[Vision2020] Union of Concerned Scientists: Debunking Misinformation About Stolen Climate Emails in the "Climategate" Controversy

Ted Moffett starbliss at gmail.com
Sat Dec 19 04:39:52 PST 2009

Note that they misspelled "manufactured" in the UCS article headline.  I
just had to correct this in posting the article.  A search for
"manfuactured" reveals this misspelling is more common than I would have


 Debunking Misinformation About Stolen Climate Emails in the "Climategate"
Manufactured Controversy

The manufactured controversy over emails stolen from the University of East
Anglia's Climatic Research Unit has generated a lot more heat than light
over the past two weeks. The email content being quoted does not indicate
that climate data and research have been compromised. Most importantly,
nothing in the content of these stolen emails has any impact on our overall
understanding that human activities are driving dangerous levels of global
warming. Media reports and contrarian claims that they do are inaccurate.

*Background Information*

   - Scientists Statement—An Open Letter to Congress from U.S. Scientists on
   Climate Change and Recently Stolen
   - Letter from James McCarthy, a former Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
   Change lead author, to Barbara Boxer


*Press Releases*

   - Nov. 23, 2009—Contrarians Using Hacked E-mails to Attack Climate
   - Dec. 02, 2009—Members of Congress Advance Climate Change Conspiracy
   - Dec. 02, 2009—More Scienctists Join Call to Reject Stolen E-mail
   - Dec. 04, 2009—Top U.S. Scientists Tell Congress Stolen Emails Have No
   Bearing on Climate


*UCS Analysis
*UCS's analysis of the emails and the debate surrounding them aims to
correct popular misconceptions about what the emails say, put them in
scientific context and explain the importance of scientific integrity.

   - Media outlets are getting the story wrong. These emails don't
   demonstrate anything wrong with global warming
   - Scientists didn't "trick" anyone or "hide"

   - Scientists are talking about understanding our climate, not hiding
   - *Some valid concerns were raised about FOIA requests*, but the emails
   don't undermine the
   - Groups misrepresenting these emails are overplaying their hand,
   demonstrating their
   - The timing of releasing the stolen emails is
   - Scientists are as human as anybody


*Additional Resources*

   - Real Climate has been following the hacked e-mail
posts from scientists explaining what phrases in various e-mails mean.
   - Phil Jones did an interview with the The
the e-mails.
   - Michael Mann covered several of the claims on DeSmog

Some news organizations have misreported critical aspects of the stolen
email story. There is no evidence scientists did anything with temperature
data they weren't already doing openly in peer-reviewed papers.

At this time, there is no evidence that scientists "fudged," "manipulated"
or "manufactured" data. These unsupported claims, based on taking the emails
out of context, are being promoted by long-time anti-science opponents of
climate change legislation. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC), the University of East Anglia and Penn State University are
separately looking into the contents of the stolen emails to assess these

While the emails have raised some concerns, the email content being quoted
does not indicate that climate data and research have been compromised. Most
importantly, nothing in the content of these stolen emails has any impact on
our overall understanding that human activities are driving dangerous levels
of global warming. Media reports and contrarian claims that they do are

University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit Director Phil Jones wasn't
"hiding" anything that wasn't already being openly discussed in scientific
papers. He was using a "trick"—a technique—published in the peer-reviewed
scientific literature.

This email exchange from 1999 seems to refer to scientists examining past
climate data and communicating with one another about it. In particular,
Jones is talking about how scientists compare temperature data from
thermometers with temperature data derived from tree rings. Comparing that
data allows scientists to derive past temperature data for several centuries
before accurate thermometer measurements were available. The global average
surface temperature since 1880 is based on thermometer and satellite
temperature measurements.

The "trick" is actually a technique (in other words, a "trick of the trade")
used in a peer-reviewed, academic science journal
in 1998. "Hiding the decline," another phrase that has received
much attention, refers to another technique used in another academic science
journal article<http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v391/n6668/abs/391678a0.html>.
In any case, no one was tricking anyone or hiding anything. Rather, this
email exchange shows scientists communicating about different ways to look
at the same data that were being discussed at the time in the peer-reviewed
literature. Later the same data were discussed at length in a 2007 IPCC

In some parts of the world, tree rings are a good substitute for temperature
record. Trees form a ring of new growth every growing season. Generally,
warmer temperatures produce thicker tree rings, while colder temperatures
produce thinner ones. Other factors, such as precipitation, soil properties,
and the tree's age also can affect tree ring growth.

The "trick," which was used in a paper published in 1998 in the science
journal Nature, is to combine the older tree ring data with thermometer
data. Combining the two data sets can be difficult, and scientists are
always interested in new ways to make temperature records more accurate.

Tree rings are a largely consistent source of data for the past 2,000 years.
But since the 1960s, scientists have noticed there are a handful of tree
species in certain areas that appear to indicate temperatures that are
warmer or colder than we actually know they are from direct thermometer
measurement at weather stations.

"Hiding the decline" in this email refers to omitting data from some
Siberian trees after 1960. This omission was openly discussed in the latest
climate science update in 2007 from the IPCC, so it is not "hidden" at all.

Why Siberian trees? In the Yamal region of Siberia, there is a small set of
trees with rings that are thinner than expected after 1960 when compared
with actual thermometer measurements there. Scientists are still trying to
figure out why these trees are outliers. Some analyses have left out the
data from these trees after 1960 and have used thermometer temperatures

Techniques like this help scientists reconstruct past climate temperature
records based on the best available data.

In another email, Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National
Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, wrote that systems for
observing short-term annual climate variation are inadequate and complained:
"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…. Our observing system is inadequate."

Scientists have high confidence about global temperature trends over recent
decades because those observations are based on a massive amount of data.
That's why we can say with certainty that over the past several decades, the
Earth has warmed. We can also say with certainty that continuing to overload
the atmosphere with carbon dioxide will cause it to warm further.

But scientists are still trying to understand how the climate shifts in the
short term, on a year-to-year basis for instance. In this email, Trenberth
is bemoaning the lack of monitoring equipment in the ocean and atmosphere
around the world that would give scientists more information to help
understand exactly how short-term climate variation happens. In particular,
he references 2008, which was cooler than scientists expected, but still
among the 10 warmest years since instrumental records began.

The sentiments in Trenberth's private email reflect his public
communication. Trenberth talked about this same issue in a scientific paper
in 2009<http://www.wired.com/images_blogs/threatlevel/2009/11/energydiagnostics09final.pdf>(pdf),
in which he addresses this exact question.

There is no clear evidence to date that scientists violated important
principles of scientific integrity. And the emails do not undermine the

Some emails relating to avoiding freedom of information requests and keeping
articles out of journals have raised concerns about scientific integrity.
Scientists should always be as open as possible with their data and methods.
Transparency is critical for accountability on all sides. For his part, Phil
Jones claims he didn't delete any email messages in response to freedom of
information requests. If he did, that conduct would be wrong. But to date,
there is no evidence that any emails were deleted.

Science must be viewed in context to be f. When one places the emails in
context, they don't amount to much—and as noted above, they do not undermine
climate data or research. Likewise, it is important to understand the
scientific integrity claims against the scientists in context.

Regardless of whether the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit
staff complied with freedom of information requests, their data is still
rigorous and matches the three other independent temperature data sets at
NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Japanese
Meteorological Society.

Much has been made about emails regarding a certain paper that some
scientists did not think should have been published in a peer-reviewed
academic journal. These emails focus on a paper on solar variability in the
climate over time. It was published in a peer-reviewed journal called *Climate
Research*, but under unusual circumstances. Half of the editorial
board of *Climate
Research* resigned in protest against what they felt was a failure of the
peer review process. The paper, which argued that current warming was
unexceptional, was disputed by scientists whose work was cited in the paper.
Many subsequent publications set the record straight, which demonstrates how
the peer review process over time tends to correct such lapses. Scientists
later discovered that the paper was funded by the American Petroleum

In a later e-mail, Phil Jones references two
didn't hold in high esteem. "I can't see either of these papers being
the next IPCC report. Kevin and I will keep them out somehow - even if we
have to redefine what the peer-review literature is!"

Yet, the papers in question made it into the IPCC report, indicating that no
restrictions on their incorporation were made. The IPCC process contains
hundreds of authors and reviewers, with an exacting and transparent review

The fact that groups opposing action on climate change are crying
"conspiracy" shows how desperate they are to discredit scientists.

The thousands of stolen emails span more than a decade. Whoever stole them
could only produce a handful of messages that, when taken out of context,
might seem suspicious to people who are not familiar with the intimate
details of climate science.

Opponents of climate action have been attacking climate science for years.
The fact that out-of-context personal attacks on scientists are the most
successful argument they can offer speaks volumes about their failure to
gain any traction by arguing against the evidence.

Their strategy has unfortunate consequences, too. On December 8, the
Guardian reported that University of East Anglia scientists have been receiving
death threats<http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2009/dec/08/hacked-climate-emails-death-threats>.

The timing of the publication of these emails should make us suspicious
about the motivations of the people who hacked them.

The stolen emails were published just two weeks ahead of a major U.N.
climate change conference in Copenhagen. According to a British newspaper,
they were originally hacked in October. Whoever published these emails
likely wanted to spread misinformation about climate science to try to
undermine the conference. The University of East Anglia, which housed the
emails, has launched an investigation to determine who stole them.

Scientists are as human as anybody else.

Some of the other emails simply show scientists expressing frustration
and—in one email—even talking (not seriously, we hope) about beating up
someone who had attacked him publicly. Such chatter is not surprising to
find in private emails. But they have generated widespread attention in part
because they don't mesh with the public's image of scientists.

Scientists have a wide array of dispositions. But regardless of how
scientists act, they should all advance their arguments through evidence and
valid scientific interpretations. The process of science is what is
important. Over time, rigorous analyses, vetted through expert peer review,
tend to weed out poorly substantiated arguments. And only the best
explanations for how the world works—such as the obvious evidence that
excess carbon dioxide emissions are driving global warming—survive the
 Last Revised: 12/11/09
Vision2020 Post: Ted Moffett
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