ClimateGate: A Briefer 8

In the wake of the “Climategate” affair – the illegal hacking and publication of a huge number of emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit – I’ve been trying to put together some “points to remember” on the episode, along with some of the key points of evidence. Below is what I’ve managed to come up with. Owing to the story’s media profile, the volume of material out there is now pretty enormous and somewhat unwieldy. Nevertheless, I hope this at least begins to cover most the bases, and will generally be of some use.

1. The most damning quotes have been cherry-picked, out of context, from thousands of lines of material.

The CRU emails represent around 13 years’ worth of material. As George Marshall of the Climate Outreach and Information Network commented,

“The denial industry (and hordes of climate nerds) has trawled through these emails and found sentences which, when removed from context, support their storyline that climate science is being deliberately distorted and exaggerated for a mixed bag of self-interested and politicised ends.

But you could find anything in here. I looked and found lots of references to lunch and fun, 94 to hate, 31 to love. Generally, though, the emails are extremely focused, technical, and, dare I say it, really dull.”

The same method can easily be applied to the greatest figures in scientific history, yielding similarly “scandalous” results. Who could have known, for instance, that Sir Isaac Newton was involved in conspiring to avoid public scrutiny, manipulating evidence, knowingly publishing fraudulent scientific material, suppressing evidence and abusing the peer-review system? String him up …

One trawl through the emails by a veteran science correspondent actually turned up this curious example of scientists going out of their way to distance themselves from advocacy and campaign statements on climate change (what NASA’s James Hansen calls the persistent habit of “scientific reticence” on policy issues). The email has gone unnoticed, presumably because it is impossible to square with the deniers’ theological account of climate scientists’ aims and motives (deliberate scaremongering; the destruction of industrial civilisation; the promotion of world Government; and so on).

2. The leak appears to have been timed deliberately to coincide with, and maximise damage at, the Copenhagen negotiations.

One source close to the criminal investigation into the hacking of the CRU has stated that the hacked material was deliberately withheld in order to be released immediately prior to the Copenhagen negotiations. As Ben Webster of the Times has written, the emails:

“were held back for weeks after being stolen so that their release would cause maximum damage to the Copenhagen climate conference, according to a source close to the investigation of the theft. … The computer was hacked repeatedly, the source close to the investigation said: “It was hacked into in October and possibly earlier. Then they gained access again in mid-November.” By not releasing the e-mails until two weeks before Copenhagen, the hacker ensured that the debate about them would rage during the summit.”

3. Nothing was “hidden” – and there was no “decline” in global temperatures.

The most infamous, oft-quoted passage from the emails concerns an attempt by Phil Jones to use “Mike’s Nature trick” to “hide the decline”. But the decline refers not to the temperature record itself, but the decline that shows up in one paleo-climate record derived from tree-rings beyond the 1960s, universally held to be divergent from the established, directly observed late-twentieth century temperature record. Jones was attempting to construct a reliable long-term temperature reconstruction for the World Meteorological Organisation, for which he combined the earlier tree-ring data with the late 20th century temperature records. As the Pew Centre on Global Climate Change point out in their report on the emails,

“It cannot be said that Jones was literally hiding this fact because two years before he wrote this email he was a co‐author on the first paper to document this “divergence” issue. That paper, published in Nature in February of 1998, concluded publicly that these post‐1960 tree ring data produce inaccurate temperature estimates”.

As CRU have pointed out, this background information is all referenced in the WMO reconstruction to which Jones was contributing. None of it was hidden. Moreover, as the science correspondent mentioned above notes, the word “trick” crops up frequently across the scientific literature, and is used to mean essentially a statistical device, mechanism or “clever thing to do” in handling data. If the conspiracy theorists’ reading of the word is correct, all of these published, publicly available papers are admitting to complicity in the grand plot.

4. Remarks about our inability to explain the recent apparent slowdown in rising temperatures refer to the details and complexities of tracking energy flows in the earth system, not whether climate change itself has simply stopped.

Another of the most often cited remarks comes from Dr Kevin Trenberth, referring to the “travesty” of being unable to explain some very recent temperature trends. This is the opinion of one scientist in particular, and two other scientists actually take issue with it in the emails themselves. In any case, it is not just privately expressed: it is fleshed out in a publicly available, published paper, which Trenberth himself is referring to directly in the email concerned. The idea that these are private doubts that have been concealed from the public is therefore entirely without foundation. Indeed as Peter Sinclair points out in his own broadcast on the subject, in this very paper Trenberth “unequivocally” backs the scientific consensus on climate change. The issue he is raising concerns nuances in this overall picture. Trenberth’s area of expertise centres around the tracking of energy flows into and out of the climate system, and his comment concerns the fact that, in his own words “[t]he observing system we have is inadequate” in the difficult and important task of accounting for the complexities in the various mechanisms by which the earth system absorbs and releases heat – within the overall context of man-made climate change.

As the Economist concludes:

“… to take this [quote] as evidence that Dr Trenberth questions global warming seems foolish. He does not mean that a comparative lack of warming over the past decade shows greenhouse warming has stopped. He knows that the climate has natural ups and downs imposed on such trends, and that cold snaps happen. He is expressing frustration that the monitoring needed to understand how these variations work is not as good as it could be.”

5. It is impossible for two scientists to “keep out” material or “redefine peer-review” at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – and the IPCC process was demonstrably not manipulated in this way.

George Monbiot has drawn attention to Phil Jones’ remark on one email that he and another scientist would deliberately “keep out” a couple of papers from the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report. It is undoubtedly an ill-advised remark. Yet the exclusion demonstrably did not happen: the (highly contentious) papers were themselves discussed in the final IPCC document, and the nature of the IPCC process precludes any such attempt at manipulation by one or two individual scientists. As the Pew Centre put it,

“when writing their individual research papers, scientists are free to choose which published papers to cite based on their own judgment, and it is not standard practice to cite all relevant publications, since many are redundant and some lack credibility. In this case, the authors were contemplating the refusal to cite two discredited papers in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. In the end, since IPCC reports are more inclusive and comprehensive than individual research papers, both of the suspect papers were cited and discussed (p. 466 of the Working Group I report cites Soon and Baliunas, 2003 and McIntyre & McKitrick, 2003; pdf/assessment‐report/ar4/wg1/ar4‐wg1‐chapter6.pdf).”

As the IPCC’s Chair Rajendra Pachauri points out:

“The processes in the IPCC are so robust, so inclusive, that even if an author or two has a particular bias it is completely unlikely that bias will find its way into the IPCC report …

“Every single comment that an expert reviewer provides has to be answered either by acceptance of the comment, or if it is not accepted, the reasons have to be clearly specified. So I think it is a very transparent, a very comprehensive process which insures that even if someone wants to leave out a piece of peer reviewed literature there is virtually no possibility of that happening.”

The journal Nature concludes:

“Whatever the e-mail authors may have said to one another in (supposed) privacy, … what matters is how they acted. And the fact is that, in the end, neither they nor the IPCC suppressed anything: when the assessment report was published in 2007 it referenced and discussed both papers.”

6. Attempts by senior scientists – only ever discussed as an option in the emails – to keep flawed material out of peer-reviewed journals represent little more than an outcome the peer-review process produces on a regular basis.

As climatologists Michael Mann and Gavin Schmidt suggest, while peer-review is an important mechanism in authenticating and legitimating scientific material, like any human institution it is obviously not infallible, and can be undermined. As such, while peer-review may be a necessary criterion for credible scientific material, it is by no means a sufficient criterion. As Mann and Schmidt write:

“Put simply, peer review is supposed to weed out poor science. However, it is not foolproof — a deeply flawed paper can end up being published under a number of different potential circumstances: (i) the work is submitted to a journal outside the relevant field (e.g. a paper on paleoclimate submitted to a social science journal) where the reviewers are likely to be chosen from a pool of individuals lacking the expertise to properly review the paper, (ii) too few or too unqualified a set of reviewers are chosen by the editor, (iii) the reviewers or editor (or both) have agendas, and overlook flaws that invalidate the paper’s conclusions, and (iv) the journal may process and publish so many papers that individual manuscripts occasionally do not get the editorial attention they deserve.

“Thus, while un-peer-reviewed claims should not be given much credence, just because a particular paper has passed through peer review does not absolutely insure that the conclusions are correct or scientifically valid.”

It is clear that the concern discussed in the emails is that two journals – Climate Research and Geophysical Research Letters – are publishing material that is “deeply flawed”, “crap”; “crap science”, in each case apparently on account of an editorial agenda. The scientists discuss a number of solutions to this: writing rebuttals in the journals concerned; sending a letter of protest, signed by a large number of distinguished scientists, to the publishers, expressing their loss of faith in the journal’s conduct; bypassing the publication altogether; or gathering and presenting “a clear body of evidence” of the editorial agenda compromising the publication. As the Pew Centre note of this discussion:

“To interpret this correspondence in proper context, one must recognize that science is a community‐based professional enterprise. It is expected and appropriate that investigators choose in which journals to publish and recommend to their peers in which journals to publish or not publish. The notion of organizing a boycott against any journal that repeatedly departs from accepted scientific standards is both reasonable and ethical.”

If an attempt to keep flawed material out of the leading journals constitutes an attempt at “suppression”, it is certainly comparable with the decisions individual editors and reviewers routinely make to reject the publication of material in virtually any journal. Rather, this seems simply to have been an attempt to uphold the integrity of peer-review – an important but not infallible process – in one particular publication.

7. Unjustifiable attempts were made to withhold or prevent the release of information, but in the context of: (a) a campaign of harassment, misrepresentation and vilification by a powerful industry-backed lobby; (b) CRU’s contractual obligations to keep some data out of the public domain.

Some of the emails do suggest attempts to keep scientific data out of the public domain, and apparently to delete emails either in anticipation of or response to a Freedom of Information Act request. While such behaviour cannot be justified, the emails concerned also contain evidence of the concerted campaign of harassment, misrepresentation and vilification these scientists were being exposed to, and which forms the overarching context of their remarks. As Phil Jones says in one of the emails concerned, “As an aside and just between us, it seems that Brian Hoskins has withdrawn himself from the WG1 [Working Group 1 of the IPCC] Lead nominations. It seems he doesn’t want to have to deal with this hassle.” As the Economist notes, “Caspar Amman, one of Dr Trenberth’s colleagues at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, wrote [in one email]: “Oh MAN! When will this crap ever end??””

As John Houghton, former co-chair of the IPCC, recently told the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, information was routinely leaked and spun in the public domain by a critical fossil fuel industry lobby in order to undermine the IPCC. As Harrabin records:

“Professor Houghton said that in future it would be wise to offer the IPCC protection from harassment in its work. “IPCC meetings were open to all – including (representatives) from organisations such as [fossil fuel industry lobbying coalition] the Global Climate Coalition whose clear agenda was to weaken our work and our conclusions.

“A particular way they continually did this was to publish selected provisional material from the IPCC process, for example draft chapters or contributions not meant for publication, and used this to discredit the IPCC and the process.

“For people being targeted, it is very difficult to be completely open when provisional material emerging during the process is being used as stick to beat the scientists with.”

Climatologist Michael Mann states:

“They’re not looking to reproduce your analysis, in many cases. They’re looking to badger, and to make unpleasant for us what we love doing as scientists. It’s obvious to other graduate students and post-docs rising up: if you choose to do this [climate science], this is what you will be subject to.”

This by no means excuses the failure to adhere to the ideal of openness that is a cornerstone of good scientific practice, or apparent attempts to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act. But it does go some way to explain why – in the absence of malicious or conspiratorial motives – such information was withheld. The Economist concludes:

“As Judith Curry, a climatologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, observes, attacks on climate scientists, sometimes paid for by carbon-emitting industries when global warming first became a public issue, have made many researchers in the field nervous and defensive. This does not excuse attempts to resist transparency, but does help explain them. … Little wonder that the scientists are looking tribal and jumpy, and that sceptics have leapt so eagerly on such tiny scraps as proof of a conspiracy.”

As Nature concluded:

“In the end, what the UEA e-mails really show is that scientists are human beings — and that unrelenting opposition to their work can goad them to the limits of tolerance, and tempt them to act in ways that undermine scientific values. Yet it is precisely in such circumstances that researchers should strive to act and communicate professionally, and make their data and methods available to others, lest they provide their worst critics with ammunition.”

As the Pew Centre have also pointed out, the CRU had contractual obligations to keep some data private – again, a problem in terms of openness and transparency in science, but also fundamentally an institutional problem, far from unknown in other fields and departments, and which can hardly be said to be the fault of the scientists themselves. As the Pew Centre note:

“The CRU is barred by non‐publication agreements with some countries’ meteorological services from releasing to the public a small amount (less than 5%) of the weather station data the CRU uses to estimate land‐surface temperature trends. The university has confirmed that the CRU is legally barred from releasing these data. A few commentators have used this situation as a basis for accusing the CRU of suppressing data.”

As Gavin Schmidt writes:

“From the date of the first FOI request to CRU (in 2007), it has been made abundantly clear that the main impediment to releasing the whole CRU archive is the small % of it that was given to CRU on the understanding it wouldn’t be passed on to third parties. Those restrictions are in place because of the originating organisations (the various National Met. Services) around the world and are not CRU’s to break. As of Nov 13, the response to the umpteenth FOI request for the same data met with exactly the same response. This is an unfortunate situation, and pressure should be brought to bear on the National Met Services to release CRU from that obligation. It is not however the fault of CRU.”

8. Not one piece of evidence or data has been altered or found to be wrong as a result of the affair.

As Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics group at Oxford’s Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department writes in the Guardian:

“A colleague working in astrophysics was expressing bemusement to me yesterday about why the reputation of British science was apparently under threat, given that no evidence had actually emerged of scientific misconduct. Her specific question was: “Has anyone found evidence of an error in a published paper or dataset?” If they had, then of course the error would need to be corrected, which happens in science all the time.

“If it could be proved that figures had been deliberately altered to give a specific result then it would be very serious, but so far no evidence has emerged from these Climatic Research Unit (CRU) emails of any error in the HadCRUT instrumental temperature record at the centre of the row, never mind proof of deliberate intent to mislead. How often have you heard that repeated, clearly, by the mainstream press reporting on this incident? …

“So the narrative journalists have collectively decided upon is that a few scientists may have manipulated their data, and either (a) it doesn’t matter because the evidence for human influence on climate is so strong or (b) this shows the whole edifice is now crumbling, depending on their editor’s predilections. And George Monbiot laments that the high priests of his climate change religion have let him down. All without any evidence that any number, anywhere, is actually wrong.”

9. Even if every piece of evidence discussed in the emails were found to be flawed or compromised, the scientific evidence supporting the idea of man-made climate change would remain overwhelming.

As Nature put it,

“Nothing in the e-mails undermines the scientific case that global warming is real — or that human activities are almost certainly the cause. That case is supported by multiple, robust lines of evidence, including several that are completely independent of the climate reconstructions debated in the e-mails.”

Pew spell things out in more detail:

“The two data sets highlighted in accusations of misconduct are very limited and consist of:

  • High-latitude tree ring data that inaccurately suggest that local temperatures declined after 1960; thermometer readings from the same locations demonstrate that the tree rings accurately reflected local temperatures prior to, but not after 1960.
  • A small fraction of the weather station data used by the CRU to estimate global surface temperature change …

“The key point is that those data that comprise the most important evidence for human‐induced climate change are not in play in the emails, including those documenting:

  • snow and ice cover
  • sea level rise
  • ocean heat content
  • surface temperature records maintained in the U.S. (NASA, NOAA)
  • upper and lower atmospheric temperatures monitored by satellites
  • atmospheric water vapor
  • greenhouse gases
  • solar activity
  • modeling experiments

“As a result, the evidence for rapid warming of the Earth in recent decades remains unequivocal, including:

  • Worldwide loss of snow and ice
  • Rising sea levels
  • Records of rising global surface temperatures maintained in the U.S. by NASA and NOAA

“Further, the evidence for human dominance of recent warming remains very strong, including:

  • Concomitant warming of the troposphere and cooling of the stratosphere (a greenhouse effect signature)
  • Without the strong warming effect of human-induced rise in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, the observed changes in solar activity over the past several decades would have led to a slight cooling of the Earth’s surface.
  • Climate models only reproduce the warming of the past 50 years when they include the observed rise in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.”

As Gavin Schmidt writes:

“before you conclude that the emails have any impact on the science, read about the six easy steps that mean that CO2 (and the other greenhouse gases) are indeed likely to be a problem, and think specifically how anything in the emails affect them.”

George Monbiot has had a go at imagining the kind of email we would need to find in order to genuinely expose the scientific consensus as a conspiratorial fabrication. Needless to say, no such email has yet turned up.

10. Media coverage of the affair has been constant, high-profile, and profoundly misleading.

You will no doubt have seen the Fox News coverage. You may even have read this dolt’s execrable conspiracy theorising in the Telegraph (“Conservatives believe in a small state. The Climategate scientists are part of a global conspiracy to expand it …” etc.). You may have heard, via the Wall Street Journal, that “science is dying”; or noticed Radio 4’s The Moral Maze debating roughly the same thing. One of the most important and alarming signs of just how far this contrived narrative of crisis has penetrated mainstream coverage, though, is its appearance almost as presumed fact in many of the more sympathetic accounts. Check out the Guardian’s groundbreaking recent front-page editorial, for instance, published jointly with 55 other international papers, in support of action at Copenhagen – which characterises the CRU material as “emails by British researchers that suggest they tried to suppress inconvenient data” – despite a complete lack of evidence that any data was withheld on account of its “inconvenience”. Or take The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart, here – wryly reporting, with astonishing recklessness, that the scientists have indeed been deliberately attempting to fool us.

Update: Read for example, Swallowing lies: how the denial lobby and a dishonest journalist created a fake scandal.

11. Compared with the manipulation and deceit routinely practiced by the denial industry, “Climategate” isn’t even worth mentioning.

For some representative evidence of what is a very large topic, see George Monbiot (here and here); or check out the Sourcewatch, ExxonSecrets and DeSmogBlog archives.


  1. Alvin

    HA, you make my sides hurt. The jig is up and we know your agenda. Now we know what “peer-reviewed” really means.

  2. Jamie Andrews

    This is a great post, thanks for taking the time to write it. I’d like some comments from the denialists!

  3. flöschen

    Great article. Although I’ve read about this on RealClimate before (and several other articles) it’s nice to have all in one place with that sound explanations. Thanks!

  4. Josie

    Excellent summing up. Nice one. I will direct people here.

    I found the whole episode morbidly depressing. Mass hysteria and a whole conspiracy narrative created around- basically nothing at all.

    On this George Monbiot sadly has a lot to answer for. He really hasn’t helped. He read something which he didn’t understand and panicked. He should have known better, or at least he should retract it now.


  5. Simon

    Monbiot is innocent. He was not the only one seemingly behind the curve on covering this. The whole climate change community seemed slow to react. Instant response is necessary, particular against such weak material as the denialists use.

  6. Richard

    Michael Tobis wrote a great piece on this, it included the following:

    What Was Actually Revealed

    * a rehash of a well-known controversy about how to present tree-ring data
    * frustration about too much attention to substandard scientific papers slipped into the literature by marginally qualified people with nonscientific agendas, and discussions about how to handle that
    * frustration about opposition by filibuster via freedom of information requests
    * a single suggestion about “deleting emails”, without any context, which plausibly does not refer to deleting emails from a server (scientists are probably aware that end users cannot really do this) but rather to deleting them from a response to one of many FOIA requests
    * some sloppy code and a pretty sad but perfectly typical lack of understanding of the advantages of dynamic programming languages
    * a couple of fudge factors explicitly labeled as such probably used in testing, commented out
    * some older data for which CRU is not the originator or primary repository is not in any known dataset at CRU
    * about 985 emails and 1995 other files of no apparent interest to anyone

    In other words, (withe the possible exception of the email deletion incident, which I imagine the lawyers are fretting about) the only things remotely unusual here are a direct consequence of the existence of a politically rather than scientifically motivated opposition.


  7. Josie

    Okay maybe I was unfairly harsh on Monbiot. But I wish he would explain the context in which these emails took place. That is what the public are missing. It is as if they walked into a pub to see a guy punch a second guy, but they didn’t witness the second before when the second guy hit the first.

    Climate science has taken place in a state of seige. Some people may have done some minor things wrong, but could it possibly NOT affect you when whatever you do is grabbed by dishonest people and misrepresented all over the internet?