The Fake Scandal of Climategate

It’s bad enough that global warming contrarians are successfully misleading the public by propagating misconceptions about climate science. But recently it has become popular to attack climate scientists themselves, to accuse them of fraud and conspiracy. Exhibit No. 1 of the climate conspiracy theory is a collection of emails stolen (or possibly leaked) from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UEA), which appeared on the internet in November 2009.

Founded in 1972, CRU is only a small research unit with around 16 staff. CRU is best known for its work, since 1978, on a global record of instrumental temperature measurements from 1850 to the present, or CRUTEM. CRU’s land surface temperatures are combined with the UK Met Office Hadley Centre’s sea surface temperatures to form the global land-ocean record HadCRUT. CRU has also published reconstructions of pre-1850 temperatures based on tree rings, and CRU scientists have been involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The 1,073 emails span 13 years of correspondence between colleagues at CRU. Much of it is mundane, but in this digital age it took only a matter of hours for contrarians to do some quote-mining. Contrarians alleged that the CRU scientists had manipulated data to support predetermined conclusions, that they had stonewalled Freedom of Information (FoI) requests for data, and that they had corrupted the peer review and IPCC processes.

The story was quickly dubbed “Climategate”, and it spread rapidly from arcane contrarian blogs through conservative columnists to the mainstream media. The hyperbole was turned up to eleven. Conspiracy theorists had a field day, claiming that anyone even mentioned in the emails, or remotely connected to CRU, must also be part of a conspiracy. In this way, the Climategate conspiracy theory snowballed to include the entire field of climate science. The Climategate emails were held up as “the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming”, and the media were only too happy to play up the controversy.

The CRU scientists have been cleared

In the months that followed, there were several inquiries into the allegations resulting from the emails. When a few of the more suggestive email quotes are reeled off by pundits without much context, they can sound pretty damning. But each and every one of these inquiries has found no fraud and no conspiracy.

The most comprehensive inquiry was the Independent Climate Change Email Review led by Sir Muir Russell, commissioned by UEA to examine the behaviour of the CRU scientists (but not the scientific validity of their work). It published its final report in July 2010 (all quotes are taken from this report unless otherwise specified). This inquiry was no whitewash: it examined the main allegations arising from the emails and their implications in meticulous detail. It focused on what the CRU scientists did, not what they said, investigating the evidence for and against each allegation. It interviewed CRU and UEA staff, and took 111 submissions including one from CRU itself. And it also did something the media completely failed to do: it attempted to put the actions of CRU scientists into context.

The Review went back to primary sources to see if CRU really was hiding or falsifying their data. It considered how much CRU’s actions influenced the IPCC’s conclusions about temperatures during the past millennium. It commissioned a paper by Dr Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, on the context of scientific peer review. And it asked IPCC Review Editors how much influence individuals could wield on writing groups. Many of these are things any journalist could have done relatively easily, but few ever bothered to do.

The Review also commented on the broader context of science in the 21st century. To paraphrase from Chapter 5: the emergence of the blogosphere requires significantly more openness from scientists. However, providing the details necessary to validate large datasets can be difficult and time-consuming, and how FoI laws apply to research is still an evolving area. Meanwhile, the public needs to understand that science cannot and does not produce absolutely precise answers. Though the uncertainties may become smaller and better constrained over time, uncertainty in science is a fact of life which policymakers have to deal with. The chapter concludes: “the Review would urge all scientists to learn to communicate their work in ways that the public can access and understand”.

The Review points out the well-known psychological phenomenon that email is less formal than other forms of communication: “Extreme forms of language are frequently applied to quite normal situations by people who would never use it in other communication channels.” The CRU scientists assumed their emails to be private, so they used “slang, jargon and acronyms” which would have been more fully explained had they been talking to the public. And although some emails suggest CRU went out of their way to make life difficult for their critics, there are others which suggest they were bending over backwards to be honest. Therefore the Review found “the e-mails cannot always be relied upon as evidence of what actually occurred, nor indicative of actual behaviour that is extreme, exceptional or unprofessional.” [section 4.3]

So when put into the proper context, what do these emails actually reveal about the behaviour of the CRU scientists? The report concluded (its emphasis):

Climate science is a matter of such global importance, that the highest standards of honesty, rigour, and openness are needed in its conduct. On the specific allegations made against the behaviour of CRU scientists, we find that their rigour and honesty as scientists are not in doubt.

In addition, we do not find that their behaviour has prejudiced the balance of advice given to policy makers. In particular, we did not find any evidence of behaviour that might undermine the conclusions of the IPCC assessments.

But we do find that there has been a consistent pattern of failing to display the proper degree of openness, both on the part of the CRU scientists and on the part of the UEA, who failed to recognize not only the significance of statutory requirements but also the risk to the reputation of the University and indeed, to the credibility of UK climate science. [1.3]

These general findings are more or less consistent across the various allegations the Review investigated. Its specific findings will be summarized in the coming posts in this series.

Do the emails reveal a conspiracy?

The argument that Climategate reveals an international climate science conspiracy is not really a very skeptical one. Sure, it is skeptical in the weak sense of questioning authority, but it stops there. Unlike true skepticism, it doesn’t go on to objectively examine all the evidence and draw a conclusion based on that evidence. Instead, it cherry-picks suggestive emails, seeing everything as incontrovertible evidence of a conspiracy, and concludes all of mainstream climate science is guilty by association. This is not skepticism; this is conspiracy theory.

In reality, Climategate has not thrown any legitimate doubt on CRU’s results, let alone the conclusions of the entire climate science community. The entire work of CRU comprises only a small part of the evidence for AGW. There are all sorts of lines of evidence for global warming, and for a human influence on climate, which in no way depend on the behaviour of the CRU scientists. Global warming has been observed not just on land but also over the oceans and in the troposphere, as well as being confirmed by many other indicators such as ocean heat content, humidity, sea level, glaciers, and Arctic sea ice. And while the hockey stick tells us that humans have caused a profound disturbance to our climate system, we don’t need it to know that humans are causing global warming. The pattern of warming we observe is the same as that long predicted for greenhouse warming: the stratosphere is cooling, nights have warmed faster than days, and winters faster than summers.

But this reality doesn’t fit into the narrative that the contrarians would like to tell: that AGW is a house of cards that is falling down. It is very difficult to attack all of these diverse lines of evidence for global warming. Instead they tend to focus on some of the better publicized ones and try to associate them with a few individuals, making a much easier target. Yet while contrarians have been nosing around in scientists’ emails, the actual science has, if anything, become more concerning. Many major studies during 2009 and 2010 found things may be worse than previously thought.

The media dropped the ball

There is a famous quotation attributed to Mark Twain: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” This is more true in the internet age than it was when Mark Twain was alive. Unfortunately, it took months for the Climategate inquiries to put on their shoes, and by the time they reported, the damage had already been done. The media acted as an uncritical loudspeaker for the initial allegations, which will now continue to circulate around the world forever, then failed to give anywhere near the same amount of coverage to the inquiries clearing the scientists involved. For instance, Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian published no less than 85 stories about Climategate, but not one about the Muir Russell inquiry.

Even the Guardian, who have a relatively good track record on environmental reporting and were quick to criticize the worst excesses of climate conspiracy theorists, could not resist the lure of stolen emails. As George Monbiot writes, journalists see FoI requests and email hacking as a way of keeping people accountable, rather than the distraction from actual science which they are to scientists. In contrast, CRU director Phil Jones says: “I wish people would spend as much time reading my scientific papers as they do reading my e-mails.”

In defending the CRU scientists, I don’t want to come across as someone who thinks people with respectable jobs can’t do anything wrong. That’s not it at all. Scientists are human like everyone else, they make mistakes all the time, and sometimes they may behave badly. My complaint is that the media seem to expect scientists to be perfect; those who expect perfection are always going to be disappointed.

This is part of a broader problem with climate change reporting: the media holds scientists to far higher standards than it does contrarians. Climate scientists have to be right 100% of the time, but contrarians apparently can get away with being wrong nearly 100% of the time. The tiniest errors of climate scientists are nitpicked and blown out of all proportion, but contrarians get away with monstrous distortions and cherry-picking of evidence. Around the same time The Australian was bashing climate scientists, the same newspaper had no problem publishing Viscount Monckton’s blatant misrepresentations of IPCC projections (not to mention his demonstrably false conspiracy theory that the Copenhagen summit was a plot to establish a world government).

Scientists attempted to defend themselves from these attacks. 255 members of the National Academy of Sciences signed an open letter calling for an end to the politically motivated attacks on climate scientists and urging immediate action on climate change. They submitted the letter as an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. All of these newspapers had reported the attacks on climate scientists without any qualms, yet all of them refused to publish the letter. Instead the scientists submitted their open letter to Science.

This appalling double standard must come to an end. Where is the 12-part Guardian investigation on climate denial? Where are all the inquiries into Monckton’s misrepresentations of climate science, and the misinformation he is conveying to policymakers? Why doesn’t the InterAcademy Council review the scholarship of the Wegman report instead of the IPCC? (Wegman’s inquiry into the hockey stick was commissioned by and presented to the US Congress. The blogger Deep Climate has recently alleged that a large fraction of the text in his report was plagiarized. If the media applied the same standards to contrarians as they do to mainstream scientists, this should have been a huge scandal, but the media have given it almost no coverage.)

In the current model of environmental reporting, the contrarians do not lose anything by making baseless accusations. In fact, it is in their interests to throw as much mud at scientists as possible to increase the chance that some of it will stick in the public consciousness. But there is untold damage to the reputation of the scientists against whom the accusations are being made. We can only hope that in future the media will be less quick to jump to conclusions. If only editors and producers would stop and think for a moment about what they’re doing: they are playing with the future of the planet.

What are the scandal’s repercussions?

So the science is unchanged by Climategate. But politically, as many others have lamented, the affair has been very damaging both to public trust in science and to the prospects of mitigating future warming. Less has been written on the repercussions for the scientists themselves.

For one thing, the CRU scientists and other prominent climatologists are being targeted by unbelievably vitriolic and paranoid hate mail. Phil Jones told the Sunday Times he had received a number of death threats including two in one week, and considered suicide. In the US (where freedom of speech means the police cannot do anything about it), the late Stephen Schneider said he’d received hundreds of abusive emails.  A number of climate scientists allegedly appeared on a neo-Nazi death list. In Australia too, climate scientists get hate mail, as do environmental journalists and Greens politicians.

Before you dismiss these emailers as nutcases unconnected with more sophisticated contrarians, consider that Marc Morano, communications director for US Republican Senator James Inhofe and owner of the website Climate Depot, makes a habit of posting the email addresses of those he disagrees with. Morano has also been quoted as saying about climate scientists: “I seriously believe we should kick them while they’re down. They deserve to be publicly flogged.” Michael Mann told the Guardian some of his hate mail looked “cut-and-paste”. And during the Copenhagen conference, The Australian attacked Ian Fry, an Australian representing Tuvalu, because he lives away from the coast; the front-page story included a photo of his house, making it possible to deduce his address.

Schneider said he noticed a dramatic increase in hate mail whenever certain right-wing commentators attacked climate scientists. When the CRU email story broke, popular Fox News personality Glenn Beck lamented that “there’s not enough knives on planet Earth” for the “dishonored scientists” to kill themselves. Talk radio personality Rush Limbaugh, said they should be “drawn and quartered”. Another talk radio host, Alex Jones, called proponents of AGW a “devil cult” who “want your property”, “a bunch of eugenicist killers” who “know it’s a scam” and “hate freedom”, “bloodthirsty control freaks” who “want to kill you and your family” (though he insisted he was “not trying to demonise them”).

Meanwhile, the US Republican Party has stepped up its war on science. In March, Republican Senator James Inhofe called for a criminal prosecution of at least 17 climate scientists — a witch-hunt against anyone even remotely associated with the CRU emails. The Republican Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, went further. In April, alleging that Michael Mann committed fraud against taxpayers, Cuccinelli demanded that the University of Virginia (UVA) provide documents relating to all of Mann’s government research grants while he was at UVA between 1999 and 2005; as well as all Mann’s correspondence with anybody on a list of 40 individuals, correspondence referencing any of those people, and correspondence with UVA administrators; and more. After this was thrown out of court in August because the grants in question were out of Cuccinelli’s jurisdiction, Cuccinelli came back with a narrower case concerning a single grant which had nothing to do with the hockey stick, alleging that some of Mann’s conclusions were not statistically rigorous. As RealClimate pointed out: “This is not just an attack on Mike Mann, it is an attack on the whole scientific enterprise.”

All in all, it has been a pretty terrible year to be a climate scientist. These hard-working scientists should be the real heroes of this story, yet instead they have been the recipients of political bullying tactics.

Far from exposing a global warming fraud, “Climategate” merely exposed the depths to which contrarians are willing to sink in their attempts to manufacture doubt about AGW. They cannot win the argument on scientific grounds, so now they are trying to discredit researchers themselves. Climategate was a fake scandal from beginning to end, and the media swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. The real scandal is the attacks on climate science which have done untold damage to the reputation of the scientists involved, the reputation of climate science (maybe even science generally), and the fight to save the planet.

This is the first part in a series on the fake scandal of Climategate. Next: Tampering with Temperatures?

Posted by James Wight on Saturday, 20 November, 2010

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