"Climategate" exposed: Conservative media distort stolen emails in latest attack on global warming consensus

››› ››› JEREMY HOLDEN, DIANNA PARKER & JOCELYN FONG

Since the reported theft of emails from the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia, conservative media figures have aggressively claimed that those emails undermine the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activities are causing climate change, dubbing the supposed scandal "Climategate." But these critics have largely rested their claims on outlandish distortions and misrepresentations of the contents of the stolen emails, greatly undermining their dubious smears.

CLAIM: Email reveals that Jones used "trick" to distort data and hide decline in temperatures

  • BECK: How about Phil Jones, head of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia? "I have just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years to hide the decline." Yes, he's talking about a trick that another scientist previously used in a peer-reviewed journal to apparently hide the decline in temperatures -- incredible. [Fox News' Glenn Beck, 11/23/09]
  • In a November 23 editorial, Investor's Business Daily stated: "In one e-mail sent to Michael Mann, director of Penn State University's Earth System Science Center, Raymond Bradley, a climatologist at the University of Massachusetts, and Malcolm Hughes, a professor of dendrochronology at the University of Arizona's Laboratory for Tree-Ring Research, Jones speaks of the 'trick' of filling in gaps of data in order to hide evidence of temperature decline."

REALITY: "Decline" refers to unreliable tree-ring data, not instrumental temperatures. In a November 26 article, The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania, reported that Penn State scientist Michael Mann -- whose "trick" was referenced in Jones' email -- "said his trick, or 'trick of the trade,' for the Nature chart was to combine data from tree-ring measurements, which record world temperatures from 1,000 years ago until 1960, with actual temperature readings for 1961 through 1998" because "scientists have discovered that, for temperatures since 1960, tree rings have not been a reliable indicator." Jones has also stated that it is "well known" that tree ring data "does not show a realistic trend of temperature after 1960," and the CRU has said that "[t]he 'decline' in this set of tree-ring data should not be taken to mean that there is any problem with the instrumental temperature data." In a November 20 post, RealClimate.org's staff, which is comprised of several working climate scientists, including Mann, similarly stated:

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.

Several scientists have stated that the word "trick" is being misinterpreted. The (UK) Guardian reported in a November 20 article that Bob Ward, director of policy and communications at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, said of Jones' email: "It does look incriminating on the surface, but there are lots of single sentences that taken out of context can appear incriminating. ... You can't tell what they are talking about. Scientists say 'trick' not just to mean deception. They mean it as a clever way of doing something -- a short cut can be a trick." RealClimate also explained that "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 good way to deal with a problem', rather than something that is 'secret', and so there is nothing problematic in this at all."

CLAIM: Trenberth's "travesty" email exposes private doubts about whether global warming is occurring

  • BECK: But first, let's start with the science that has been so settled for all these years. What are these guys saying behind closed doors about their so-called bullet-proof consensus? Well, Kevin Trenberth, he's a climatologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He wrote, quote: "The fact is, we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it's a travesty that we can't." Incorrect data? Inadequate systems? Yeah. Travesty, pretty good word for it. [Glenn Beck, 11/23/09]
  • In a November 24 Human Events post, James Delingpole asserted that the Trenberth email reveals a scientist "[c]oncealing private doubts about whether the world is really heating up."
  • Citing the Trenberth email, Robert Tracinski wrote in a November 24 commentary at RealClearPolitics.com that "[t]hese e-mails show, among many other things, private admissions of doubt or scientific weakness in the global warming theory. In acknowledging that global temperatures have actually declined for the past decade, one scientist asks, 'where the heck is global warming?... The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't.'"

REALITY: Trenberth's email referred to "inadequate" system of observing short-term variability, not long-term trend. In the October 12 email, Trenberth cited "my own article on where the heck is global warming" and wrote: "The fact is that we can't account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can't. The CERES data published in the August BAMS 09 supplement on 2008 shows there should be even more warming: but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate" [emphasis added].

Trenberth published similar comments in the journal article he cited. Wired's Threat Level blog reported that Trenberth "says bloggers are missing the point he's making in the e-mail by not reading the article cited in it. That article -- An Imperative for Climate Change Planning (.pdf) -- actually says that global warming is continuing, despite random temperature variations that would seem to suggest otherwise." RealClimate.org similarly stated in a November 23 post that "[y]ou need to read his recent paper on quantifying the current changes in the Earth's energy budget to realise why he is concerned about our inability currently to track small year-to-year variations in the radiative fluxes." Indeed, the Trenberth article referred to what he called an "incomplete explanation" of short-term climate variations, and maintained that "global warming is unequivocally happening."

CLAIM: Scientists conspired against academic journal because it published dissenting research

  • In a December 1 editorial, The Washington Times claimed that Mann "threatened journals that had the gall to publish academic research at odds with the global-warming theocracy. Upset that the journal Climate Research had published such a paper, Mr. Mann wrote: 'I think we have to stop considering Climate Research as a legitimate peer-reviewed journal. Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal.'"
  • In a November 27 editorial, The Wall Street Journal wrote:

Mr. Mann noted in a March 2003 email, after the journal "Climate Research" published a paper not to Mr. Mann's liking, that "This was the danger of always criticising the skeptics for not publishing in the 'peer-reviewed literature'. Obviously, they found a solution to that -- take over a journal!"

Mr. Mann went on to suggest that the journal itself be blackballed: "Perhaps we should encourage our colleagues in the climate research community to no longer submit to, or cite papers in, this journal. We would also need to consider what we tell or request of our more reasonable colleagues who currently sit on the editorial board." In other words, keep dissent out of the respected journals. When that fails, redefine what constitutes a respected journal to exclude any that publish inconvenient views.

REALITY: Mann's email cited specific paper that Climate Research editors and publisher conceded should not have been published. In the March 11, 2003, email, Mann wrote that the paper by astrophysicists Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas "couldn't have cleared a 'legitimate' peer review process anywhere. That leaves only one possibility -- that the peer-review process at Climate Research has been hijacked by a few skeptics on the editorial board." The New York Times reported on August 5, 2003, that the Soon-Baliunas paper "has been heavily criticized by many scientists, including several of the journal editors. The editors said last week that whether or not the conclusions were correct, that analysis was deeply flawed." The Times further noted that the "publisher of the journal, Dr. Otto Kinne, and an editor who recently became editor in chief, Dr. Hans von Storch, both said that in retrospect the paper should not have been published as written" and that von Storch resigned, "saying he disagreed with the peer-review policies":

Advocates for cuts in emissions and scientists who hold the prevailing view on warming said the hearing backfired. It proved more convincingly, they said, that the skeptical scientists were a fringe element that had to rely increasingly on industry money and peripheral scientific journals to promote their work.

The hearing featured Dr. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a co-author of a study, with Dr. Sallie Baliunas, also an astrophysicist at the center, that said the 20th-century warming trend was unremarkable compared with other climate shifts over the last 1,000 years.

But the Soon-Baliunas paper, published in the journal Climate Research this year, has been heavily criticized by many scientists, including several of the journal editors. The editors said last week that whether or not the conclusions were correct, the analysis was deeply flawed.

The publisher of the journal, Dr. Otto Kinne, and an editor who recently became editor in chief, Dr. Hans von Storch, both said that in retrospect the paper should not have been published as written. Dr. Kinne defended the journal and its process of peer review, but distanced himself from the paper.

"I have not stood behind the paper by Soon and Baliunas," he wrote in an e-mail message. "Indeed: the reviewers failed to detect methodological flaws."

Dr. von Storch, who was not involved in overseeing the paper, resigned last week, saying he disagreed with the peer-review policies.

The Senate hearing also focused new scrutiny on Dr. Soon and Dr. Baliunas's and ties to advocacy groups. The scientists also receive income as senior scientists for the George C. Marshall Institute, a Washington group that has long fought limits on gas emissions. The study in Climate Research was in part underwritten by $53,000 from the American Petroleum Institute, the voice of the oil industry.

Mann: "I support the publication of 'skeptical' papers that meet the basic standards of scientific quality and merit." In response to the controversy surrounding the emails, Mann said that his email "[w]as in response to a very specific incident regarding a paper by Soon and Baliunas published in the journal 'Climate Research.' " Mann further stated: "I support the publication of 'skeptical' papers that meet the basic standards of scientific quality and merit. I myself have published scientific work that has been considered by some as representing a skeptical point of view on matters relating to climate change."

CLAIM: Email reveals Mann tried to obscure Medieval Warm Period

  • Discussing the reportedly stolen emails on ABC News' This Week, George Will claimed that in an email, Mann "said he wished he could delete, get rid of, the medieval warming period. That lasted 600 years." [ABC's This Week with George Stephanopoulos, 11/29/09]
  • In his November 24 Human Events article, Delingpole claimed that the "emails reveal a variety of dubious practices, quite contrary to what might reasonably be expected of a world-renowned climate research institution lavishly funded by the UK government." One "practice" Delingpole cited included "[a]ttempting to disguise the inconvenient truth of the Medieval Warm Period (ie the period from about 900 to about 1200 when global mean temperatures were considerably warmer than they are now): '......Phil and I have recently submitted a paper using about a dozen NH records that fit this category, and many of which are available nearly 2K back -- I think that trying to adopt a timeframe of 2K, rather than the usual 1K, addresses a good earlier point that Peck made w/ regard to the memo, that it would be nice to try to "contain" the putative "MWP", even if we don't yet have a hemispheric mean reconstruction available that far back....' "

REALITY: Mann said he wanted to identify when MWP began, not "delete, get rid of" it. Mann wrote in the June 4, 2003, email [emphasis added]:

Phil and I have recently submitted a paper using about a dozen NH records that fit this category, and many of which are available nearly 2K back -- I think that trying to adopt a timeframe of 2K, rather than the usual 1K, addresses a good earlier point that Peck made w/ regard to the memo, that it would be nice to try to "contain" the putative "MWP", even if we don't yet have a hemispheric mean reconstruction available that far back.

Moreover, according to the November 26 Morning Call article, Mann explained that his email regarding MWP "reflected his desire to identify exactly when the Medieval Warm Period began." From the article:

Mann also said his 2003 e-mail saying ''it would nice to 'contain' the putative 'MWP''' was not a call for scientists to deny the Earth warmed naturally 1,000 years ago. He said it reflected his desire to identify exactly when the Medieval Warm Period began.

CLAIM: Emails were obtained through legitimate means

  • On his radio show, Rush Limbaugh claimed that the emails "may be from a whistleblower inside the organization who is just unhappy with what's going on," adding that "the bottom line is, the whole global warming -- manmade global warming movement is a fraud. It is a hoax. It's made-up lies." [Premiere Radio Networks' The Rush Limbaugh Show, 11/23/09]
  • In his Wall Street Journal column, L. Gordon Crovitz claimed that the "emails, released by an apparent whistle-blower who used the name 'FOI,' were written by scientists at the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in England. Its scientists are high-profile campaigners for the theory of global warming." [The Wall Street Journal, 11/30/09]

REALITY: CRU officials have stated that emails were obtained through "a criminal breach of our security systems." In its initial response to the reported theft, officials at the University of East Anglia stated: "Recently thousands of files and emails illegally obtained from a research server at the University of East Anglia (UEA) have been posted on various sites on the web." In a statement about the controversy, CRU vice chancellor of research Trevor Davies stated: "We are committed to furthering this debate despite being faced with difficult circumstances related to a criminal breach of our security systems and our concern to protect colleagues from the more extreme behaviour of some who have responded in irrational and unpleasant ways to the publication of personal information." Davies further stated, "Although we were confident that our systems were appropriate, experience has shown that determined and skilled people, who are prepared to engage in criminal activity, can sometimes hack into apparently secure systems. Highly-protected government organisations around the world have also learned this to their cost."

CLAIM: Emails undermine global warming consensus

  • In a November 24 editorial titled, "Hiding evidence of global cooling," The Washington Times claimed that the reportedly stolen CRU emails show that "these revelations of fudged science should have a cooling effect on global-warming hysteria and the panicked policies that are being pushed forward to address the unproven theory." Internet gossip Matt Drudge linked to the Times editorial on the Drudge Report using the headline: "Paper: Junk science exposed among climate-change believers."
  • Using the headline, "Global Warming's Waterloo?" the Fox Nation linked to a November 23 Gateway Pundit post asserting that "Senator James Inhofe [R-OK] will call for an investigation into" the emails.
  • On his Fox News show, Sean Hannity stated: "This climate change hoax, now we find out that this institute, in fact, was hiding from the people of Great Britain and the world that, in fact, climate change is a hoax, something I've been saying for a long time." [Fox News' Hannity, 11/24/09]
  • On his radio show, Limbaugh claimed that the "whole thing's made up" and that "it looks like substantial fraud -- a lot of evidence of substantial fraud in reporting the evidence on global warming." [The Rush Limbaugh Show, 11/20/09]

REALITY: Distortions of illegally obtained documents from one group of scientists do not undermine overwhelming consensus. In a statement on the reported theft of the emails, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stated that "no individual or small group of scientists is in a position to exclude a peer-reviewed paper from an I.P.C.C. assessment." From Pachauri's statement:

In summary, no individual or small group of scientists is in a position to exclude a peer-reviewed paper from an I.P.C.C. assessment. Likewise, individuals and small groups have no ability to emphasize a result that is not consistent with a range of studies, investigations, and approaches. Every layer in the process (including large author teams, extensive review, independent monitoring of review compliance, and plenary approval by governments) plays a major role in keeping I.P.C.C. assessments comprehensive, unbiased, open to the identification of new literature, and policy relevant but not policy prescriptive.

The unfortunate incident that has taken place through illegal hacking of the private communications of individual scientists only highlights the importance of I.P.C.C. procedures and practices and the thoroughness by which the Panel carries out its assessment. This thoroughness and the duration of the process followed in every assessment ensure the elimination of any possibility of omissions or distortions, intentional or accidental.

NASA's Gavin Schmidt: "There's nothing in the e-mails that shows that global warming is a hoax." Wired's Threat Level blog reported on November 20 that Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said: "There's nothing in the e-mails that shows that global warming is a hoax. ... There's no funding by nefarious groups. There's no politics in any of these things; nobody from the [United Nations] telling people what to do. There's nothing hidden, no manipulation. It's just scientists talking about science, and they're talking relatively openly as people in private e-mails generally are freer with their thoughts than they would be in a public forum. The few quotes that are being pulled out [are out] of context. People are using language used in science and interpreting it in a completely different way." Schmidt is a contributor to the Real Climate blog, which has stated that some of the stolen CRU emails "involve people" at Real Climate.

NYT: "Hacked material is unlikely to erode the overall argument." The New York Times' Andrew Revkin reported on November 20 that "[t]he evidence pointing to a growing human contribution to global warming is so widely accepted that the hacked material is unlikely to erode the overall argument. However, the documents will undoubtedly raise questions about the quality of research on some specific questions and the actions of some scientists."

UCS: Our understanding of climate science is based "on the rigorous accumulation, testing and synthesis of knowledge." Peter Frumhoff, the director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and an IPCC author stated, "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. The scientific community is united in calling on U.S. policymakers to recognize that emissions of heat-trapping gases must be dramatically reduced if we are to avoid the worst consequences of human-induced climate change."

Yale Project on Climate Change director: "[T]here's no smoking gun in the e-mails from what I've seen." Reuters stated that Anthony Leiserowitz, the director of the Yale Project on Climate Change said, "It shows that the process of science is not always pristine ... But there's no smoking gun in the e-mails from what I've seen." The Reuters article further noted that "the researchers involved were only a handful out of thousands across the world that have contributed to a vast convergence of data that shows the world has warmed." The article also quoted Piers Forster, an environment professor at the University of Leeds stating, "Whilst some of the e-mails show scientists to be all too human, nothing I have read makes me doubt the veracity of the peer review process or the general warming trend in the global temperature recorded."

Posted In
Environment & Science, Climate Change
We've changed our commenting system to Disqus.
Instructions for signing up and claiming your comment history are located here.
Updated rules for commenting are here.