Climategate emails ‘did not amount to fakery’

Smokestack; climate change

Harassment by climate change sceptics led to bunker mentality at East Anglia Climate Research Unit

BY Tim Edwards LAST UPDATED AT 07:02 ON Mon 14 Dec 2009

An in-depth review of the 1,073 emails stolen by hackers from the server of the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia has found that the messages, while exposing the contempt a group of respected scientists held for climate change sceptics, did not undermine the case for anthropogenic global warming.

Five reporters from the Associated Press picked through all the emails at the centre of 'Climategate'. Seven experts in research ethics, climate science and science policy were also consulted.

The emails appear to show nothing more than a group of scientists frustrated by what they saw as "frivolous" Freedom of Information requests made by climate change sceptic "frauds".

One of the supposedly most damning passages of text ­ which many people say was taken out of context ­ was found in a 1999 email from Professor Phil Jones, director of the CRU:

"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," wrote Jones.

‘I do now wish I'd never sent them the data after their [FOI] request!’

The "decline" concerns tree ring data that suggest temperatures since the 1950s have been cooler than scientists have observed with thermometers. 'Mike' is Michael Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University, and the man who published the famous 'hockey stick curve' that, using tree ring, ice core and coral data, shows temperatures in the northern hemisphere from around 1000AD to 1900 were largely stable before rising sharply in the last century ­ presumably because of anthropogenic emissions.

Sceptics find the hockey stick curve controversial partly because from around 1850 Mann and his co-authors Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes include temperatures recorded by thermometers in addition to the tree ring data. Then from around 1980 they stop using tree ring data altogether, favouring temperatures recorded by thermometers instead. Sceptics say this coincides with the period of greatest temperature increase on the hockey stick curve, although in truth the tree ring data alone shows a period of rapid warming from around 1900.

So Mann's "trick" is replacing tree ring data, which he describes as misleading after 1960 because of pollution, with actual temperatures recorded on thermometers. Mann himself has never made any secret of flaws in his findings. The original title of the 1998 paper in which his curve was unveiled was: "Northern Hemisphere temperatures during the past millennium: inferences, uncertainties, and limitations".

Another charge levelled at the CRU scientists was that they attempted to withhold data from climate change sceptics.

In 2005, Jones wrote: "Data is covered by all the agreements we sign with people, so I will be hiding behind them. I'll be passing any requests onto the person at UEA who has been given a post to deal with them."

And in 2008, Jones wrote to Mann: "You can delete this attachment if you want. Keep this quiet also, but this is the person who is putting in FOI requests for all emails Keith and Tim have written and received re Ch 6 of AR4. We think we've found a way around this."

Witholding emails is one thing, but from a scientific point of view, refusing to share data needed to recreate an experiment is more serious ­ because the verification of results depends upon it.

A former London trader, Douglas J Keenan, used data sent to him from Jones to accuse the professor's co-author, University at Albany scientist Wei-Chyung Wang, of fakery. Wang was later cleared by a university investigation, but Jones wrote in 2007: "I do now wish I'd never sent them the data after their [FOI] request!"

Ben Santer, another scientist implicated in Climategate ­ who has received death threats for his work on climate change, told Associated Press that he and others are inundated by frivolous requests from sceptics hoping to "tie-up government-funded scientists".

Other scientists claim that even if CRU staff were withholding data, they are not alone: there is a long tradition of selective reporting of clinical trials by big pharmaceutical companies, for example.

Mann, for his part, tells Associated Press that he did not delete any data. But given the highly political nature of climate science, it is perhaps not surprising that CRU scientists were obstructionist in this respect.

In 2006, climate change sceptic and Texan congressman Joe Barton forced a hearing on the validity of Mann's hockey stick curve. The hearing - described by Gerald North, a scientist who had studied the hockey stick curve, as "not an information gathering operation, but rather a spin machine" - was highly critical of Mann's conclusions.

And since the Climategate emails came to light a month ago, they have been pounced upon by Republicans as a reason to delay a climate change bill in Congress and by failed vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin as a reason to boycott the Copenhagen summit.

‘Next time I see him, I’ll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted’

Above all what appears to come through in the emails is a sense of a bunker mentality at CRU caused by constant harassment from people attempting to derail their work in very unscientific ways.

Frustration bubbles over in the form of some blackly comic moments. One scientist, Scott Rutherford writes: "...there is a (relatively small?) group of people who don't or won't 'get it' and there is nothing we can do about them aside from continuing to publish quality work in quality journals (or calling in a Mafia hit)."

Another scientist greets the news of the death of a critic: "In an odd way this is cheering news!" While Santer supports Jones against a sceptic, saying: "I'm really sorry that you have to go through all this stuff, Phil. Next time I see [name deleted] at a scientific meeting, I'll be tempted to beat the crap out of him. Very tempted."

Dan Sarewitz, a science policy professor at Arizona State University told AP: "This is normal science politics, but on the extreme end... research is a social and human activity full of all the failings of society and humans, and this reality gets totally magnified by the high political stakes here." · 

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