Climategate – what you need to know

It’s been called the climate change “scandal of the century,” “the final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming,” even a “crime against science.”  But what’s really going on in the controversy that has been dubbed “ClimateGate?”

Here’s the background:  A large number of emails from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia web-server were released.  In these pieces of private correspondence, climate scientists “detail[ed] how temperature data was being forged to prove alleged ‘manmade global warming,'” as OneNewsNow puts it.   Fox News says the researchers were “brazenly discussing the destruction and hiding of data that did not support global warming claims.”

Needless to say, the right-wing blogosphere is having a field day with this.  I haven’t read all the emails myself (Frankly, I have better things to do than peruse other people’s private correspondence.), but I have read about the issue — and there’s more to it — or really, less to it — than the headlines above suggest.

This post is fairly long, so here are the basic points:

  1. The emails and other files were obtained illegally.
  2. The emails were taken out of context, and most, if not all, of the “incriminating” comments were misinterpreted.
  3. Someone sifted through thousands of messages to find a few damaging ones — and those few could have been edited.
  4. The emails do not change our understanding of science.  The science of climate change does not stand or fall based on the private communications of a few researchers.
  5. The people and organizations pushing this story have, for several years, been engaged in a campaign to delay action on climate change and are known to be funded by polluting corporations (Exxon Mobil, etc.).

So now I’ll try to explain those points.  Remember that this article is based on the information that’s available now (and that I’ve had the time to read).

First of all, the emails weren’t released, they were stolen.  Last time I checked, hacking private computer files was a crime.  But cybercrime isn’t anything new, so let’s take a look at the contents of the emails themselves.  This is the one that deniers are screaming about the most (emphasis mine):

From: Phil Jones
To: ray bradley ,mann@[snipped], mhughes@
Subject: Diagram for WMO Statement
Date: Tue, 16 Nov 1999 13:31:15 +0000
Cc: k.briffa@[snipped],t.osborn@[snipped]
Dear Ray, Mike and Malcolm,

Once Tim’s got a diagram here we’ll send that either later
today or first thing tomorrow. I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature
trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20
years (ie from 1981 onwards) amd [sic] from1961 for Keith’s to
hide the decline. Mike’s series got the annual land and marine
values while the other two got April-Sept for NH land N of 20N.
The latter two are real for 1999, while the estimate for 1999
for NH combined is +0.44C wrt 61-90. The Global estimate for
1999 with data through Oct is +0.35C cf. 0.57 for 1998.

Thanks for the comments, Ray.

Cheers, Phil

Apparently, this is irrefutable proof that global warming is a worldwide Left-Wing Conspiracy cooked up by socialist tree-hugging elitists who want to raise our taxes and take away our hamburgers.

Not quite.

RealClimate explains:

The paper in question is the Mann, Bradley and Hughes (1998) Nature paper on the original multiproxy temperature reconstruction, and the ‘trick’ is just to plot the instrumental records along with reconstruction so that the context of the recent warming is clear. Scientists often use the term “trick” to refer to a “a good way to deal with a problem”, rather than something that is “secret”, and so there is nothing problematic in this at all.

That article also describes the “decline” that Phil Jones was nefariously hiding:

As for the ‘decline’, it is well known that Keith Briffa’s maximum latewood tree ring density proxy diverges from the temperature records after 1960 (this is more commonly known as the “divergence problem”–see e.g. the recent discussion in this paper) and has been discussed in the literature since Briffa et al in Nature in 1998 (Nature, 391, 678-682). Those authors have always recommend not using the post 1960 part of their reconstruction, and so while ‘hiding’ is probably a poor choice of words (since it is ‘hidden’ in plain sight), not using the data in the plot is completely appropriate, as is further research to understand why this happens.

You can read more on the “decline” here.

Some slightly less friendly articles (like this one) say that Jones was actually, shall we say, improving a graph to make his conclusions more persuasive.  This practice, while not entirely honest, is seen fairly often, inside and outside the scientific world.  But regardless of what Jones did, we need to understand one thing:  He did not change or manipulate the data itself.

The scientists also made a number of comments about climate deniers that they might have worded differently, had they expected to be quoted on TV and across the Internet.  However, (and I’ll refer to RealClimate again),

More interesting is what is not contained in the emails. There is no evidence of any worldwide conspiracy, no mention of George Soros nefariously funding climate research, no grand plan to ‘get rid of the MWP’, no admission that global warming is a hoax, no evidence of the falsifying of data, and no ‘marching orders’ from our socialist/communist/vegetarian overlords.

Here’s a statement from Peter Frumhoff of the Union of Concerned Scientists:

Unfortunately for these conspiracy theorists, what the e-mails show are simply scientists at work, grappling with key issues, and displaying the full range of emotions and motivations characteristic of any urgent endeavor. Any suggestions that these e-mails will affect public and policymakers’ understanding of climate science give far too much credence to blog chatter and boastful spin from groups opposed to addressing climate change.

“We should keep in mind that our understanding of climate science is based not on private correspondence, but on the rigorous accumulation, testing and synthesis of knowledge often represented in the dry and factual prose of peer-reviewed literature.

We don’t even know for sure that every email is real. Kevin Grandia, who has more experience than most of us with this type of thing, says,

The folder of information contains over 3,800 separate files and it is clear that someone has taken a lot of time to pull together what they thought would be the most damaging. This is not the work of a hacker, unless that hacker is extremely well-versed in climate science, and specifically the conspiracy theories of the climate denial movement.

Of course, I have no idea if the messages were edited, but how hard would it have been?

One thing I know for sure is that the issue is being blown WAY out of proportion.  Even if the most incriminating interpretations of the emails were correct, it does not really change our understanding of climate science.  For one thing, the studies called into question (such as the “Hockey Stick”) are, are not the foundation for our concern about global warming.  But the main point is that physics has not shown the courtesy to step aside while we sort out this scandal.  The early impacts of climate change are still being seen, and the conspiracists at NASA keep reporting record temperatures.  Matt Dernoga puts it well:

A few e-mails of out thousands sent by a few scientists out of thousands taken out of context by global warming deniers does not come within a light year of collapsing all of the scientific research, data, and current events that point to a warming planet caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

One more thing to remember.  This most vocal organizations behind this story are “free market” think tanks that have been fighting clean energy policy for years.  And they just happen to be on the payrolls of oil and coal giants.  Here are a few examples.

  • American Enterprise Institute offered to pay “experts” $10,000 to write papers that countered the IPCC reports. AEI has received close to half a million from oil-giant ExxonMobil, former Exxon Chairman Lee Raymond sits on AEI’s board of directors.
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute: The CEI is well-known for its public efforts to aggressively counter the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change.  That may have something to do with their TV ads proclaiming “C02, We Call it Life.” Since 1998, the CEI has received over $2 million in funding from oil-giant ExxonMobil.
  • Media Research Center: Run by Brett Bozell, this group also operates the popular right-wing blog, The Media Research Center has received over $257,000 from oil-giant ExxonMobil since 1998.

This is just part of the list put together by Jim Hoggan of DeSmogBlog.

As long as this post is, I have no way to find every quote and every statement that relates to this issue.  So here’s some links for even more info.

Josh Nelson has very complete article, which he is updating as more news comes out.  DeSmogBlog is also keeping an eye on the story.  On the denier side, a Fox News writer instructs you to be “hot and bothered” about Climategate.  And of course, there’s the Wikipedia page.

That’s all for now (finally).  The verdict:  Don’t go crazy about Climategate.  And don’t get distracted.  There are much more important things going on.  Remember Copenhagen?  Well, they haven’t called it off yet.  Stay tuned — I’ll keep you updated.


One thought on “Climategate – what you need to know

  1. Pingback: Must-see “Climategate” video « Through a Green Lens

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