The Truth Behind the Emails of ClimateGate Parts 1 and 2.

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The source of one of the ClimateGate contentious issues: the Northern Hemisphere temperature variation since 1000. (Click for closer view) Image Credit IPCC, 3rd Assessment Report, 2001, Figure 2.20.

What is Climate Gate 2.0? In November 2009, the original Climate Gate, email messages from the Climate Research Unit, University of East Anglia, UK, were illegally obtained and released. The messages contained personal comments which were made public, apparently in an attempt to question the scientific validity of the global warming theory. In November 2011, a further batch of emails were made public, ahead of another important United Nations Climate Summit. Although the scientists involved have not been blameless, far from exposing the science of climate change itself, these public releases have helped to expose the real culprits of the “Climate Gate” affair.

Climate Gate Emails

In the first set of email messages there were many exchanges between scientists which were, let us say, heated. Scientists, like other people, are liable to get deeply involved in their work. During informal email communication, prior to work being submitted for publication, some offensive remarks were propagated between some scientists who accepted the global warming theory, and those who did not. Ordinarily, these issues would not have come to light if it were not for the theft of the email messages from what was meant to be a secure site.

Significant contentious debate in the email messages were attempts to account for uncertainties in the gathered data. The scientists were fully aware that uncertainties of this sort generate doubt, so they discussed smoothing them over so that the discrepancies were less obvious (“hidden”).

As well as the aforementioned personal attacks on climate deniers, the pro-climate-change scientists threatened to delete raw data rather than allow full access to it. This reflected the distrust between the two groups and led the Director of the CRU to resign his position while investigations proceeded.

The material requires careful picking over to find any sort of serious wrongdoing, such as the propagation of a deliberate scientific error. A lot of the correspondence deals with the nuances in the data record. This is what you might call the “bread and butter” of scientific research: exchanging of correspondence to clarify,  for example, the extent to which warming has occurred over the United States as opposed to the globe, and whether the change has occurred in particular months, or just for the year, or a season as a whole.

The Global Surface Temperature Database

Updated Northern Hemisphere temperature anomaly for the last 1800 years: Image from Mann et al. (2008).

There is a wealth of information in the global temperature database, which requires careful scrutiny to tease out the very subtle changes that are occurring in the climate. It was clear from some of the exchanges that some people were being denied access to the raw data, but an institution such as the University of East Anglia (UEA) typically doesn’t have the resources to spend supplying everyone with data on demand.

In some cases, the data suppliers did not want their data to be released. This is not unusual in the scientific community: research grants are dependent on publications and if you have worked towards making a set of observations, you want the right of first publication of those results. Releasing data to anyone who asks may mean that you don’t get to be the first publisher of your own data, which can endanger the financial support of your future research.

Furthermore, in its original form, data may need corrections to allow for instrument error. On the one hand, data should only be released to the public once all errors are identified, on the other hand, there are advantages in releasing data early to responsible archives such as the Climate Research Unit (CRU). This enables scientists to work on preliminary versions of the data, setting up complex analysis procedures and so on. Then, the analysis can be repeated with final versions of databases. With heated debates (no pun intended) concerning climate change, it is unfortunate that climate change sceptics have not always been efficient in revising their ideas in the light of new information, and this likely contributed to the distrust between the two sides.

The IPCC Investigation

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (IPCC) itself followed up the criticisms of scientific wrongdoing, but found none. In its report in August 2010,  it did, however, recommend the strengthening of its procedures.

The main recommendation was that the management structure of the IPCC should be strengthened to be able to cope with the increasing challenges associated with more complex climate change assessments. Also, more effort should be expended to ensure that materials included in its reports have been properly published in the scientific literature. A third recommendation was that the full range of scientific opinion should be reflected in the reports.

Some Scientific Wrongdoing?

One debate after the 2009 release of the emails centered on how to interpret the temperature changes since the year 1000. In the early parts of the record, from 1000 to 1850, only tree ring data and other “proxies” are available. If anything, temperatures derived this way showed a slight drop. But there was much uncertainty in the data obtained.

Once thermometers became available, from 1850 onwards, a more reliable measuring system was available. The tree ring data, however, were included in the analysis, and show a reduction in temperature from the early 1960s. The infamous “hide the decline” email from Phil Jones, the Director of the CRU, referred to the use of real observations on the same graphs as the tree ring data so that the tree ring data are hidden. Further details have clarified that no scientific wrongdoing occurred because of this.

By March 2010, The House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee (UK), reported on its investigation into the alleged scientific wrongdoing at CRU. Their conclusion was that the focus on Prof. Jones and CRU was largely misplaced. However, although the committee accepted that the refusal to share raw data and computer codes was common practice, this needs to be changed in view of the massive potential expenditure by governments in combating climate change.

The Damage to Climate Change Theory

Climate change caused by human-released greenhouse gases is an established theory (e.g. IPCC, 2007). The word theory is here used to mean that in this instance, global warming was a hypothesis which has been tested by observations and model simulations. Once a hypothesis is suitably tested, in scientific parlance, it becomes a theory. Subsequent data could, in principle, undermine the theory. In this case, there is no indication that the theory is in need of modification, although it did not help that the IPCC 2007 report contained a few scientific errors. These were promptly corrected and do not affect the overall conclusions of the report.

Nonetheless, the public appear sufficiently disturbed by the trivia of Climate Gate to such an extent that its impacts on public opinion have been significant. One report (Leiserowitz et al., 2011b) indicates that Climate Gate in particular has had an effect on the public by increasing their distrust in the scientific consensus on climate change, although that distrust now appears to be waning (Leiserowitz et al., 2011a). In the USA, less than 50% of the public now believe that humans are responsible for a significant amount of climate change, which contrasts with expert opinion. About 97% of experts believe that humans have significantly affected climate in a survey conducted in 2010 (Sommerville and Hassol, 2011).

Significant climate anomalies in October 2011. Image Credit NOAA

The 2011 Version of Climate Gate

The UN has convened a Climate Summit in Durban, South Africa, 28 November through 9 December, 2011, to establish a global legally-binding treaty by 2015. On cue, more “Climate Gate” style emails have been leaked. These seem to have even less substance than the original ones, and indeed, if genuine, may be part of the original emails stolen in 2009, that have been released for maximum effect. Meanwhile, the Berkeley Earth Project has demonstrated, if proof were needed, that the observed increase in global temperature is on an even firmer foooting, 2 years after ClimateGate Part 1. As beautifully communicated to BBC News by Francesca Grifo, Director of the Scientific Integrity Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, “These leftover emails should be met with a collective yawn“.

References

IPCC (2007). Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2007). Cambridge University Press. Cambridge. United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. Accessed 26 November, 2011.

Leiserowitz et al. Climate change in the american Mind: Americans’ global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in May 2011. (2011a). Yale Project on climate change communication. New Haven, CT. Accessed 26 November, 2011.

Leiserowitz et al. Climategate, public opinion, and the loss of trust. (2011b). American Behavioral Scientist, In press. Accessed 26 November, 2011.

Mann, M.E. et al. Proxy-based reconstructions of hemispheric and global surface temperature variations over the past two millennia. (2008). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105, 13252-13257.  doi:10.1073/pnas.0805721105. Accessed 26 November, 2011.

Sommerville, R.C.J. and S.J. Hassol. Communicating the Science of climate change. Physics Today. October 2011. 48-53. Accessed 25 November, 2011.

See also:

Climate Communication

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