. It's a good way of checking if the reconstructed tree-ring data are representative and meaningful. They're no good for anything if they are not.

So, what does the “decline” refer to? It's also known as the 'divergence problem', a point on the timeline beyond which the reconstructed tree-ring data stop being representative and meaningful. This is a well-known issue in certain tree-ring datasets from specific places. What happens is that when plotted against instrumental temperature data, the reconstructed tree-ring data fall away – decline - below the instrumental data. This is a recent phenomenon that only showed up after about 1960. Prior to that, it hadn't been a problem.

Climate scientists started discussing the decline in the literature as long ago as 1995 – by which time they had many years of data showing that, where present, it stood out like a sore thumb. It seems to have been caused by an apparent loss in temperature-sensitivity with respect to certain species of trees growing in certain areas. Something had changed, making affected datasets unrepresentative of actual conditions.

All that ado about nothing. Just how much taxpayer's money was wasted on all the public inquiries that followed is anyone's guess. None were necessary. All you need to remember is that when it comes to climate science deniers, the difference between fair means and foul is at best blurred and more usually non-existent.

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!


Further details

In November 2009, the servers at the University of East Anglia in Britain were illegally hacked and emails were stolen. When a selection of emails between climate scientists were published on the internet, a few suggestive quotes were seized upon by many claiming global warming was all just a conspiracy. A number of independent enquiries have investigated the conduct of the scientists involved in the emails. All have cleared the scientists of any wrong doing:

  1. In February 2010, the Pennsylvania State University released an Inquiry Report that investigated any 'Climategate' emails involving Dr Michael Mann, a Professor of Penn State's Department of Meteorology. They found that "there exists no credible evidence that Dr. Mann had or has ever engaged in, or participated in, directly or indirectly, any actions with an intent to suppress or to falsify data". On "Mike's Nature trick", they concluded "The so-called “trick”1 was nothing more than a statistical method used to bring two or more different kinds of data sets together in a legitimate fashion by a technique that has been reviewed by a broad array of peers in the field."
  2. In March 2010, the UK government's House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report finding that the criticisms of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) were misplaced and that CRU’s "Professor Jones’s actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community".
  3. In April 2010, the University of East Anglia set up an international Scientific Assessment Panel, in consultation with the Royal Society and chaired by Professor Ron Oxburgh. The Report of the International Panel assessed the integrity of the research published by the CRU and found "no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit".
  4. In June 2010, the Pennsylvania State University published their Final Investigation Report, determining "there is no substance to the allegation against Dr. Michael E. Mann".
  5. In July 2010, the University of East Anglia published the Independent Climate Change Email Review report. They examined the emails to assess whether manipulation or suppression of data occurred and concluded that "we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt."
  6. In July 2010, the US Environmental Protection Agency investigated the emails and "found this was simply a candid discussion of scientists working through issues that arise in compiling and presenting large complex data sets."
  7. In September 2010, the UK Government responded to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report, chaired by Sir Muir Russell. On the issue of releasing data, they found "In the instance of the CRU, the scientists were not legally allowed to give out the data". On the issue of attempting to corrupt the peer-review process, they found "The evidence that we have seen does not suggest that Professor Jones was trying to subvert the peer review process. Academics should not be criticised for making informal comments on academic papers".
  8. In February 2011, the Department of Commerce Inspector General conducted an independent review of the emails and found "no evidence in the CRU emails that NOAA inappropriately manipulated data".
  9. In August 2011, the National Science Foundation concluded "Finding no research misconduct or other matter raised by the various regulations and laws discussed above, this case is closed".

Just as there are many independent lines of evidence that humans are causing global warming, similarly a number of independent investigations have found no evidence of falsification or conspiracy by climate scientists.


Note: Updated on July 8, 2023 to correctly name CRU as the Climatic Research Unit.

Last updated on 8 July 2023 by John Mason. View Archives

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The House of Commons report on the emails stolen from CRU has vindicated Phil Jones -- he has "no case to answer":

The focus on Professor Jones and CRU has been largely misplaced. On the accusations relating to Professor Jones's refusal to share raw data and computer codes, we consider that his actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community. We have suggested that the community consider becoming more transparent by publishing raw data and detailed methodologies. On accusations relating to Freedom of Information, we consider that much of the responsibility should lie with UEA, not CRU.

In addition, insofar as we have been able to consider accusations of dishonesty--for example, Professor Jones's alleged attempt to "hide the decline"--we consider that there is no case to answer. Within our limited inquiry and the evidence we took, the scientific reputation of Professor Jones and CRU remains intact. We have found no reason in this unfortunate episode to challenge the scientific consensus as expressed by Professor Beddington, that "global warming is happening [and] that it is induced by human activity"

Official statement from Climatic Research Unit (CRU)

In an interview with Andrew Freeman, historian Spencer Weart puts Climategate and the global warming skeptic phenomenon in perspective:

"...we've never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance. Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers."

George Monbiot reveals the most damaging email in The Knights Carbonic. Here is an excerpt, revealing the depth of the climate conspiracy:

"Then began the most hazardous task of all: our attempt to control the instrumental record. Securing the consent of the scientific establishment was a simple matter. But thermometers had by then become widely available, and amateur meteorologists were making their own readings. We needed to show a steady rise as industrialisation proceeded, but some of these unfortunates had other ideas. The global co-option of police and coroners required unprecedented resources, but so far we have been able to cover our tracks.
Our co-option of the physical world has been just as successful. The thinning of the Arctic ice cap was a masterstroke. The ring of secret nuclear power stations around the Arctic Circle, attached to giant immersion heaters, remains undetected, as do the space-based lasers dissolving the world’s glaciers.
Altering the migratory and reproductive patterns of the world’s wildlife has proved more challenging. Though we have now asserted control over the world’s biologists, there is no accounting for the unauthorised observations of farmers, gardeners, bird-watchers and other troublemakers. We have therefore been forced to drive migrating birds, fish and insects into higher latitudes, and to release several million tonnes of plant pheromones every year to accelerate flowering and fruiting. None of this is cheap, and ever more public money, secretly diverted from national accounts by compliant governments, is required to sustain it."

Another amusing parody is Newtongate: the final nail in the coffin of Renaissance and Enlightenment ‘thinking’ which scrutinizes the private correspondance of Isaac Newton to cast doubt on Newtonian physics and integral calculus.

MediaMatters examines many of the claims coming out of "Climategate", exposing how the emails have been distorted and misrepresented.

Comments

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Comments 1 to 25 out of 81:

  1. As stated above: "However, the crucial question is whether these emails reveal that climate data has been falsified." It's your website, but, for what it's worth, I disagree with your line of reasoning here. I think the crucial question is: was this scientist attempting to mislead? And if so, what was his motivation? Also, could this same motivation broadly exist in the climate science community. If we are intellectually honest, we have to address this question. I think reasonable people could agree that the climate issue has been so politicized over the last decade that it is often extremely difficult to discern the truth. I appreciate the efforts of this site to attempt to coherently dispute the disputers. I do, however think that the recently publicized e-mails by a "ranking" member of the non-skeptic climate community are harmful to the cause of discerning the truth, at least for those people who have not drawn a final conclusion about the evidence, which apparently concludes that anthropogenic CO2 + feedbacks = catastrophy, and that climate sensitivity is a solved problem.
  2. As i see it, there are two parts in this story. One is the behaviour of the few scientists involved in the stolen emails, the other is the broad impact on climate science. Starting from the latter, which i think is the topic of this post, i can see no impact whatsoever. Luckly, science is not a matter of a few guys or a few experiments. So even if some fake science could have made it's way through the selection of the scientific community, it does not affect climate science as a whole. And even admitting (i do not) scientific misconduct by those CRU scientists, are we allowed to doubt of hundreds of other? Not for sure, each of us is responsible of its own actions and there is nothing in the emails pointing to a much broader involvement of the whole community. Here is the link to the first part of the problem. What did they actually do? I mean, actions, not words. At the very least, from the emails we can't deduce anything and there are no facts elsewhere confirming any action. There is some not appropiate wording, but nothing regarding arbitrary data manipulation. While I can understand that they might be "condemned" for their personal attitudes i strongly disagree to involve the science. Finally, a political consideration. Before a couple of decades ago, global warming was not a political issue. But then, when the "risk" of concrete actions became too high, it switched to a political issue. The explicit interest was to confuse the two planes, politics and science. This is not new, indeed, we've seen this happen before (mainly in the USA i admit). Who is responsible? Not scientists for sure, they kept doing their work while were being involved in the arena. Some of them even started to be advocate, which is definitely a right for anyone. Should we conclude that AGW is now politics and not science? Not at all. The solution of the problem is politics, indeed; its assessment is science.
  3. Nicely put Riccardo, but unfortunately the few scientists involved were in positions of high authority which changes the dynamic somewhat. Public confidence will take a dive regardless, boosted by those who have opted out because their work has been (so they say) misrepresented/misused.
  4. Whenever scientists fight disclosure - as is evident in the emails - everyone should be concerned. As for it being a couple of scientists, given they control the main temperature history used by the IPCC the fact that they are few in number is somewhat less relevant than the position they hold. I'm no scientist but it seems to me that in the CO2 caused global warming debate the temperature record is of a certain significance. I don't see why the temperature record including unadjusted data and methodologies should not be publicly available. After all we wouldn't trust a government to run an election, count the votes and then tell us who won. The main thing that the emails demonstrate is that the politics and science are very tightly intertwined. This serves politicians more than scientists.
  5. There's an elegant counter to the skeptic argument that scientists adjusted ground temperature data to bias it toward warming. Giorgio Gilestro simply plotted all the adjustments made to each of the GHCN/CRU individual temperatures. The average adjustment is... zero degrees. And a nicely uniform, normal distribution around zero.
  6. "What do the 'Climategate' hacked CRU emails tell us?" It tells us what we already known since long; the science behind climate changes is far from well understood - if it was then it would not be any interesting Nature/Science articles left to write and the whole area would "degrade" into an engineering discipline taught as an academic subject at universities where one could graduate as a climate engineer. However we dont have any graduated climate engineers - only climate researches.
  7. RE:#6 batsvensson. From your attack on science articles it sounds like you have absolutely no experience with academic scientific research so I suggest you start doing the homework yourself and tell us all why it only takes excerpts from two leaked emails over 13 years to prove that the whole of climate science is far from settled.
  8. "While some of the private correspondance is not commendable"... It is more than that. The authors said they were going to erase emails subject to a Freedom of the Information Act request. That is a felony.
  9. Michael949, please stick to the facts. None of them ever said they were going to delete the email.
  10. Regarding "hide the decline": If it is true that tree rings are definitely inaccurate after 1960 (having compared them with the instrumental temperature record), shouldn't we question the entire data set, as that might be flawed too?
    Response: This is a good question and is explored in Tree-ring proxies and the divergence problem. In short, tree-ring proxies show good agreement with other proxies before 1960 and also show good agreement with tree-ring proxies that don't show divergence (eg - at lower latitudes). This indicates divergence is a purely recent phenomenon (and hints that there's a good chance it's anthropogenic in cause).
  11. Riccardo : '' None of them ever said they were going to delete the email.'' Maybe not, but this quote is rather close (from Phil Jones). Close enough for me!: ''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...''
  12. Argus, did it never happen to you to say in a private conversation "if he does this i'm going to kill him" or "i love this thing, i'm going to steal it" or something like this? Wow, that's incredible.
  13. One thing is how it seems these emails mentions intentions to make graphs fit the claims of Co2 and global warming, another thing is to loose the raw data? Woops, that was unfortunate. Which basically takes just about all the evidence on this website, and invalidates it. Seems it is back to the drawing board. At the moment, too much of the world do not accept the lack of raw data, and the whole thing is being looked looked into.
  14. kblood, the raw data were not lost by the organizations that are actually responsible for collecting and keeping them. The U. of East Anglia was only one of many consumers of those data. The data still are available to the U. of East Anglia, and even to, say, you! A big list of links to the data sources has been compiled at RealClimate, for your convenience.
  15. kblood, you're claiming that failure of a small research unit to efficiently maintain backups of copies of data obtained from a primary source still able to supply the data in question invalidates all of the research findings presented here at Skeptical Science? Can you demonstrate how the loss of copies of a a few years' temperature data invalidates the work of thousands of persons working in a plethora of fields pursuing numerous lines of inquiry? No, obviously you can't. You make a ridiculous charge, harmful to your own credibility. Take a few moments to read what others write here, rejectionists and skeptics included. Get calibrated, please.
  16. It's particularly silly to complain about "loss of data from UEA" since there are now a whole bunch of replications of the same results using 100% publicly available data from GHCN. If you don't like the UEA temperature reconstruction, use the one from GISS or NCDC or any of the various open-source efforts that people have developed in the past few months. They all show the same thing. Link 1 Link 2
  17. nice to see what the supporters have been saying confirmed, but many will say the judgment was rigged. Inquiry backs scientists in global warming row
  18. Good to hear that the second enquiry into CRU has (generally) backed them. I know the so-called skeptics will be shouting 'whitewash' again, but they must be ever-so desperate now for something to come out of the final enquiry - not that anything will, of course, but surely the more intelligent of them will be questioning some of their scepticism ? That is, will they be true sceptics or so-called skeptics ?
  19. Here's a link to the report from that second inquiry: the Oxburgh Report.
  20. Obviously the whole point of the hacking was to look for dirt to publish. I'd love to know how many other people got hacked with nothing published, because there was no dirt to find. I know the answer might be "none", but equally, it could be hundreds.
  21. Here’s a link to the final and most comprehensive inquiry: the Muir Russell report.
  22. There have been five major investigations by experts into the climategate frenzy, and none of them found any evidence whatsoever of fraud, or misconduct. Yet the conservative media is still cherishes the nonscandal as if it is the latest news. I find this amusing and laughable. Why won't the conservative media stop? Its so irratating seeing this worn out climategate tantrum persisting. Does anyone have any explanations for this?
    Response: That's six investigations, actually:
    1. February 2010. the Pennsylvania State University released an Inquiry Report that investigated any 'Climategate' emails involving Dr Michael Mann, a Professor of Penn State's Department of Meteorology. They found that "there exists no credible evidence that Dr. Mann had or has ever engaged in, or participated in, directly or indirectly, any actions with an intent to suppress or to falsify data". On "Mike's Nature trick", they concluded "The so-called “trick”1 was nothing more than a statistical method used to bring two or more different kinds of data sets together in a legitimate fashion by a technique that has been reviewed by a broad array of peers in the field."
    2. March 2010. UK government's House of Commons Science and Technology Committee published a report finding that the criticisms of the Climate Research Unit (CRU) were misplaced and that CRU’s "Professor Jones’s actions were in line with common practice in the climate science community".
    3. April 2010. University of East Anglia set up an international Scientific Assessment Panel, in consultation with the Royal Society and chaired by Professor Ron Oxburgh. The Report of the International Panel assessed the integrity of the research published by the CRU and found "no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit".
    4. June 2010. Pennsylvania State University published their Final Investigation Report, determining "there is no substance to the allegation against Dr. Michael E. Mann".
    5. July 2010. University of East Anglia published the Independent Climate Change Email Review report. They examined the emails to assess whether manipulation or suppression of data occurred and concluded that "The scientists’ rigor and honesty are not in doubt".
    6. September 2010. UK Government responded to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report, chaired by Sir Muir Russell. On the issue of releasing data, they found "In the instance of the CRU, the scientists were not legally allowed to give out the data". On the issue of attempting to corrupt the peer-review process, they found "The evidence that we have seen does not suggest that Professor Jones was trying to subvert the peer review process. Academics should not be criticised for making informal comments on academic papers".
  23. Re: Karamanski (22) It is a time-honored feature of American politics to repeat a lie so often that it becomes the truth. A feature we now see adopted by the MSM (controlled by their corporate masters). The X-Files featured this prominently back in the '90's with their running theme of plausible deniability. Oh, crap. Mod beat me with a much more literal response. Oh, well. The Yooper
  24. Since the rebuttal for climategate addresses the cynicism of the skeptics towards climate science another good rebuttal should debunk the argument "climate scientists exaggerate to get more funding". I know this defies the comments policy, but I see this argument everywhere in skeptic blogs and conservative op-eds. I would really like to see this argument get shot down. Do you think a rebuttal for this argument would be a good idea for Skeptical Science?
  25. Karamanski, well there are many articles addressing whether scientists have exaggerated or not (e.g. 'Is the IPCC alarmist?')... so the issue has been covered from that side; predictions of impacts were lower than what has actually been observed, ergo the predictions were not exaggerated. I'm guessing you may mean to go at it from the other direction, how money is allocated... but that is a much trickier thing to pin down given thousands of in and out fluxes of research cash around the world. A third approach would be reviewing the results of research by scientists not in the climate field. If climate scientists were exaggerating AGW's impact on Arctic sea ice then biologists would find that seals and bears are not facing adverse impacts, oceanographers would find that the Arctic ocean was not acidifying, botanists would not find plants growing further North of their previous ranges, et cetera. Yet all these other scientific fields are finding results which support what the climate scientists are saying. Ergo, the 'skeptic' argument really becomes a claim that nearly all members of multiple branches of science all over the world are engaged in a vast conspiracy to exaggerate AGW. Which most people are rational enough to see for the complete lunacy it is.

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