It’s been a year since I was pulled back into the climate wars. I’d been a frequent visitor and sometime poster before the CRU email hack – aka “Climategate” – but had been busy with other matters, work and personal and so I had been absent for probably a year or more from the climate blogosphere. Sure, I still read the occasional blog and received email updates for Real Climate, so I read all the posts there. But surfing the climate blogs was not a major preoccupation.
I’ve always loved a good debate, enjoyed the fray involved in the clash of ideas, but the climate wars just tired me out. The unrelenting sameness of the battle, the immovable front, the same ol same ol dead horse flogged into a pulp… It became too much and I took a break.
I figured that no matter what I did or didn’t do to participate, the thing would live on like a bad case of zombie fever — and I was right! Feeling very much like Michael Corleone, when I did get drawn right back in through a hat-tip about the CRU hack from an old libertarian adversary-friend, I found the armies and tactics pretty much the same. Mostly the same players, mostly the same refrain, although the tenor of the debates became a bit more hysterical with deniers gleefully cherry-picking emails for quotes to mis-represent and a number of AGW supporters wondering what it all meant.
At first, it seemed too good to be true — “tricks” to “hide the decline”, comments about subverting the peer review process, requests that others delete emails that may have been subject to FOIA. I was forced to ask whether the scientists involved were trying to mislead, overstate, and break laws and codes in the service of a scientific theory or personal gain as the critics claimed.
First, the hackers — persons unauthorized to release the emails to the public — did not release the entire email record for the time period covered. Thus, we have an incomplete record.
Second, the hackers released only select emails, which I suspect included a combination of “incriminating”emails and mundane emails. There was a purpose in releasing the selection of emails. As in any sample, I can’t know how representative it is unless I know the way the sample was selected. A sample can be completely biased and thus deceptive of the whole. You can’t accept findings or evidence at face value: you must know the methods and how accurately they were followed to know if the findings are sound. In science, this occurs through the peer review process, papers are published, evidence is presented and conclusions made, where lines of evidence are followed by other researchers, methods are tested, and findings / conclusions are found either valid or not.
The emails we do have may seem incriminating on the face of it, but we have no idea whether there were other emails that completed thoughts or clarified matters, taking away the taint of the emails when taken out of context. We don’t know whether Jones didn’t later, in email or by phone or in person say, “I was just kidding.” or “I was so mad, I wrote something really stupid.” There may not be any such email, of course, but without access to the entire record, we can’t know for certain. Hence, speculation about cherry-picked emails is premature.
Certainly many emails were taken out of context — twice — first through the incomplete and mysterious sample, then by critics who took quotes from them and spun them to suit the denialist or contrarian message. It was only later that some interested observers looked deeper and provided much needed context, and when they did, the context clarified the intent of the writers.
Here, for example, is an explanation that I completely accept, from Real Climate about the “trick” quote:
No doubt, instances of cherry-picked and poorly-worded “gotcha” phrases will be pulled out of context. One example is worth mentioning quickly. Phil Jones in discussing the presentation of temperature reconstructions stated that “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) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” 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. 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.
The issue of the “trick” of “hiding the decline” has been discussed again and again and again, and while the wording may be regrettable, the intent was not to deceive but to keep out the data that would mislead. In fact, it was the opposite of what critics claimed it was intended to do. The post-1960 data no longer reflected temperature — it diverged — and thus if the graphic was to include the decline in tree ring width/density, it might mislead the average viewer into believing that the temperature declined, where it of course, did not.
Sarah Palin is a case in point — although I suspect her error was not quite innocent.
From her Washington Post op-ed:
The e-mails reveal that leading climate “experts” deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to “hide the decline” in global temperatures…
Of course, this is misleading in two respects — first, the emails do not reveal that records were deliberately destroyed. To prove that, we would have to check the email record and backup. The emails show a climate scientist making a statement that others should delete emails. We have no proof that they in fact followed through with the statement or that they even retracted the statement later in a fit of common sense.
Second, the temperatures did not decline nor did the CRU graphic in the World Climate Report hide any decline in temperatures since there was none. Did the WP follow-up on the accuracy of Palin’s screed and correct errors?
Marc Ambinder, politics editor of The Atlantic, provides a detailed criticism
The next big issue was subverting the peer review process. Greenfyre has a good comment up on this:
Here’s Mann’s email excerpt, from Greenfyre:
“…The other paper by MM is just garbage – as you knew. De Freitas again. Pielke is also losing all credibility as well by replying to the mad Finn as well – frequently as I see it. I can’t see either of these papers being in the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow – even if we have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!” 1089318616.txt
As Greenfyre points out, climate scientists are obligated to report research that they feel is flawed and discussing this with journal editors is completely acceptable.
Whether they are right or wrong about the science, a researcher has a moral obligation to use ethical and legal means to try and prevent the publication or use of work that they sincerely believe to be false and endangers human well being.
That is not a crime, it is actually a moral duty. Further, there is no evidence that the CRU Crew did anything unethical or illegal in seeking to do this. [original emphasis]
The email was held up as proof that climate scientists were preventing dissenting views from being published in the journals. What they were doing instead was preventing poor or false work masquerading as research to be published, which is quite a different matter. The whole Climate Research journal debacle is a case in point.
Many bloggers addressed the efforts to mislead about the CRU hack and what it means, including Real Climate, Climate Progress, and so many others. It’s worth going back and re-reading what they wrote at the time.
What’s of note is that a year later, things are pretty much where they were before the emails were hacked and released. Well, Phil Jones had a very rough year, the people spent money conducting inquiries into the hack, including police investigations, parliamentary investigations, university investigations. Michael Mann was vindicated again and again
In the end? Nada, nothing, nichts, nils. No crime or fraud has been found to have been committed on the part of the climate scientists involved, and the real potential crime — the hacking of the CRU email server — is still unsolved. The globe is still warming and CO2 is still the main culprit. The science of anthropogenic global warming is intact.
The important take-away from this whole debacle is this: in an effort to influence climate policy, denialists and others working on their behalf (knowingly or otherwise) have tried to change public opinion on the verity of climate science and the ethics of climate scientists. They have used the hacked emails to impugn the reputation of many climate scientists and have made all kinds of accusations with little or no evidence outside the hacked emails.
Have they succeeded?
Public opinion on global warming among Americans has slipped, so it looks as if the CRU hack achieved its objective in part, but that is not the case for other developed countries. Most people polled in Canada, Britain, and Australia still believe that the climate is warming and that humanity is primarily responsible. A recent Angus-Reid poll showed that Canadians and Britons think that global warming is a fact, while Americans are more likely to see it as an unproven theory.
Canadians went through a period of global warming disbelief at the end of 2009, when the proportion of respondents who saw climate change as a fact mostly caused by emissions fell by 11 points. Now, Canadians are closer to their pre-Copenhagen summit numbers.
In stark contrast, the views of Americans have not recovered since last year’s plunge. Twice in 2010, a quarter of respondents have branded climate change as an unproven theory—six points higher than in November 2009.
In Britain, the conclusion of the so-called “climate-gate” has left opinions about global warming at roughly the same levels as before the controversy first began. The big drop experienced in April has dissipated, and Britons are now closer to Canadians on this issue.
The majority of Australians polled found that climate change was a threat to their nation.
In summary, the CRU hack and “climategate” was much ado about nothing, given where we sit today. Yes, it didn’t help those working towards climate legislation, and yes, it did hurt some climate scientists like Phil Jones, but it did nothing to undermine the science itself.
(Edited for spelling/grammar and bad hyperlinks)