Climategate Anniversary

Today is the 5th anniversary of the start of the ‘Climategate’ incident. Here’s a brief summary of what happened, plus IPCC-related issues raised and some thoughts on how it affected the opinion of scientists and the public.

On 17th November 2009, comments appeared on a number of sceptic blogs such as here at the Air Vent. The comment started with the text

“We feel that climate science is, in the current situation, too important to be kept under wraps.
We hereby release a random selection of correspondence, code, and documents.
Hopefully it will give some insight into the science and the people behind it.
This is a limited time offer, download now:”

This was followed by a link to the file of emails and a brief summary of some of the contents.

Two years later, a second file was released, with links posted on six blogs. This included a README.txt file (converted to pdf since wordpress does not allow .txt files) which gives some insight into the motivation:

“Over 2.5 billion people live on less than $2 a day.”
“Every day nearly 16.000 children die from hunger and related causes.”
“One dollar can save a life” — the opposite must also be true.
“Poverty is a death sentence.”
“Nations must invest $37 trillion in energy technologies by 2030 to stabilize
greenhouse gas emissions at sustainable levels.”
Today’s decisions should be based on all the information we can get, not on
hiding the decline.

This included about 5000 emails, plus an encrypted file containing over 200000 emails.

A third announcement was made in March 2013. This said that the person who hacked/leaked the emails acted alone, without any oill funding or political support, and hints at a past academic career.

Climategate and the IPCC

Here are some of the emails relating to the IPCC:

Phil Jones writing to Michael Mann:
“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 !”
[MM = McIntyre & McKitrick. In fact their paper was cited by IPCC AR4!]

Jones to Mann again:
“Mike, Can you delete any emails you may have had with Keith re AR4? Keith will do likewise… Can you also email Gene and get him to do the same?”

Tom Wigley says that
“In my (perhaps too harsh) view, there have been a number of dishonest presentations of model results by individual authors and by IPCC.”

Climate scientists Heinz Wanner says that he was a reviewer of the IPCC TAR (2001) and criticised it’s extensive use of the Mann Hockey Stick picture, but his comments were ignored.

Peter Thorne writes in regard to preparation of IPCC AR4,
“I also think the science is being manipulated to put a political spin on it which for all our sakes might not be too clever in the long run.”

IPCC TAR Chapter 3 author Phil Jones repeatedly breaks the IPCC rules
“I’m not supposed to send these out, so you got them from Albert.”

Hans von Storch writes
“Stupid, politicized action by IPCC, not MBH’s responsibility. IPCC did one more of these silly oversellings – by showing the damage curve by Munich Re without proper caveat in the fig caption”

Phil Jones comments on political bias in the IPCC SPM
“He says he’ll read the IPCC Chapters! He hadn’t as he said he thought they were politically biased. I assured him they were not. The SPM may be, but not the chapters.”

Climategate and opinion

Contrary to the nonsense on the subject in the Wikipedia article, Climategate had an impact on the opinion of both scientists and the general public.

Climate scientist Judith Curry described in an interview how “Climategate and the weak response of the IPCC and other scientists triggered a massive re-examination of my support of the IPCC, and made me look at the science much more sceptically”.

Berkeley physicist Richard Muller discusses the notorious “hide the decline” graph here, saying that you don’t do this and that there’s now a group of scientists whose work he doesn’t trust.

At a meeting in Nottingham, Physicist Philip Moriarty said that he and colleagues were shocked by Climategate, and used the word “anathema” in relation to the withholding of data.

Mike Hulme wrote an interesting essay After Climategate … Never the Same in which he discusses the impact on science and scientists. He also notes the impact on the opinion of Guardian writer George Monbiot (who called for Phil Jones to resign) and the general public, saying that a survey soon after the event showed a significant decline in concern about climate change and public trust in climate science.

A paper by Leiserowitz et al, “Climategate, Public Opinion, and the Loss of Trust” found a significant decline in Americans’ climate change beliefs between 2008 and 2010 (from 57% saying human activity was causing warming to 47%). They also asked specific questions about climategate, to confirm that this was a significant factor.

Other papers on Climategate include Reiner Grundmann’s “Climategate” and The Scientific Ethos, which discusses the issue in relation to traditional (“Mertonian”) and more policy-linked ways of thinking about science; The legacy of climategate, by Maibach et al, who say that it increased the partisan divide in US politics; and Climate change and ‘climategate’ in online reader comments by Koteyko, Jaspal & Nerlich.

Climategate did not change my own views very much, but made me more confident that my assessment that climate change is exaggerated and politicised was correct. To me, the real scandal was not so much that two or three climate scientists behaved badly, but that virtually the entire climate science community tried to pretend that nothing was wrong.


13 thoughts on “Climategate Anniversary

  1. This pretty much sums it up: “To me, the real scandal was not so much that two or three climate scientists behaved badly, but that virtually the entire climate science community tried to pretend that nothing was wrong.”

  2. Good summary, Paul.

    For the record, I think it’s also worth noting (as I have from time to time) Fred Pearce’s Dec. 2009:

    I have been speaking to a PR operator for one of the world’s leading environmental organizations. Most unusually, he didn’t want to be quoted. But his message is clear. The facts of the e-mails barely matter any more. It has always been hard to persuade the public that invisible gases could somehow warm the planet, and that they had to make sacrifices to prevent that from happening. It seemed, on the verge of Copenhagen, as if that might be about to be achieved.

    But he says all that ended on Nov. 20. “The e-mails represented a seminal moment in the climate debate of the last five years, and it was a moment that broke decisively against us. I think the CRU leak is nothing less than catastrophic.” [emphasis added -hro]

    The mileage of some may vary, but I thought this was a rather perceptive summary on the part of this PR operator. At the very least, it’s probably the only “assessment” emanating from such circles that truly warrants the use of the word “catastrophic” 😉

  3. Richard Black has a rather different view: Climategate five years on: who won the war?

    Here’s his conclusion:

    … there are signs that the ‘battle for the truth about global warming’ … is nearly over. If it is, then it’s important to point out who won. And in general, it’s mainstream climate science, not its critics, that emerged wreathed in garlands.

    A few leaders such as Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott still find use for the accusations of ClimateGate. But by endorsing the most recent IPCC report, all governments, including Mr Abbott’s, have accepted the scientific picture that preventing the worst impacts of climate change means ending fossil fuel burning on a timescale of decades. … clearly they paid no heed to claims that the underlying science was flawed or bent.

    It is, though, the kind of victory not to be celebrated. For one thing, it just shows that the vast majority of climate scientists were simply doing their job.

  4. 17th of November,
    a date to remember,
    hereon a reminder
    that ‘science’ requires …

    truth to data and access
    to protocols practised,
    and is never constrained by

    For Science Method’s objective,
    can’t be ‘noble cause’ directed,
    be the means to an end that’s
    in group political consensus

  5. I believe the most significant quote was in an email from Kevin Trenberth in Oct-09

    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. …… but the data are surely wrong. Our observing system is inadequate.

    A leading climatologist is saying that the experts cannot explain what is happening, but assumes that the problem is in our observations of the real world, not in theory. Later he concluded that like the Loch Ness Monster, the “truth” is to be found in the murky depths.

  6. Hi Paul,
    I try to avoid commenting on Climategate, or linking to analysis based on the UEA e-mails, too much, since they were private e-mails that I wasn’t cc’ed on & I personally don’t like discussing them. Also, like you, they didn’t change my views very much – most of the problems I had/have with the papers referred to in the e-mails can be seen by analysing the papers & associated data themselves.

    However, just a quick correction on your “Climategate and the IPCC” section:

    In the Jones to Mann e-mail, when he was referring to “MM”, it was presumably McKitrick & Michaels, 2004 (a paper suggesting Urban Heat Islands (UHI) may have significantly biased global warming estimates), and not one of the McIntyre & McKitrick papers (which were related to the Mann et al., 1998 “hockeystick study”).

    Jones & Mann seem to have been discussing the (Adrian) Simmons et al., 2004 which allegedly rebutted the (Eugenia) Kalnay & Cai, 2003 paper which found that UHI (and/or land use changes) had significantly biased US temperature trend estimates.

    In the end, both papers were (reluctantly!) briefly mentioned & then (unfairly in my opinion) dismissed, in the relevant section of Chapter 3 of the WG1 AR4 IPCC report.

    Jones & Kevin Trenberth were the Co-ordinating Lead Authors of that chapter and David Parker was the Lead Author for that particular section. All 3 of them believe that the UHI problem is negligible.

    In case anyone is interested, we discussed how these papers were discussed in that particular section of the IPCC report as a Case Study on how IPCC authors can (unintentionally or not) introduce biases into the reports, in Section 5 of our What does the IPCC say essay.

  7. My first comment on this site, and thanks to Paul for taking the time to undertake this work, which I find very informative. I can relate to this issue (and it allows me to receive email notifications of new posts). The email record – unfortunate as it is that it breached confidence, but it took such an action to reveal the politicised and un-scientific nature of the debate. I am not an expert on the science (dare I say – no one is), so am not really interested in the technical to and fro, but as a policy analyst and economist I have been fasciniated by the the progress of the climate change issue.

    I find it remarakable that every time the uncertainty and error margins are pointed out (which is acknowledged by all serious analysts), one is accused of being a “denier”. Yet, the economic case is quite clear – the models are virtually useless, and decision making can only be made on risk assessment basis. For all we know, modest global warming might be economically positive overall.

    The leaked emails demonstrated that the “warmist” side is essentially engaged in a political spin game, and while the same might be levelled against the “minimalist” side the main damage, as Judith Curry alludes to, is to the credibility of the scientists. I mentioned to a colleague years ago that the IPCC should have been disbanded after the 2nd or 3rd report (or event the first), and allow the scientists to progress as is the case with all science. It is a huge loss to the progress of knowledge that otherwise competent climate scientists like Jones et al. were in a position where they devoted so much time to producing politically motivated reports rather than enaging in honest and productive debate with their peers (and without their emails being public property).

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