10 Dec 2009: Opinion

Climategate: Anatomy of
A Public Relations Disaster

The way that climate scientists have handled the fallout from the leaking of hacked e-mails is a case study in how not to respond to a crisis. But it also points to the need for climate researchers to operate with greater transparency and to provide more open access to data.

by fred pearce

Lots of people believe in UFOs. It doesn’t make them right. Lots of people don’t believe in man-made climate change. It doesn’t make them right either.

The media blizzard that has descended on climate science since the hacking of hundreds of e-mails held on the webmail server at the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England, is set to become a case study — in public relations disasters, in the folly of incontinent electronic communication, in the shortcomings of peer review, and, very probably, in “how not to save the world.”

The e-mails, dating from the mid-1990s to early November this year, first surfaced online on Nov. 20. Within hours they were being described by a columnist in one national British newspaper, the right-leaning Daily Telegraph, as “the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming,” adding for good measure that “this scandal could well be the greatest in modern science.”

Follow that. Well, the world’s media did.

First let me declare a small interest. Thirteen years ago, I was completing a feature for New Scientist magazine in London about what tree rings were revealing about past climate change. I e-mailed a draft to Keith Briffa at the CRU, a principal source, to check some facts.

That e-mail turned up last month among the “Climategate” e-mails. A couple of weeks later a blogspot called Baseball Media Watch splashed it
There is plenty of evidence of a bunker mentality among many of the scientists.
under a headline: “‘Biblical intensity’ in search for sign of man-made global warming — and getting money to prove it — ClimateGate email.” It included a couple of sentences from my draft: “For climatologists, the search for an irrefutable ‘sign’ of anthropogenic warming has assumed an almost Biblical intensity... The case remains ‘not proven.’” — 1996, from Fred Pearce.

So what? Neither sentence made it into the published version of my feature — an edit that had nothing to do with Briffa, incidentally, nor any form of censorship other than economy with words. But in the fevered imaginings of the editors of Baseball Media Watch, my draft became part of the “smoking gun,” revealing a vast conspiracy involving hundreds, maybe thousands, of scientists trying to persuade us about man-made climate change.

I have read many of the thousands of e-mails. Not all, but many. So far I have seen precious little evidence in any of them that data has been manipulated in any way contrary to normal scientific procedures. Let’s take the best publicized cases — the jewel in the crown for conspiracy theorists. One e-mail from CRU director Phil Jones refers to “Mike’s Nature trick” to “hide the decline.” This has been widely represented to reveal efforts to secretly hide a real decline in temperatures to promote a falsehood about global warming.

Even a cursory reading of the e-mail shows that is not the case. In fact the “trick” — more sensibly described as a graphic device — was used by Michael Mann in a 1998 paper in Nature in which he added aggregated temperature records from instruments to complete a set of temperature data derived from tree rings. The “trick” got around a widely discussed problem that tree ring data after about 1960 do not show warming — probably because of intervening factors like nitrogen pollution or changes in atmospheric humidity. So he extrapolated the record, describing what he was doing in the paper itself. The “hidden” data was the discredited tree ring proxy data.

Now clearly this problem with tree ring data does not give us great grounds for believing older tree ring data (although other proxy data from lake sediments, coral and much else suggest it may be valid). And to the great majority of people not familiar with the problems of reconstructing past temperatures from proxy data, the “trick” may come as a surprise. But it is manifestly not clandestine data manipulation.

Likewise an apparent recent confession by Kevin Trenberth, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., that “we cannot account for the lack of warming at the moment, and it is a travesty that we can’t” could have been read about in the published literature by Trenberth months before. It is only a scandal if yanked wildly out of context. And there are many more such cases.

But it also true that there is plenty of evidence of a bunker mentality among many of the scientists, grousing and plotting against the handful of climate skeptics who, as they saw it, were trying to grab “their” data and then trash it on web sites and in op-ed articles that had far greater influence than the journals in which the scientists usually reported their work. Some of the language is ugly, especially discussion of trying to keep skeptics’ material out of scientific journals. That is not healthy, and it is not good for science. But it is rather understandable.

How many of us could withstand scrutiny of 15 years of our e-mails?

But this saga has now gone far beyond discussion of the content of the e-mails. The failure of the University of East Anglia to respond substantially to the avalanche of invective from climate skeptics has been a PR disaster that undermined the reputation of science as well as the institution itself. One angry media insider says: “Their response will be taught in university communications courses. Because I’m going to make sure it is.” The university’s failure for a full fortnight to put up a single scientist to defend Phil Jones amounted to cruelty.

During this silence, many things happened that otherwise might not.

For one thing, in Britain, the liberal media had no idea what to do. The London-based Guardian began by holding its nose, quoting the hysterical coverage among skeptic blogs and hoping the affair would go away. The equally liberal-minded Channel 4 TV news held up to ridicule the inability of a Fox News presenter to pronounce East Anglia (he hesitantly settled on “Angila”) and signed off.

Then the notably combative environmental writer George Monbiot declared in the Guardian that Jones should resign. That was a smoking gun for greens and liberals everywhere. What did Monbiot know? Still the university remained silent.

Viewers of the BBC watched a crashing of gears. For several years most of its coverage of climate change has been based on the scientific consensus that warming is real and that mankind is to blame. Did that still hold? The editors no longer knew for sure. Fearing for their impartiality, they abruptly reverted to the journalists’ default. Equal time (or close to it) for the skeptics.

Much the same happened in the United States, with seasoned experts like Andrew Revkin at the New York Times feeling unwilling to defend people whose employers were leaving them to hang in the breeze.

Everyone was running for cover. Even environmental campaigners kept quiet – ostensibly because it was up to scientists to defend their own, but equally because they were unnerved by Monbiot and others apparently siding with the skeptics.

After two weeks, the university announced that Jones had “stood down” while an inquiry took place. British ministers denounced “flat Earth”
Whoever was responsible for the original hacking, the heat rose because of the context.
skeptics, but also criticized the language in the e-mails. And the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change announced it was joining the inquiry business — but failed to defend Jones personally, even though (or perhaps because) he was one of the lead authors of its last report, covering precisely the issues now called into question.

Jones’ co-author at IPCC, Kevin Trenberth of NCAR, was clearly angered. He lamented, cryptically but unmistakably, in an open letter: “It is disappointing that the IPCC has not been more forthright in standing up for its procedures.” More directly, the American climate researcher Ben Santer wrote an open letter describing and praising the honest, open and transparent work of CRU, and calling Jones “one of the gentlemen of our field.”

Meanwhile the skeptics made hay.

They even invented a new organization to stoke up the rhetoric. Britain did not have its own high-profile skeptics organization. So Lord Nigel Lawson, a former chancellor of the exchequer under Margaret Thatcher and now avowed climate skeptic, set one up four days after the e-mails broke — the Global Warming Policy Foundation. The organization’s director, a social anthropologist named Benny Peiser, became an instant staple of the new “balanced” media reports.

I have concentrated on the media response because that has, to an extraordinary degree, been the story. But there will be other repercussions, when the breathless academics and policymakers catch up. This week there have been calls from members of American Physical Society to amend their 2007 statement declaring climate change an international emergency.

Climategate could also make scientists more cautious in their day-to-day work and their communications. That would be a big blow since science is a necessarily adversarial process that thrives on blunt debate. But as Mike Hulme, also of the University of East Anglia, wrote in the Wall Street Journal this month, as “climate scientists, knowingly or not, become proxies for political battles... science, as a form of open and critical enquiry, deteriorates while the more appropriate forums of ideological battles are ignored.”

On the other hand, there could be some benefits for science from this whole incident, such as greater transparency and open data access. Whoever was responsible for the original hacking (and the supposed miscreants range from Russians in cahoots with the Kremlin to Norwich interns on a night out), the heat rose because of the context. The Canadian skeptical researcher Steve McIntyre had submitted a blizzard of freedom of information applications to the University of East Anglia, demanding access to global temperature data assembled by Jones. The e-mails appeared just as the university was preparing its case for not releasing the data.

It is worth explaining why that was so. Jones had always refused to release the data, partly, as the e-mails reveal, because he simply didn’t want to and figured those demanding it wanted to trash his life’s work. But it was also partly because he couldn’t — much of the data was obtained with confidentiality agreements attached, including data from his own government’s Met Office.

One early outcome of the fracas is that British researchers will now be moving heaven and earth to get approval to release the data. Britain’s Met
Scientists have been good at sharing data within their priesthood, but dreadful at engaging the outside world.
Office, a government agency, released a subset of its global temperature data this week, with the rest to follow when it has secured permissions from the government bodies across the world that had supplied the data. And in a nod to a row that has simmered over demands for access to other data sets, the Met Office promised that “the specific computer code that aggregates the individual station temperatures into the global land temperature record... will also be published as soon as possible.”

The data do not show any surprises. And even if the data are regarded as tainted by association with Jones, the graphs he has produced of global temperatures over the past 150 years are almost identical to those produced by, among others, two U.S. agencies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

But that may not still the debate. Scientists have generally been good at sharing data within their priesthood — a somewhat closed world of publicly-employed scientists using peer-reviewed journals. What they have sometimes been dreadful at is engaging with the outside world — not just telling the world what they are up to, but allowing outsiders close enough to access and analyze their data. These days, scientists need rules of engagement for what to do when outsiders come calling, whether those outsiders are Greenpeace activists or investigative journalists or trouble-making climate skeptics.

In the climate community, and perhaps elsewhere, Climategate may lead to far greater openness about research data. It will hurt. But it is essential. Already the widely read blogsite for climate scientists, Realclimate.org, is promising to promptly post data and relevant computer codes on its site. Note that one of its leading lights is Michael Mann, a paleoclimatologist from Penn State University who figures in many of the more lurid e-mail exchanges but who insists, “I have nothing to hide.”

What about Copenhagen and the climate negotiations? In the short term, the fracas is unlikely to alter things much. The negotiators live in their own cocooned world. They have long since received their orders of engagement for the climate talks.

More from Yale e360

The Case Against the Skeptics
Stirring Up the Climate Debate

The controversy over hacked e-mails in the climate science community has emboldened global warming skeptics. But James Hoggan, founder of the Desmogblog, is taking on the deniers, accusing them of obfuscating an issue long ago settled by mainstream science.

Apocalypse Fatigue: Losing
the Public on Climate Change

Even as the climate science becomes more definitive, polls show that public concern in the United States about global warming has been declining. What will it take to rally Americans behind the need to take strong action on cutting carbon emissions?
“We don’t know how this will play out,” says Ben Stewart, media director at Greenpeace UK. “It’s not as if the Pentagon or the Chinese government will change their position as a result of these e-mails. The damage is being done in newsrooms.” And the fallout from the newsrooms could well influence how the public and legislators back home receive whatever deal is reached in Copenhagen and what will happen to the climate legislation now before the U.S. Senate.

Already the cries of bellicose skeptic Sen. James Inhofe can be heard on Capitol Hill inveighing once more against the climate conspiracy. That will be just the start. Al Gore returned from Kyoto in 1997 with a deal he knew would be next to impossible to sell to Congress. In the end, he and Bill Clinton never seriously tried. Thanks to Climategate, President Obama could find himself in a similar position next year.

I have been speaking to a PR operator for one of the world’s leading environmental organizations. Most unusually, he didn’t want to be quoted. But his message is clear. The facts of the e-mails barely matter any more. It has always been hard to persuade the public that invisible gases could somehow warm the planet, and that they had to make sacrifices to prevent that from happening. It seemed, on the verge of Copenhagen, as if that might be about to be achieved.

But he says all that ended on Nov. 20. “The e-mails represented a seminal moment in the climate debate of the last five years, and it was a moment that broke decisively against us. I think the CRU leak is nothing less than catastrophic.”

POSTED ON 10 Dec 2009 IN Climate Climate Forests Policy & Politics Water Europe North America North America 

COMMENTS


Please use the words "criminal conspiracy" for the destroying of emails and data that was paid for by the public and their right to know and possess. Mann forwarded an email by Jones to destroy information - they are both part of the same conspiracy. I am sorry but they are suspect and unfortunately their work is suspect.

This system must be flushed clean.

Posted by Pocantico on 10 Dec 2009


A true debacle always turns into a PR disaster, regardless of the response of the interested parties. And Climategate is, indeed, a scientific debacle.

From the National Academy of Sciences, Here is the crux of climategate (assuming the reader is familiar with the FOIA and the "lost" source data aspects of the issue):

Ensuring the Integrity, Accessibility, and
Stewardship of Research Data in the Digital Age

ISBN: 978-0-309-13684-6 National Academy of Sciences.

http://www.nap.edu/html/12615/12615_EXS.pdf

Data Access and Sharing Principle: Research data, methods, and other information integral to publicly reported results should be publicly accessible.

Recommendation 5: All researchers should make research data, methods, and other information integral to their publicly reported results publicly accessible in a timely manner to allow verification of published findings and to enable other researchers to build on published results…

Data Stewardship Principle: Research data should be retained to serve future uses.

Data that may have long-term value should be documented, referenced, and indexed so that others can find and use them accurately and appropriately. Curating data requires documenting, referencing, and indexing the data so that they can be used accurately and appropriately in the future.

Recommendation 9: Researchers should establish data management plans at the beginning of each research project that include appropriate provisions for the stewardship of research data.

These principles have been a defined part of the scientific method for decades, formally enumerated in 1934. They are not new.

The solution to this problem — as with so many others — is honesty.

Posted by jallen on 10 Dec 2009


Thoughtful post.

I have to say though that I wish that the media, including you, would stop harping on the "hide the decline" comment, as if it were the crux of the skeptics' concerns. It isn't, nor are the emails in general, except as an indicator of the gritty and unpleasant nature of peer review, and the parochial nature of the climate science field in general.

The real problem is the HarryReadMe file, which is currently being dissected with astonishment by disinterested coders across the globe, and which shows that the data weren't simply nudged a little, they were forced into a particular pattern, and in some cases simply created out of whole cloth. It's catastrophic. Given the parochial nature of the field revealed in the emails, I'm finding it increasingly difficult to believe that the CRU people acted independently from the GISS people. The numbers, and with them the basis of the science, are being called into question.

I agree with your optimism that this might actually help science in the long run. Truth is the daughter of time. But I'm now uncertain that the confidence in significant AGW will survive the scrutiny it's receiving.

Posted by Chill on 10 Dec 2009


Please excuse me if I found your article a bit verbose and not sticking to the point, but that's just a personal view.

You might like to know that Lawson's Global Warming Policy Foundation was 'launched' four days after the email scandal broke but had been in the works for a year and was formally registered as a charity three months before the email scandal broke.

I know you would like to try and be accurate.

Posted by Joan Cawley on 10 Dec 2009


The facts never escape. Your use of the word problem, problems continuously in the "newest" slight of hand being applied to the Hide the decline issue was very weak. The warmists would like everyone to simply accept their explanation for the word "trick", and move on. It will not work. The fact is that the trick to hide the decline is the issue. What are scientists in this field constantly hiding? Well, it appears that they have hidden data, hidden intentions, hidden emails, hidden within their bubble, hidden the weakness of the science. By the way when was this ever classified as a science? A political Science yes, but nothing more.

Basing the future of the world on tree rings? The thought boggles.

I agree with Professor Richard Lindzen from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who said:

“future generations will wonder in bemused amazement that the early 21st century’s developed world went into hysterical panic over a globally averaged temperature increase of a few tenths of a degree, and, on the basis of gross exaggerations of highly uncertain computer projections combined into implausible chains of inference, proceeded to contemplate a roll-back of the industrial age”.

Posted by Scott on 10 Dec 2009


The comments are more correct than the opinion in this article. Do you really think that all the scientists that DO not believe and HAVE not believed, due to facts, are few and ignorant? No. The UN has an agenda, as always, and uses 'scientists' in this case, that produce the results they want... plain and simple.

This is NOT about the environment, it is about MONEY and LOTS of it; and the repercussion will be MORE lost freedoms in many aspects of life and that, my friend, is a fact that is also hidden.

Posted by KDK on 10 Dec 2009


If the initial silence from the IPCC and from the university contributed to serious reporters' confusion about the potential power of the hacked material, then that silence was a mistake.

But I think the focus in your article on the PR-ineptitude of the university and the IPCC is odd. If I were a journalist, and I'm not getting answers from the people I am asking, what are my options? Make stuff up or ask the wrong people? Sure, I could do that. Or I could try talking to some other relevant people, and I could try asking the most important questions.

Instead, the NYT, for instance, immediately ran a front page article that claimed--based on pure fantasy--that the hacked material could "erode the overall argument," the overall anthropogenic global warming argument. (The article made this claim implicitly, by making the understatement of the year: the article said the material was "unlikely to erode the overall argument." By writing "unlikely," the NYT implied it was possible.)

Or consider the epitome of false balance, but forward by the Yale Forum on Climate Change and Media, of all things:

"Take those who see this event as the end of days when it comes to anthropogenic climate change with a huge grain of salt. And take those dismissing it as much ado about nothing with an equal dose."

Once again we have the suggestion that the materials possibly could undermine the anthropogenic global warming argument.

The PR failures of the university and the IPCC are no excuse for the failure of the media to think critically. You do not have to be a climate scientist to see that the burden of proof is on anyone who wants to suppose that the hacked material possibly *could possibly* have the power to erode the overall argument.

Instead of recognizing and honoring that burden of proof, the media ignored it and manufactured this possibility. Ironically, to their relative credit, less serious media and hate media at least acknowledge that endowing the materials with such fantastic powers is premised on a conspiracy fantasy.

The media engaged in wishful rather than critical thinking and engaged in a sensationalistic approach. *That* is no one's fault but their own. And *that* massive media FAIL is what most desperately needs to be examined in order for there to be any lessons learned from the very unseemly business of reading other people's mail.

Finally, frankly, I would like to ask you if you can understand how someone might see your own article as engaging in a related sensationalism regarding SwiftHack? Senator Inhofe et al. will clamor about anything and everything. Is there any interesting basis for writing:

"Already the cries of bellicose skeptic Sen. James Inhofe can be heard on Capitol Hill inveighing once more against the climate conspiracy. That will be just the start. Al Gore returned from Kyoto in 1997 with a deal he knew would be next to impossible to sell to Congress. In the end, he and Bill Clinton never seriously tried. Thanks to Climategate, President Obama could find himself in a similar position next year."

President Obama could, thanks to Climategate, find himself in Clinton's position relative to US policy on climate? President Obama *could* also, I suppose, find himself riding on a flying pig. How come no one is writing about that?

Posted by paulina on 10 Dec 2009


The problem is, if the code used in the programming was faulty, and some of the data was fudged then that cast a shadow on all climate science no matter how accurate it is!

I realise man must be hurting the atmosphere but at what levels? What if CO2 is not the sole cause and we try to correct the wrong problem? The real source of the problem goes unnoticed and the climate continues to deteriorate?

The programming models all assume CO2 is the driving factor, higher CO2, the higher the temperature. But that assumption has a problem, in the last decade temperature has leveled off as CO2 increase which means other factors are involved. The resources for this is wasted as the real source of the problem goes unchecked.

Posted by Freedom Good on 10 Dec 2009


"Lots of people don’t believe in man-made climate change. It doesn’t make them right either."

And lots of people - scientists even - *do* believe in man-made climate change. That has always seemed to be the principal reason given as to why I should also believe that it exists. And that, in itself, is enough to provoke doubts in the validity of the results.

I have carefully studied a great many of the CRU's Fortran programs, complete with programmer comments and I have read through hundreds of the emails. As a former research scientist, and later, a software quality manager, I had no difficulty in understanding the material in detail.

The evidence of wrongdoing and falsification of results is as clear as anything could be.

And PLEASE do not say "How many of us could withstand scrutiny of 15 years of our e-mails?".

My emails, like those of my colleagues, might contain some embarrassing phrases but my emails most certainly would not show that I had falsified results in my published papers. Nor would they show that I had conspired to break the law.

Posted by Martin Ackroyd on 10 Dec 2009


This is the best analysis I’ve seen of the fallout from the whole Climate-gate debacle. I wonder why Pearce and others in the media didn’t do more earlier to promote the release of the data. It clearly would have served the cause of science and of keeping the public informed.

Posted by Andrew Ruffalo on 10 Dec 2009


I've read a lot if comments from people saying the emails have been taken out of context, or these emails prove nothing.

I work in investment banking ( in the one bank that preserved it's reputation) However, I have been shocked by the churlish, immature, aggressive, thugish language that has been used.

I can honestly say in 20 years of banking I have never seen such unprofessional behaviour. To send any of the bad emails I have seen would damage a persons reputation and they might well be fired. This is about standards, about acting like mature, professional adults.

From what I see scientists are less mature than the students that apply to study under them.

Posted by Robin Sharp on 10 Dec 2009


The issue is about getting the science right. If there is a scientific community we need to trust them. If this bickering goes on much longer we won't need science anymore, because we will have our own sense and experience as we witness the climate change first hand and come to our own conclusions and senses.

Sadly it may be too late, in which case all the predictive work of science will have been for naught.

Posted by Chris Pratt on 10 Dec 2009


As others have said, READ THE CLIMATE MODELING CODE. The climategate deniers, quickly quote the soundbite emails that first hit the news. Then say, "out of context", "10 years old". etc etc.

It almost would have been better if the emails hadnt even been released, just the code. That way it wouldn't be so easy for the Climategate deniers to try and brush aside the easiest to understand component.

The code reveals intentionally altering and straight up inventing data. Nothing anyone trying to smother climategate can say, will change that fact.

Posted by Read THeCode on 10 Dec 2009


Your defense of the data manipulation misses a major point: "... So he extrapolated the record, describing what he was doing in the paper itself. The “hidden” data was the discredited tree ring proxy data."

and...

"And to the great majority of people not familiar with the problems of reconstructing past temperatures from proxy data, the “trick” may come as a surprise. But it is manifestly not clandestine data manipulation. "

So, when data is extrapolated and/or manipulated because it's necessary to fill in missing data AND it is disclosed, as in the Michael Mann paper, then no, it would not be clandestine.

However, if some data was extrapolated, filled in, manipulated, etc., and NOT disclosed then I would consider it clandestine i.e. not trustable.

I would think this would be obvious. That is why the world has virtually thrown away the AGW conclusion--how much is made up? Who knows, so it's all suspect.

Posted by hsdell on 10 Dec 2009


I appreciate your attempts to simultaneously acknowledge the public relations disaster this has caused, and protect the integrity of the scientists involved, but I'm disappointed that you are still trying to rehabilitate the thoroughly discredited tree ring data. The fact that this particular dataset shows temperatures declining in recent years should discredit the entire dataset, if not the method being used overall.

My condolences if this ruins your life's work, but maybe tree ring data just isn't a reliable method of estimating prehistoric temperatures, after all.

Posted by Eddie Stein on 10 Dec 2009


I'm honestly taken quite aback by many of the comments on this article here. Many are insinuating some sort of global scientific conspiracy or that the crude language in a few scientists emails somehow taints the multiple and robust lines of evidence pointing to anthropogenic global warming. Thousands of scientists worldwide have completed many studies on different aspects of this, including many on direct observations of current changes to our climate that have nothing to do with dendrochronology.

No one can argue that global average temperatures haven't warmed over recent history, that the past decade isn't the warmest in recorded history, that the Arctic ice cap and mountain glaciers aren't receded at unprecedented rates, that sea level hasn't risen or that ocean acidity hasn't increased. Nor that humans aren't significantly changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere by injecting billions of tons of carbon in to it annually, and that the rate of change for ppm of CO2 isn't 600 times greater than the historical rate of change coming out of the last ice age. If CO2 isn't the main driver behind the observed changes, then what is?

We're clearly changing the energy balance of the Earth. Why hasn't anyone come up with an alternate plausible explanation that holds up, surely it would receive attention with all the clamoring these handful of cherry-picked, out of context email phrases are getting... it's because there isn't one.

Posted by Scott on 10 Dec 2009


Why do you gloss over the data question? CRU has admitted that they don't have the raw data. You act as if the release is imminent.

Jones lied about having the data. He acted as if he had the data and pretended to refuse to honor FOI requests. And when this is refusal is no longer sustainable? They claim they lost the data.

This is the most important part of the scandal. And it is almost as scandalous that this article glosses over it.

Posted by Mick Langan on 11 Dec 2009


The real problem for the media is that they haven't bothered to do their job for the last 10 years and now they are being exposed for the AGW evangelist press release regurgitators they are.

What is even more amazing is the, frankly laughable, defence that the emails are somehow examples of the normal to and fro in scientific discourse. Andrew Ruffalo is spot on.

I have worked in senior positions in large and small business enterprises. Any executive that conducted themselves in that manner is unlikely to reach a senior level because they would have been fired long ago. Since the inception of the internet even junior staff are taught not to write anything in an email you are not prepared to see on the front page of the daily newspaper, and to treat all written communications as if your will be reading them out in court one day.

These CRU guys should be fired for immaturity and incompetence, and that has nothing to do with the AGW fraud.

Posted by Dean McAskil on 11 Dec 2009


You can't justify the CRU data by saying that even if it was tampered with it still matches the other temperature data sets so it is true. The programing code shows that the CRU data was fraudulently adjusted. If that data still matches the other temperature data then the other data must be called in to question as well.

Posted by Matthew Bergin on 11 Dec 2009


Many commenters here focus their attention on the code leaked from the CRU. They are absolutely right. Forget the emails. The code speaks volume.

What we see is buggy code, bad computer science, lousy data integrity and abysmal record-keeping. This is compounded by programs that fudge or create data out of thin air and create trends where the CRU's fragmented, unverifiable data doesn't show any.

This is beyond the pale and it will have durable consequences on science credibility as a whole.

Posted by Francis Kohl on 11 Dec 2009


Why I don't understand is how anybody thinks silence is even kind of an effective strategy when something like this breaks. In this day with the 24 hour news cycle and the blogosphere craving immediate answers, silence just doesn't work. If they don't come out with a statement quickly people are still going to be talking about it, speculating etc. without hearing from the source. Silence and/or waiting too long is longer an effective strategy in dealing with something like this.

Posted by Mike Taylor on 13 Dec 2009


There have always been problems with the quantification of the tree ring data. The community used it because it was convenient and graphic - it was more "understandable" to the public than, say, ice cores. Now we are paying the price for this simplification.

The worst aspect of this entire episode at Norwich is the way in which the community has responded. You rightfully take UEA to task on this. But it is the entire community that is at fault, especially the IPCC community. They have done a lousy job at interpreting the results of the various reports. When a report is completed, there is a flurry of press releases, a few open meeting with "stakeholders" - and then off to work on the next report. There is no effort to systematically reach out to the public in any substantial way. This job is left to the media who focus on simplistic aspects of climate change - like tree rings, or a retreating (or non-retreating) glacier.

Much as Kerry was "Swift-boated" in his election campaign, we are allowing the deniers the same easy target. We are doing nothing to counter these people in a substantial way other than to say, trust us. This is pitiful and shameful and it undermines all the great and scientifically-sound research that is being done.

Posted by Joseph Prospero on 13 Dec 2009


Paulina,
excellent comment. It seems like the media seeks most of their information from the deniers--I haven't seen any case of the media going to the authors of the emails to get their side of the issue. There have been many clear explanations of the meaning of the most quoted of these emails--Real Climate had a long explanation very early on (much along the same line as Pierce's explanations above)--but I seldom see or hear any of this mentioned by the MSM, even by way of balance. There are a few notable exceptions, but even in those cases they use terms like “unseemly”—given that these are private communications, I think even that characterization is harsh (see http://climateprogress.org/2009/12/07/time-magazine-climategate-swifthack/#comment-225924). The MSM does, however, seem only too happy to provide "balance" by giving deniers almost unlimited access. Maybe I wasn't paying attention, but I don't recall the media giving Tobacco Deniers anything like the standing that they are giving Climate Deniers.

Do the scientists seem to have a bunker mentality? How could it be otherwise given the ferocity, and vacuity, of the Denial attacks, especially when the attacks are picked up and given play in the NY Times, Washington Post, Wall Street journal, and other major newspapers? The biggest lesson I am getting from this is that the MSM is by and large worthless and it really leads me to question their coverage of any stories, climate related or not.

Posted by Dave E on 14 Dec 2009


i think this is a very fair minded article, but I can not agree with the conclusions re the CRU emails.

The important part of this is not the individual comments and loose talk but the story of how a group of highly influential scientists drifted from scientific discussion to political ideology.

The big talk big politics and apocylptic stories for the media mushroomed beyond belief conspiracy? or science corrupted by politics money and the media and herd activity. A chill has set in.

Posted by Paul Kerr on 15 Dec 2009


Much like medical specialists compelled to warn the public when identifying a dangerous epidemic, so do climate scientists when all the scientific evidence and direct observations around the world point to calamitous runaway shift in the state of the atmosphere.

Whereas the climate change denialists have been fabriacting data and ingoring the basic laws of physics and chemistry with impunity, as propagated on the pages of the "conservative" media, when serious errors in judgement (not in science) were made by a couple climate scientists in their desperate attempts to warn the world of catastrophe, all hell broke loose.

Nothing in this affair contradicts the facts all around - the rapid melting of ice sheets, tripling of sea level rise rates, desertification of mid-latitude agricultural zones, intensifying hurricanes ...


Posted by Andrew on 21 Dec 2009


All of these posts are interesting - one of the best discussions of the real issues I've seen yet. I have a couple of points to add.

First, I wonder if the community of scientists who support the AGW theory value or even accept the possibility that others can disagree with them for intellectually valid reasons? You wrote:

"These days, scientists need rules of engagement for what to do when outsiders come calling, whether those outsiders are Greenpeace activists or investigative journalists or trouble-making climate skeptics."

Are all skeptics trouble-makers, or only those disagreeing with you?

Second, the defense of the AGW scientists seems always to address the emails and refer to them as stolen, but having worked for a government agency myself, I know that everything I wrote in email or in any other document was public property and subject to FOI laws. If the material was all subject to FOI laws it could not, by definition, be stolen. As an aside, why would the historic records of temperatures ever be subject to any sort of non-disclosure agreements? If these temperature records were created using public funds, then they should be made public.

Third, one commenter wrote:
"No one can argue that global average temperatures haven't warmed over recent history, that the past decade isn't the warmest in recorded history, that the Arctic ice cap and mountain glaciers aren't receded at unprecedented rates, that sea level hasn't risen or that ocean acidity hasn't increased. Nor that humans aren't significantly changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere by injecting billions of tons of carbon in to it annually, and that the rate of change for ppm of CO2 isn't 600 times greater than the historical rate of change coming out of the last ice age. If CO2 isn't the main driver behind the observed changes, then what is? "

What believable proof can you offer for asserting that the past decade is the warmest in recorded history? Do you mean since measurements of temperature have been recorded? Do you mean any time in history, such as the Medieval period? Who can believe that the Arctic ice cap is receding at an unprecedented rate given the uncertainty of other assertions of this type? I have read accounts on the internet which contradict the reports of Arctic ice loss. I rarely believe anything I read about AGW any more, even if it is a simple temperature record, because I don't know the source and I don't believe that these events are being reported honestly by the scientific community or be the media.

I will close with a (semi) quote from "Freakonomics" by Levitt and Dubner.
In the 1980's an advocate for the homeless reportedly told a college audience that 45 homeless people die each second - which would mean a whopping 1.4 billion dead homeless every year. ( at the time the US population was 225 million.)

Exaggerating to make a point is so common today that most people don't even pay attention anymore to this sort of statistic (I certainly do.) "Climate deniers", as we are called are not on the payroll of big oil. We just want an honest debate, without name-calling, with no unbelievable doomsday scenarios made up to drive the point home, and with real, verifiable facts.

Posted by Joe on 22 Dec 2009


To paraphrase James Carville's great 1992 quip... it's the code, stupid. Climategate is about the code, not scientists being snippy. The code has been manipulated to create trends where none existed.

Writers like Fred Pierce won't even look at in-depth analysis of this code, instead, they use classic misdirection to divert attention away from the code. Fred, if you have any objectivity, read what programmers have written about this code. Search for climategate code and "fudge factor" and you'll see many articles where the code has been manipulated to show a warming trend where there wasn't any. Oh, and read the comments to your article. You could learn a lot.

Posted by Grady C on 26 Dec 2009


One thing that's not too clear with me is, why do these e-mails even need to be classified. I'm not saying that the fact that they have been hacked is 'not' an issue since it is as it poses a threat to 'other' information that may be classified. But i believe that as far as the environment is concerned, transparency is required, the people need to know what's going on. Its not some extreme rocket science based formula that has been compromised but some details about mother earth that some day or the other we will know and will regret.

The question is, when will the nations of the world start sharing secrets at least on matters which are of a global scale?

Posted by Sydney M on 10 Jan 2010


Great article on the climate gate debacle, and one of the best discussions I've seen... however, I must say I disagree with this.

This isn't about the environment, its all about money. I think that it would've been better if the code got released instead of the emails...

Posted by Dan on 11 Jan 2010


Although the first thing I am going to mention is not on topic, I still think it's a valid point. many people use the term "conspiracy theorist" as a derogatory term.

Although some theories may be off the mark, said theroist shows the intergrity to question what they are being told and they look for answers. is this not much better than people not caring about such an important matter?

Anyway, moving on; I agree with Sydney M. He asks when the world's nations start sharing information on such an important matter.

In order to tackle this glabal issue we need to share information and learn from each other. Classifying emails is not the answer in the first place. If even the tiniest bit of useful information is recovered then it will benefit everyone.

Posted by Ryan Holdaway on 15 Jan 2010


RE: Joe, you asked:
"What believable proof can you offer for asserting that the past decade is the warmest in recorded history? Who can believe that the Arctic ice cap is receding at an unprecedented rate given the uncertainty of other assertions of this type?"

By recorded history I was referring to the time period of 1880 to present which is when humans began keeping temperature records using instruments. See: http://data.giss.nasa.gov/gistemp/graphs/

I know historically this is not that long of a time period and that change has occurred over the past. However, looking at the rate of change is what's important. A 1 degree C rise is global temperature in 100 years is not common in the geologic record looking at proxy data. Aradhna Tripati has been doing some excellent research revealing CO2 levels have not been at their current concentration in 15 million years!

By the Arctic ice cap thinning I was referring to recent data from NASA's Ice, Cloud and Elevation Satellite. See: http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/icesat-20090707.html

There are also many other lines of observational evidence that support the reality of a rapidly transforming Arctic.

Hope this helps.

Posted by Scott on 15 Jan 2010


California is hyper-aware of impending climate change, as well as various earth changes, being a state which experiences multiple environmental dynamics on a regular basis. Nature itself will surely handle its own public relations in due time. This controversy will surely pass.

Posted by California Blogger on 20 Jan 2010


Your analogy to start this comment is horrible.

"Lots of people believe in UFOs. It doesn’t make them right. Lots of people don’t believe in man-made climate change. It doesn’t make them right either."

You comment almost assumes that man-made climate change has been proven. Someone not in agreement should be lumped together with a wacko UFO sighting claim. Making comments like that do create shock value but take away from the validity of your article. I don't deny anthropogenic global warming, but do believe a lot more must be done before it can be considered proven science. Especially, since public relations surrounding isn't exactly favorable.

Posted by John Crosley on 21 Jan 2010


This is very unconvincing special pleading.

It is misleading to splice together two incommensurable types of data (tree rings up to 1850 and then instrumental measurements beyond) to produce a desired effect (rising temperature trend). To show the trend over 1,000 years they should only present proxy measures that continue over the whole period unchanged. But they don't because this doesn't reveal the dramatic red blade of the hockey stick at the end.

Posted by Estetik on 25 Jan 2010


Great article on the climate gate debacle, and this is one of the best discussions.

This isn't about the environment, its all about money and the repercussion will be MORE lost freedoms in many aspects of life and that I think that it would've been better if the code got released instead of the emails. The code reveals intentionally altering and straight up inventing data. Nothing anyone trying to smother climate gate can say, will change that fact.

Posted by

Anthony P

on 05 Feb 2010


Great article on the climate gate debacle, and one of the best discussions I've seen... however, I must say I disagree with this.

This isn't about the environment, its all about money. I think that it would've been better if the code got released instead of the emails...

Posted by Jogos Gratis on 16 Feb 2010


Estetik writes:

"This is very unconvincing special pleading.

It is misleading to splice together two incommensurable types of data (tree rings up to 1850 and then instrumental measurements beyond) to produce a desired effect (rising temperature trend). To show the trend over 1,000 years they should only present proxy measures that continue over the whole period unchanged. But they don't because this doesn't reveal the dramatic red blade of the hockey stick at the end.
"
Are you serious? They shouldn't use the *direct measure* when it's available? As for it being 'misleading' the substitution was noted and explained in the actual research papers the graph is from, and in IPCC 2007 WG1; it only went missing in a summary version.

One could argue that the tree ring data should instead be *removed* from the whole series since it became seriously anomalous after 1960 (reasons unknown but quite possibly due to ...feedback from AGW and environmental damage). By seriously I mean: it contradicted ALL of the other measures, proxy and direct. Such that if you remove the recent tree ring proxy data, the rest of the proxies (and the direct measures) still show...a 'hockey stick'.

Tree rings were NEVER the whole paleoclimate story, just one part.

Posted by Steven Sullivan on 28 Feb 2010


I've followed this issue since 1993 as an activist at first, but that was too heartbreaking for 10 years, so now I get my headaches from reading crap like climategate.

Here's the deal folks. It's happening, RIGHT FREAKING NOW. I don't care about the IPCC, Michael Mann, Phil Jones, Jim Hansen or Al Core. They don't care about me either. But what I do care about is the fact that ice is meling all over the world, an undisputed fact, except for some very stupid dido heads. We don't need temp data, we don't need more graphs, we don't even need anymore research; the case is settled. What we do need is to adapt.

I wish I could make bets on climate tipping points. Because I'd bet we've passed plenty enough of them already. Of course we are going to study this for the next 20 years, which will make us even more in a "too late" scenerio. Just watch the Nova special called Extreme Ice. Photos will teach you everything you need to know about climate change.

So, all this debate about emissions reduction is a waste of time. Our time and money needs to be spent on ADAPTATION. Because here she comes folks, a wall of water.

Posted by Danny Heim on 15 Apr 2010


Great article on the climate gate debacle, and this is one of the best discussions.

This isn't about the environment, its all about money and the repercussion will be MORE lost freedoms in many aspects of life and that I think that it would've been better if the code got released instead of the emails. The code reveals intentionally altering and straight up inventing data. Nothing anyone trying to smother climate gate can say, will change that fact.

http://free1proxy.blogspot.com
Posted by Ahmed on 11 May 2010


Great article on the climate gate debacle, and one of the best discussions I've seen...

Sadly it may be too late, in which case all the predictive work of science will have been for naught.

My Sites: http://www.techworld.info

Posted by Ivan on 14 May 2010


You can't justify the CRU data by saying that even if it was tampered with it still matches the other temperature data sets so it is true. The programing code shows that the CRU data was fraudulently adjusted. If that data still matches the other temperature data then the other data must be called in to question as well.

Posted by reiki on 27 Jul 2010


It is misleading to splice together two incommensurable types of data (tree rings up to 1850 and then instrumental measurements beyond) to produce a desired effect (rising temperature trend).

Posted by Dan on 16 Oct 2010


"But it is manifestly not clandestine data manipulation."

Says who? You? No bias to see here folks, move along...

Posted by Mike M. on 06 Apr 2011


Comments have been closed on this feature.
fred pearceABOUT THE AUTHOR
Fred Pearce is a freelance author and journalist based in the UK. He is environment consultant for New Scientist magazine and author of the recent books When The Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence. His latest book is Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff. In earlier articles for Yale Environment 360 Pearce has written about the issues of overconsumption and overpopulation, and about what he calls humankind’s addiction to nitrogen.
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