Conservatives, ever desperate to disprove the science behind global warming, have latched on to Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's baseless investigation into climate scientist Michael Mann and his work at the University of Virginia. As the Washington Post reported, Cuccinelli is “demanding that the University of Virginia turn over a broad range of documents” from Mann, a former professor at the university, “to determine whether he defrauded taxpayers as he sought grants for global warming research.”
Democrats in Virginia's General Assembly responded to Cuccinelli's investigation by proposing several measures to limit the power of attorneys general to issue civil subpoenas, including to public universities, citing “government intrusion” into academic and private life.
Jim Hoft, who continually amazes with the inanity of his attacks on progressives and the president and his wife, charged that Democrats are moving to “block” the investigation of what he called “manipulated global warming junk science data.” He further alleged of climate change: “We all knew it was a scam.” Fox Nation claimed that Democrats “are panicked over 'Climategate' probe,” and right-wing blog Weasel Zippers, who asserted that “Mann was knee-deep in ClimateGate,” wrote of Virginia Democrats: “It's almost like they're trying to hide something.”
There at least three basic problems with conservatives' defense of Cuccinelli's investigation: (1) The so-called “Climategate” scandal that forms the basis of Cuccinelli's investigation is based on distortions and misrepresentations and does not cast doubt on the science behind climate change; (2) the Democrats' proposal to limit Cuccinelli's powers would not bar him from pursuing a lawsuit against Mann and UVA if he could prove there really was fraud; and (3) Cuccinelli's use of his subpoena powers to attack Mann and the university run the risk of chilling academic freedom.
“Climategate” Is Based On Distortions And Misrepresentations
In December 2009, Mann, who is now at Penn State University, was pilloried by the conservative media as part of the manufactured "Climategate" scandal. This supposed scandal involved stolen emails from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, which conservatives said undermined the scientific consensus that human activities cause climate change. As we have noted, the claims rested on outlandish distortions and misrepresentations of the contents of the stolen emails. One 1999 email from CRU director Phil Jones mentioned Mann and alluded to a “trick,” which conservatives cited as evidence that scientists at East Anglia “had tampered with data or perverted the peer review process to exaggerate the threat of global warming.”
But as FactCheck.org explained, climate change skeptics had grossly misrepresented the email in question:
Claims that the e-mails are evidence of fraud or deceit, however, misrepresent what they actually say. A prime example is a 1999 e-mail from Jones, who wrote: “I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (i.e., from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith's to hide the decline.” Skeptics claim the words “trick” and “decline” show Jones is using sneaky manipulations to mask a decline in global temperatures. But that's not the case. Actual temperatures, as measured by scientific instruments such as thermometers, were rising at the time of the writing of this decade-old e-mail, and (as we've noted) have continued to rise since then. Jones was referring to the decline in temperatures implied by measurements of the width and density of tree rings. In recent decades, these measures indicate a dip, while more accurate instrument-measured temperatures continue to rise.
Scientists at CRU use tree-ring data and other “proxy” measurements to estimate temperatures from times before instrumental temperature data began to be collected. However, since about 1960, tree-ring data have diverged from actual measured temperatures. Far from covering it up, CRU scientists and others have published reports of this divergence many times. The “trick” that Jones was writing about in his 1999 e-mail was simply adding the actual, measured instrumental data into a graph of historic temperatures. Jones says it's a “trick” in the colloquial sense of an adroit feat -- “a clever thing to do,” as he put it -- not a deception. What's hidden is the fact that tree-ring data in recent decades doesn't track with thermometer measurements.
Indeed, investigations into the leaked emails exonerated Mann and Jones, finding no evidence that they or others had falsified data:
- An independent panel led by Lord Oxburgh found “no evidence of any deliberate scientific malpractice in any of the work of the Climatic Research Unit and had it been there we believe that it is likely that we would have detected it. Rather we found a small group of dedicated if slightly disorganised researchers who were ill-prepared for being the focus of public attention.” [CBS News, 4/14/10]
- CNN reported that a seven-month review conducted by Muir Russell “found no evidence to question the 'rigor and honesty' of scientists involved” and concluded that “scientists at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit (CRU) did not unduly influence reports detailing the scale of the threat of global warming produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).” [CNN.com, 7/7/10]
Penn State, which also assembled a committee of scientists and department heads to investigate whether Mann had engaged in “research misconduct,” concluded that “there is no substance to the allegation against” Mann. The report stated: “More specifically, the Investigatory Committee determined that Dr. Michael E. Mann did not engage in, nor did he participate in, directly or indirectly, any actions that seriously deviated from accepted practices within the academic community for proposing, conducting, or reporting research, or other scolarly activities. The decision of the Investigatory Committee was unanimous.”
Yet Cuccinelli continues to pursue his investigation, claiming that “the documents, including grant applications and e-mails exchanged between Mann and 39 other scientists and university staffers,” will “help determine whether Mann committed fraud by knowingly skewing data as he sought publicly funded grants for his research,” as the Post reported. The Post further stated:
An Albemarle County judge quashed one version of the subpoena in August, ruling that Cuccinelli had not properly explained his rationale for thinking fraud might have been committed. But Cuccinelli reissued the request, and the issue remains in litigation.
In his reissued CID [civil investigative demand], the attorney general wrote that he seeks the documents because Mann wrote two papers on global warming that “have come under significant criticism” and that Mann “knew or should have known contained false information, unsubstantiated claims and/or were otherwise misleading.”
“Specifically, but without limitation, some of the conclusions of the papers demonstrate a complete lack of rigor regarding the statistical analysis of the alleged data, meaning that the result reported lacked statistical significance without a specific statement to that effect,” the new CID alleges.
In an interview with the Post, Cuccinelli stated: “In light of the Climategate e-mails, there does seem to at least be an argument to be made that a course was undertaken by some of the individuals involved, including potentially Michael Mann, where they were steering a course to reach a conclusion. ... Our act, frankly, just requires honesty.”
This isn't the first time Cuccinelli has used the “Climategate” emails to push back against global warming. As Think Progress reported in February 2010, in his petition challenging the Environmental Protection Agency's finding that greenhouse gas emissions are a danger to the public, Cuccinelli claimed that global warming is “unreliable, unverifiable and doctored” science. The climate science blog, Climate Progress, has pointed out that Cuccinelli has mocked the dangers posed by carbon dioxide by “telling Tea Partiers to hold their breath and make the EPA happy.”
Moreover, according to campaign finance disclosure reports gathered by the Virginia Public Access Project, the attorney general is backed by powerful energy interests. He received more than $210,000 from the energy industry from 2008 to 2010, including $7,500 from Koch Industries, whose subsidiaries “have been in the petroleum business since 1940” and “engage in petroleum refining, chemicals and base oil production, crude oil supply, and wholesale marketing of fuels, base oils, petrochemicals, asphalt and other products.”
Dems' Proposal Would Not “Block” Cuccinelli From Pursuing Investigation
Virginia Democrats, including state Sen. Donald McEachin and Del. David Toscano, introduced a bill that would strip the AG's power to issue CIDs under the state Fraud Against Taxpayers Act, which is the law Cuccinelli cited in pursuing the university records. A separate proposal by Sen. Chapman Petersen would exempt colleges and universities from complying with demands targeting academic research. According to the Virginian-Pilot, Toscano "said U.Va. founder Thomas Jefferson 'would be turning in his grave' over Cuccinelli's actions, which he termed a 'fishing expedition' to advance global warming doubts."
McEachin stated that his bill would not prevent Cuccinelli from filing a lawsuit alleging wrongdoing and seeking documents as part of that lawsuit, but it would prevent him from issuing the subpoenas to Mann and UVA without filing such a case first. From the Virginian-Pilot article:
McEachin believes the attorney general should proceed like other lawyers in civil cases: file a lawsuit if he thinks a wrong has occurred and obtain documents as it proceeds, not the other way around.
“No civil lawyers have the ability to issue a subpoena without articulating a cause of action,” he said.
Cuccinelli's Investigation Infringes On Academic Freedom
Cuccinelli's investigation has also received criticism from scientists, academics, and the media for its infringement on academic freedom. In a statement addressing Cuccinelli's inquiry, Francesca Grifo, senior scientist and director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Scientific Integrity Program, accused Cuccinelli of "'abusing his power" and playing “politics,” saying:
Here we go again. Ken Cuccinelli is flagrantly abusing his power. There's only one reason I can think of to pursue a case where there's no evidence -- and that's politics.
The attorney general continues to harass Michael Mann and other climate scientists simply because their results don't fit with his political views. Dr. Mann's research has been broadly replicated by many other studies. The attorney general is sending a message that legitimate scientific research is not welcome in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
This latest salvo is even more flimsy than the previous one. Dr. Mann's research is already public. This investigation serves no purpose other than to artificially inject doubt into the public discourse on climate change and distract us from addressing a real problem. If allowed to go forward, the subpoena would force these scientists to waste hundreds of hours of time putting together what the attorney general has asked for -- when there is no evidence whatsoever of fraud. In this case, the only person who is misusing Virginia taxpayers' money is Ken Cuccinelli.
Rachel Levinson, a senior counsel with the American Association of University Professors, told the Post that Cuccinelli's suit has “echoes of McCarthyism,” adding, “It would be incredibly chilling to anyone else practicing in either the same area or in any politically sensitive area.”
In an editorial, titled, “U-Va. should fight Cuccinelli's faulty investigation of Michael Mann,” the Post blasted Cuccinelli, for engaging in what the Post referred to as an “ongoing campaign to wish away human-induced climate change.” The Post further wrote that Cuccinelli has “declared war,” not only “on reality,” but “on the freedom of academic inquiry as well.” The Post continued:
By equating controversial results with legal fraud, Mr. Cuccinelli demonstrates a dangerous disregard for scientific method and academic freedom. The remedy for unsatisfactory data or analysis is public criticism from peers and more data, not a politically tinged witch hunt or, worse, a civil penalty. Scientists and other academics inevitably will get things wrong, and they will use public funds in the process, because failure is as important to producing good scholarship as success. For the commonwealth to persecute scientists because one official or another dislikes their findings is the fastest way to cripple not only its stellar flagship university, but also its entire public higher education system.