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.

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.

There is plenty of evidence of a bunker mentality among many of the scientists.

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 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.

Whoever was responsible for the original hacking, the heat rose because of the context.

After two weeks, the university announced that Jones had “stood down” while an inquiry took place. British ministers denounced “flat Earth” 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.

Scientists have been good at sharing data within their priesthood, but dreadful at engaging the outside world.

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 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,, 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.

“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.”