The Real Story of Climategate

A year ago today, an unidentified hacker published a zipped folder in several locations online. In this folder were approximately one thousand emails and three thousand files which had been stolen from the backup server of the Climatic Research Unit in the UK, a top centre for global temperature analysis and climate change studies. As links to the folder were passed around on blogs and online communities, a small group of people sorted through the emails, picking out a handful of phrases that could be seen as controversial, and developing a narrative which they pushed to the media with all their combined strength. “A lot is happening behind the scenes,” one blog administrator wrote. “It is not being ignored. Much is being coordinated among major players and the media. Thank you very much. You will notice the beginnings of activity on other sites now. Here soon to follow.”

This was not the work of a computer-savvy teenager that liked to hack security systems for fun. Whoever the thief was, they knew what they were looking for. They knew how valuable the emails could be in the hands of the climate change denial movement.

Skepticism is a worthy quality in science, but denial is not. A skeptic will only accept a claim given sufficient evidence, but a denier will cling to their beliefs regardless of evidence. They will relentlessly attack arguments that contradict their cause, using talking points that are full of misconceptions and well-known to be false, while blindly accepting any argument that seems to support their point of view. A skeptic is willing to change their mind. A denier is not.

There are many examples of denial in our society, but perhaps the most powerful and pervasive is climate change denial. We’ve been hearing the movement’s arguments for years, ranging from illogic (“climate changed naturally in the past, so it must be natural now“) to misrepresentation (“global warming stopped in 1998“) to flat-out lies (“volcanoes emit more carbon dioxide than humans“). Of course, climate scientists thought of these objections and ruled them out long before you and I even knew what global warming was, so in recent years, the arguments of deniers were beginning to reach a dead end. The Copenhagen climate summit was approaching, and the public was beginning to understand the basic science of human-caused climate change, even realize that the vast majority of the scientific community was concerned about it. A new strategy for denial and delay was needed – ideally, for the public to lose trust in researchers. Hence, the hack at CRU, and the beginning of a disturbing new campaign to smear the reputations of climate scientists.

The contents of the emails were spun in a brilliant exercise of selective quotation. Out of context, phrases can be twisted to mean any number of things – especially if they were written as private correspondence with colleagues, rather than with public communication in mind. Think about all the emails you have sent in the past decade. Chances are, if someone tried hard enough, they could make a few sentences you had written sound like evidence of malpractice, regardless of your real actions or intentions.

Consequently, a mathematical “trick” (clever calculation) to efficiently analyse data was reframed as a conspiracy to “trick” (deceive) the public into believing the world was warming. Researchers discussed how to statistically isolate and “hide the decline” in problematic tree ring data that was no longer measuring what it used to, but this quote was immediately twisted to claim that the decline was in global temperatures: the world is cooling and scientists are hiding it from us!

Other accusations were based not on selective misquotation but on a misunderstanding of the way science works. When the researchers discussed what they felt were substandard papers that should not be published, many champions of the stolen emails shouted accusations that scientists were censoring their critics, as if all studies, no matter how weak their arguments, had a fundamental right to be published. Another email, in which a researcher privately expressed a desire to punch a notorious climate change denier, was twisted into an accusation that the scientists threatened people who disagreed with them. How was it a threat if the action was never intended to materialize, and if the supposed target was never aware of it?

These serious and potentially damaging allegations, which, upon closer examination, are nothing more than grasping at straws, were not carefully examined and evaluated by journalists – they were repeated. Early media reports bordered on the hysterical. With headlines such as “The final nail in the coffin of anthropogenic global warming” and “The worst scientific scandal of our generation“, libelous claims and wild extrapolations were published mere days after the emails were distributed. How could journalists have possibly had time to carefully examine the contents of one thousand emails? It seems much more likely that they took the short-cut of repeating the narrative of the deniers without assessing its accuracy.

Even if, for the sake of argument, all science conducted by the CRU was fraudulent, our understanding of global warming would not change. The CRU runs a global temperature dataset, but so do at least six other universities and government agencies around the world, and their independent conclusions are virtually identical. The evidence for human-caused climate change is not a house of cards that will collapse as soon as one piece is taken away. It’s more like a mountain: scrape a couple of pebbles off the top, but the mountain is still there. For respected newspapers and media outlets to ignore the many independent lines of evidence for this phenomenon in favour of a more interesting and controversial story was blatantly irresponsible, and almost no retractions or apologies have been published since.

The worldwide media attention to this so-called scandal had a profound personal impact on the scientists involved. Many of them received death threats and hate mail for weeks on end. Dr. Phil Jones, the director of CRU, was nearly driven to suicide. Another scientist, who wishes to remain anonymous, had a dead animal dumped on his doorstep and now travels with bodyguards. Perhaps the most wide-reaching impact of the issue was the realization that private correspondence was no longer a safe environment. This fear only intensified when the top climate modelling centre in Canada was broken into, in an obvious attempt to find more material that could be used to smear the reputations of climate scientists. For an occupation that relies heavily on email for cross-national collaboration on datasets and studies, the pressure to write in a way that cannot be taken out of context – a near-impossible task – amounts to a stifling of science.

Before long, the investigations into the contents of the stolen emails were completed, and one by one, they came back clear. Six independent investigations reached basically the same conclusion: despite some reasonable concerns about data archival and sharing at CRU, the scientists had shown integrity and honesty. No science had been falsified, manipulated, exaggerated, or fudged. Despite all the media hullabaloo, “climategate” hadn’t actually changed anything.

Sadly, by the time the investigations were complete, the media hullabaloo had died down to a trickle. Climategate was old news, and although most newspapers published stories on the exonerations, they were generally brief, buried deep in the paper, and filled with quotes from PR spokespeople that insisted the investigations were “whitewashed”. In fact, Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor, found that media outlets devoted five to eleven times more stories to the accusations against the scientists than they devoted to the resulting exonerations of the scientists.

Six investigations weren’t enough, though, for some stubborn American politicians who couldn’t let go of the article of faith that Climategate was proof of a vast academic conspiracy. Senator James Inhofe planned a McCarthy-like criminal prosecution of seventeen researchers, most of whom had done nothing more than occasionally correspond with the CRU scientists. The Attorney General of Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, repeatedly filed requests to investigate Dr. Michael Mann, a prominent paleoclimatic researcher, for fraud, simply because a twelve-year-old paper by Mann had some statistical weaknesses. Ironically, the Republican Party, which prides itself on fiscal responsibility and lower government spending, continues to advocate wasting massive sums of money conducting inquiries which have already been completed multiple times.

Where are the politicians condemning the limited resources spent on the as yet inconclusive investigations into who stole these emails, and why? Who outside the scientific community is demanding apologies from the hundreds of media outlets that spread libelous accusations without evidence? Why has the ongoing smear campaign against researchers studying what is arguably the most pressing issue of our time gone largely unnoticed, and been aided by complacent media coverage?

Fraud is a criminal charge, and should be treated as such. Climate scientists, just like anyone else, have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They shouldn’t have to endure this endless harassment of being publicly labelled as frauds without evidence. However, the injustice doesn’t end there. This hate campaign is a dangerous distraction from the consequences of global climate change, a problem that becomes more difficult to solve with every year we delay. The potential consequences are much more severe, and the time we have left to successfully address it is much shorter, than the vast majority of the public realizes. Unfortunately, powerful forces are at work to keep it that way. This little tussle about the integrity of a few researchers could have consequences millennia from now – if we let it.

Update: Many other climate bloggers are doing Climategate anniversary pieces. Two great ones I read today were Bart Verheggen’s article and the transcript of John Cook’s radio broadcast. Be sure to check them out!

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A Fabulous Contribution

I’ve really been enjoying the Advanced versions of Skeptical Science’s rebuttals to common misconceptions about climate change. So far, they have all been written by someone going by the name of dana1981, who I would like to give a huge shout-out to. I am a new B.Sc. student who is interested in pursuing a career in climate change research, and these articles have been very helpful in giving me a taste of basic atmospheric science.

In “How do we know more CO2 is causing warming?”, I was introduced to the relatively simple equation required to calculate the radiative forcing of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, as well as the expected equilibrium temperature change from CO2, using the range of values for climate sensitivity provided by the IPCC (as calculating climate sensitivity is not quite so simple!)

In “The human fingerprint in global warming”, dana1981 discussed different attribution studies, and explained how anthropogenic warming has certain “fingerprints” – more warming at night than during the day, a cooling of the stratosphere, and a rise in tropopause height – all of which have been observed. I had a basic understanding of these fingerprints and why they occurred, but it was great to read about the current research in attribution studies, with impeccable citations.

“How sensitive is our climate?” was similar to the first article, but also addressed the common misconception that climate sensitivity is specific to different forcings. If the climate has low sensitivity to CO2, it also has low sensitivity to solar radiation, cosmic ray feedback, etc. The equilibrium temperature change doesn’t care if the extra few W/m2 is from the greenhouse effect or planetary albedo – it changes with the same speed either way, which disproves many skeptical arguments. Additionally, since the prehistoric record shows large swings in climate resulting from relatively small forcings, scientists are confident that climate sensitivity is not very low.

“Solar activity & climate: is the sun causing global warming?” was absolutely fascinating. The equations required to calculate solar forcing using total solar irradiance were new to me, and dana1981 went so far as to analyze early 20th-century warming, calculating how much was due to an upswing in solar irradiance and how much was due to anthropogenic greenhouse gases. During the latter half of the 20th century, solar irradiance has dropped back down, but warming has only accelerated.

Skeptical Science’s recent efforts to expand their rebuttals to include beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels of explanation were inspired by a RealClimate post written by Dr. Gavin Schimdt. He thoughtfully wrote,

I think we should be explicitly thinking about information levels and explicitly catering to different audiences with different needs and capabilities. One metaphor that might work well is that of an alpine ski hill. There we have (in the US for instance) green runs for beginners wanting a gentle introduction and where hopefully nothing too bad can happen. Blue runs where the technical level is a little more ambitious and a little more care needs to be taken. Black expert runs for those who know what they are doing and are doing it well, and finally, double black diamond runs for the true masters. No-one accuses ski resorts of being patronising when they have green runs interspersed with the more difficult ones, and neither do they get accused of elitism when one peak has only black runs going down (as I recall all too painfully on my first ski outing). People self-segregate and generally find their way to the level at which the feel comfortable – whether they want a easy or challenging ride – and there is nothing stopping them varying the levels as their mood or inclination takes them.

Skeptical Science took up this challenge, and although their efforts have largely been focused on creating “plain-English” beginner articles, as a huge target audience for climate change communication is the general public, I’m extremely grateful that they’re also catering to new science enthusiasts such as myself with the advanced articles. Please, keep them coming!

While we’re on the topic, I should also mention a great new post by Skeptical Science, which is not part of their argument database – “The contradictory nature of global warming skepticism”. You can’t hold the objection that the world isn’t warming and then turn around and say that global warming is natural, but these and other self-disproving arguments reach us on a daily basis. Deniers can’t seem to agree on a single unified objection to anthropogenic global climate change, and some individuals, as the post shows, contradict themselves up to five times in six months.

And hey, I just realized right now – that post was also written by dana1981. Whoever this writer is, he or she is doing a great job.

Sinclair Wins

As I noted on my last post about this issue,

“I will consider the issue a true victory for Sinclair when he re-uploads the video on his account.”

It is a true victory for Sinclair!

As he writes on his DeSmogBlog post,

“In accordance with established YouTube guidelines, I filed a “counternotice”, affirming, “under penalty of perjury, that I have a good faith belief that the material  was removed or disabled as a result of a mistake or misidentification of the material to be removed or disabled.”

As of today, I have received the following confirmation from YouTube:

” In accordance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we’ve completed processing
your counter-notification regarding your video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcxVwEfq4bM

This content has been restored and your account will not be penalized.”

I wish to extend my sincerest gratitude to YouTube, to all those who advised and supported me in this effort, and most especially, to Anthony Watts and SurfaceStation.org, for providing invaluable exposure to my video series, and greatly increasing my traffic and visibility.”

The newly reinstated video is imbedded in that post, or you can watch it here.

Hooray for truth winning out.

Sinclair vs Watts: An Update

(Read the original story on this issue if you haven’t already.)

The DeSmogBlog Youtube channel has uploaded the original video. I’m not sure if Peter Sinclair is aware of this, but somehow I think he won’t mind much. Mr Watts, however, will probably throw another fit.

I will consider the issue a true victory for Sinclair when he re-uploads the video on his account. But for now, at least people will be able to watch the video behind all this controversy.

Sinclair vs Watts

Many of you probably are familiar with Peter Sinclair’s Climate Denial Crock of the Week channel, which dispels popular climate myths.

Many of you are probably also familiar with Anthony Watts and his blog Watt’s Up With That.

Several weeks ago, Sinclair created a video called “What’s Up With Watts?” in which he debunked the idea that the urban heat island effect is skewing the temperature records – the very premise of Watt’s Surface Stations project. He discussed how the temperature readings in urban centers are calibrated with nearby rural stations so that any heat bias is removed. Most impressive was a graph of the temperature readings from stations Watts deemed satisfactory; they showed the same upward trend as all of the stations together. NASA’s obviously doing a pretty good job of correcting that GISS data.

However, just a few days ago, Watts complained to YouTube and got the video removed on basis of a “copyright claim”. It is my knowledge (although I might be wrong) that YouTube will remove any video as soon as anyone complains about copyright.

The  only mention on Watt’s blog of the incident was a comment from a reader:

“Sorry to post off topic (although the comments are all backslapping anyway) but is there a reason you (Anthony) filed a DMCA complaint against Greenman3610’s youtube video “Watts up with Watts”?

From Youtube:
“This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Anthony Watts Surfacestations.org”

Surely his video falls under fair use. Relying on the nanny state to attack critics or am I missing something?

REPLY: I don’t care to discuss my reasons here as they are private and unrelated to this discussion. Google agreed that complaint was valid and removed the video. – Anthony”

But as Kevin Grandia from DeSmogBlog writes,

“Quite frankly I don’t know what part of the video Watts would have a problem with. There’s nothing I saw in the video that appears to break any copyright as it relates to Watts.

Now maybe he took issue with the short (credited) clip at the beginning from Will Ferrell’s Anchorman movie…. but I think this is more about a video that thoroughly shreds Watts and his argument that the world is wrong about climate change and he is right.”

If the copyright claim was indeed about the Anchorman clip (most likely to conceal other motives, however – you could spend your whole life filing complaints about YouTube videos that had clips from movies) it will be all too easy for Sinclair to edit that out of the video and repost it.

Otherwise, Watts hasn’t got a leg to stand on. It really exposes a person’s motives when they don’t even write a logical rebuttal when they take issue to their arguments being challenged – they simply censor those challenges instead.